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It is easier to discuss a book of poems if it is socially engaged. After all, even the dullest people have the full range of human feelings, but maybe a poet is able to mould the raw materials of culture, morality, and justice into art in a way that others cannot. Maybe she knows the stakes. (Also, proper nouns are memorable and opinions are disputable.)
The opening line of Lauren Shapiro’s Easy Math, then, may not seem to promise very much: “There is always a woman eating a sandwich,” the speaker declares. This line may remind us of that classic criticism of Twitter, and blogs before that: “It’s just people talking about what they had for lunch.” There is some of that here, and lines that actually mention chairs and sitting in front of a television. But that is a risk when one writes a book that is self-consciously about the here and now. (“Poignant retorts to the problems of pop culture,” according to Booklist.) It can all feel a bit too here-and-now.
Of course, a pat dismissal of a highly personal expressive mode is not new. Everyone from the Metaphysicals to the Aesthetics to you, probably, has been called self-absorbed. What is new is the dominance of a way of writing that is recognizably sensical (i.e., neither surreal nor syntactically fractured, often mundane) but is also freed from large-scale sense-making. Collections of bits. Joshua Mehigan recently complained in an essay in Poetry that the ordinary American poet shows “a new, relentless infatuation with whimsical discontinuity.”
Is that what we have here? Not quite. “Whimsical” is the word for this volume, but it need not be a dirty word. In selecting Easy Math for the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, Marie Howe summarized it simply: “This book is funny.” And it is. I enjoyed it, and I am the last person who will dismiss enjoyment. Easy Math is great fun to quote. It is by turns dazzling and disorienting. Shapiro’s gift to us is a series of scattered one-liners, which, as is often the case in poetry, are usually two-liners:
It’s not that we’re all drunks but that
it’s our inalienable right to pursue happiness
See, you trip on yourself an exact number of times
each day, but who else is counting?
(“They Promised Me a Thousand Years of Peace”)
They’re the love birds but they’re so fat
they can only land on water.
(“The Life of Birds”)
I’d ask you to dance
but I’ve lost all motor skills in my mouth.
The churches line up
on Main Street, small to large, like graded eggs.
(“The Great Wide Open”)
Shapiro writes with admirable precision. She cuts out each letter like the author of a ransom note. Invariably, there is a lovely, soft sting in the tail of these cuddly “couplets.” But these witticisms fit more comfortably here, outside their poems, than they do in them, where they sit less easily. Or they sit too easily, and are more or less interchangeable parts. Most of Shapiro’s poems follow the paratactic logic of the New Sentence, and details accrete at a greater rate than connections. She professes “a love / of theory in which the proposition never / leads to the conclusion.” Many of the titles in Easy Math hint at engagement with weighty issues (“History Lesson,” “Is There a Moral to the Story?,” “It Makes Philosophical Sense,” “Humanization Squared”), but Shapiro is more concerned with writing the next good lines than with developing a plan of inquiry from her last good lines. The relationship between title and text is artificial, like an arranged marriage. Some poems are clearly throwaways (“Hotel,” “After a Long Day,” the head-scratching “The Encounter,” about a meeting between Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale): flat, fabulistic interludes that may be James Tate parodies.
Shapiro is always on the verge of remaking the everyday into the eternal, of saying, “My experiences bring to mind larger points!” and she seems to want to. She is so close. But I sense that she worries that to do so would be too easy. Perhaps to speak more plainly would be to understand the world through the “easy math” of the title, and that would be a waste of the mind’s potential. Oulipians are not the only poets who are, as Raymond Queneau says, “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.”
Still, as Shapiro reminds us in “Please Support the Wisconsin Guinea Pig Rescue League,” “Grassroots activism is all about / starting small.” This unusually straightforward poem is a mock-cry for attention for all noble causes, but though she pokes fun at activists, she celebrates the spirit of activism. But in her own way, even if her way seems trivial. (Guinea pigs rather than, say, gun control.) In other words, there are many ways to help; there are many approaches to making meaning. “I am committed to disrupting complacency,” the speaker decides near the end. It is a modest but honest goal.
The best poems in Easy Math—and there are several very good ones—present meaning and language as a mise-en-abyme. “Life is mirrors pointed at other mirrors,” Shapiro says, predictably, before concluding less predictably, “and then one day / your mom comes in and breaks them all” (“Dominoes”). She does better still with a complex, recurring metaphor that involves literal folding and unfolding, the limitations and frustrations of communication and art. In one case, a “cheat sheet unfolds / into a murdered swan.” In another, there is a love note that, when unfolded, reveals “a small man in formal wear who tells me / to stop reminiscing.” In yet another, a napkin is folded into a crane, but, disappointingly, “it remains stationary.” (So close to a pun on “stationery,” as well, but it is a napkin and not paper, and that is not Shapiro’s style.) This is the neurotic’s origami. It may not be surprising to see these meta-creative gestures, but the gestures themselves are surprising, and they are the volume’s emotional core. The sadness of the worried writer. Precisions and imprecisions which a minute will reverse.
I often think when I read a book that is said to be about contemporary culture (“living in the USA right now,” Marie Howe says), “If I’m alive now, and I am, much of this will already be familiar to me.” Well, exactly, so I may need to be startled with Matthea Harvey–style jump-cuts if the subject matter is Lindsay Lohan or Dateline (twice) or Martha Stewart. (Shapiro obliges with the line “The quadriplegic smells Martha Stewart.”) But ultimately, though, enough is enough, and I wish for cues and suggestions and a way forward, or at least around, not more lateral movement. I ask for this not because I am a reactionary, but because I care. It is a reworking of the folding metaphor that offers the most accurate self-description of the book, its structure, and the nature of its project. It is a genuine insight, a little koan, and it is delivered with a rare and effective sequence of rhymes:
There’s a riddle that shows every beginning
is just an ending tied with a bow.
I can’t remember how it goes.
Strange, isn’t it, how that happens? As I said before, this is a funny book.