What is To Be Done?

On Reading “What To Do,” by Lauren Shapiro


Despite its objectivation, or paradoxically because of it,
the poem sidesteps possession.

William Repass
May 16, 2017

The city of Pittsburgh has a conflicted relationship to poetry. More so than in other cities where I’ve lived, the people here evince a real zest for it, and to characterize the scene as burgeoning would not be overstatement, though for now it remains narrow in scope. It took me about six months to uncover a current that was pushing aesthetic boundaries. Not that there’s anything wrong with the realist-narrative-autobiographical mode that dominates in Pittsburgh (to say nothing of the tradition at large right now), aside from that dominance. But just as much we need the strange and baffling work to agitate the standing water.

And that’s why, when I heard Lauren Shapiro read at the White Whale bookstore, her work was for me the crisp leaf in a bag of spinach gone slimy. Shapiro divided her time at the mic between poems from her debut collection, Easy Math (Sarabande Books), and newer work which, presumably (hopefully!) will reappear in her next collection. In the interim, I’ve tracked down a cache of the book poems at Connotation Press, all of which I heartily recommend. To demonstrate why, I offer my close-reading of a poem which struck me at the reading, entitled “What To Do.” Here’s a handy link so you can follow along.

Let’s slink past that treacherously simple title for now. Shapiro doles out the poem in ticklish free-verse lines like “She is a cantaloupe in the most famous / still life in history,” and “I cover my eye with a grape leaf / but I am still here.” The enjambment not only stymies our expectations punchline-style, it announces itself as formal device. Even end-stopped lines like “I can’t even get into what happens next” refuse to convey an unmuddied message. Shapiro simply will not allow her reader to ignore the fact that, first and foremost, they’re dealing with a poem. While it does contain narrative elements—your beginning-middle-end and your dialogue exchanged between characters, which include a speaker/narrator who cannot be readily pinned down—we’re not meant to feel swept up by the broom of narrative. That said, nothing feels way outside the bounds set by most contemporary mainstream stuff in terms of form. As with much innovative work, it’s the familiarity in “What To Do” that makes it strange; the poem straddles that ambiguous ground Freud termed Unheimliche—uncanny.

Form and content should never constitute a dichotomy, but a dynamic interplay. While it’s impossible to disentangle one from the other, form and content do exist in a state of tension here. A tension which, in the narrative-autobiographical mode, is typically suppressed as content subsumes form, draining poems of poem-ness.

From the standpoint of theme and genre the augmented poem-ness of “What To Do” generates still more tension because it takes up painting, not poetry, as its subject. Do we call it then ekphrastic? Yes and no. After all, no specified painting occupies the poem. I mean, surely, nobody will agree on what constitutes the “most famous / still life in history.” The speaker’s painting, meanwhile, which ends up “hanging in the student show,” remains nebulous. It might be safer to say that “What To Do” belongs at the table with Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter,” in that both poems trouble themselves with representation itself—with ways of image-making.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Air (1566).

And it’s high time we invited John Berger to the table, too, because his decisive Ways of Seeing addresses in theoretical and art-historical terms what Shapiro addresses poetically. Where Berger discovers the “analogy between possessing and the way of seeing…incorporated in oil painting,”[1] which is common to both nudes and still life, Shapiro reasserts the analogy even as she subverts it by smearing the line between these painting genres. Is the speaker in fact painting a nude woman, or a cantaloupe? Or an “ever-repeating image” of herself, or an embryo? All of the above? The painting even comes to life and requests lunch. The resulting depiction, to my mind, resembles Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s proto-surrealist portraits, in which meat and veggies and so forth compose uncanny figures that appear almost ordinary if you squint.

For Berger, the tradition of oil painting codifies realism as representation in the sphere of visual art: “What distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting,” he writes, “is its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts. It defines the real as that which you can put your hands on.”[2] But Shapiro’s refusal of distinct referents—epitomized by the lines “I can’t even get into what happens next” and “It’s colorful”—renders the poem more or less nonrepresentational. The speaker’s nude lacks precisely “tangibility,” such that the (male) observer at the close of the poem, who at first “doesn’t know what to say,” can only settle on “colorful.” The poem itself makes up for this lack, deploying enjambment to sharpen its own contours as an art-object. It is to poetry what a work of cubism is to painting: radically material. It is not transparent, like some window onto reality, but opaque. Not an obstacle to reality so much as an intervention through it. And do we characterize the speaker’s reaction in the final line—“Thanks”— as sarcastic or sincere? Because the tone cannot convincingly be determined, both nude and speaker escape possession.

Despite its objectivation, or paradoxically because of it, the poem sidesteps possession as well. By imagining the impossible not only as possible but even mundane, it sets itself against the mass of conventions we experience as reality. In light of which the title “What To Do” reframes the poem as a manifesto of sorts for a certain variant of poetry. A nonrepresentational poetry. A poetry that, in its complexity, resists commodification. That neither expends itself with a single reading nor reaffirms the “gritty reality” of our lives, but presents instead the germ of some utopia.

[1]    Berger, John. Ways of Seeing (London: British Broadcasting Association and Penguin Books, 1972), 83.

[2]    Ibid. 88.

Cover Art: Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Spring (1563).

On Reading “What To Do,” by Lauren Shapiro

William Repass
May 16, 2017

The city of Pittsburgh has a conflicted relationship to poetry. More so than in other cities where I’ve lived, the people here evince a real zest for it, and to characterize the scene as burgeoning would not be overstatement, though for now it remains narrow in scope. It took me about six months to uncover a current that was pushing aesthetic boundaries. Not that there’s anything wrong with the realist-narrative-autobiographical mode that dominates in Pittsburgh (to say nothing of the tradition at large right now), aside from that dominance. But just as much we need the strange and baffling work to agitate the standing water.

And that’s why, when I heard Lauren Shapiro read at the White Whale bookstore, her work was for me the crisp leaf in a bag of spinach gone slimy. Shapiro divided her time at the mic between poems from her debut collection, Easy Math (Sarabande Books), and newer work which, presumably (hopefully!) will reappear in her next collection. In the interim, I’ve tracked down a cache of the book poems at Connotation Press, all of which I heartily recommend. To demonstrate why, I offer my close-reading of a poem which struck me at the reading, entitled “What To Do.” Here’s a handy link so you can follow along.

Let’s slink past that treacherously simple title for now. Shapiro doles out the poem in ticklish free-verse lines like “She is a cantaloupe in the most famous / still life in history,” and “I cover my eye with a grape leaf / but I am still here.” The enjambment not only stymies our expectations punchline-style, it announces itself as formal device. Even end-stopped lines like “I can’t even get into what happens next” refuse to convey an unmuddied message. Shapiro simply will not allow her reader to ignore the fact that, first and foremost, they’re dealing with a poem. While it does contain narrative elements—your beginning-middle-end and your dialogue exchanged between characters, which include a speaker/narrator who cannot be readily pinned down—we’re not meant to feel swept up by the broom of narrative. That said, nothing feels way outside the bounds set by most contemporary mainstream stuff in terms of form. As with much innovative work, it’s the familiarity in “What To Do” that makes it strange; the poem straddles that ambiguous ground Freud termed Unheimliche—uncanny.

Form and content should never constitute a dichotomy, but a dynamic interplay. While it’s impossible to disentangle one from the other, form and content do exist in a state of tension here. A tension which, in the narrative-autobiographical mode, is typically suppressed as content subsumes form, draining poems of poem-ness.

From the standpoint of theme and genre the augmented poem-ness of “What To Do” generates still more tension because it takes up painting, not poetry, as its subject. Do we call it then ekphrastic? Yes and no. After all, no specified painting occupies the poem. I mean, surely, nobody will agree on what constitutes the “most famous / still life in history.” The speaker’s painting, meanwhile, which ends up “hanging in the student show,” remains nebulous. It might be safer to say that “What To Do” belongs at the table with Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter,” in that both poems trouble themselves with representation itself—with ways of image-making.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Air (1566).

And it’s high time we invited John Berger to the table, too, because his decisive Ways of Seeing addresses in theoretical and art-historical terms what Shapiro addresses poetically. Where Berger discovers the “analogy between possessing and the way of seeing…incorporated in oil painting,”[1] which is common to both nudes and still life, Shapiro reasserts the analogy even as she subverts it by smearing the line between these painting genres. Is the speaker in fact painting a nude woman, or a cantaloupe? Or an “ever-repeating image” of herself, or an embryo? All of the above? The painting even comes to life and requests lunch. The resulting depiction, to my mind, resembles Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s proto-surrealist portraits, in which meat and veggies and so forth compose uncanny figures that appear almost ordinary if you squint.

For Berger, the tradition of oil painting codifies realism as representation in the sphere of visual art: “What distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting,” he writes, “is its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts. It defines the real as that which you can put your hands on.”[2] But Shapiro’s refusal of distinct referents—epitomized by the lines “I can’t even get into what happens next” and “It’s colorful”—renders the poem more or less nonrepresentational. The speaker’s nude lacks precisely “tangibility,” such that the (male) observer at the close of the poem, who at first “doesn’t know what to say,” can only settle on “colorful.” The poem itself makes up for this lack, deploying enjambment to sharpen its own contours as an art-object. It is to poetry what a work of cubism is to painting: radically material. It is not transparent, like some window onto reality, but opaque. Not an obstacle to reality so much as an intervention through it. And do we characterize the speaker’s reaction in the final line—“Thanks”— as sarcastic or sincere? Because the tone cannot convincingly be determined, both nude and speaker escape possession.

Despite its objectivation, or paradoxically because of it, the poem sidesteps possession as well. By imagining the impossible not only as possible but even mundane, it sets itself against the mass of conventions we experience as reality. In light of which the title “What To Do” reframes the poem as a manifesto of sorts for a certain variant of poetry. A nonrepresentational poetry. A poetry that, in its complexity, resists commodification. That neither expends itself with a single reading nor reaffirms the “gritty reality” of our lives, but presents instead the germ of some utopia.

[1]    Berger, John. Ways of Seeing (London: British Broadcasting Association and Penguin Books, 1972), 83.

[2]    Ibid. 88.

 


 

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