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Brief sparks flashing

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

Death is everywhere in Alan Shapiro’s ninth book of poetry, “Old War.” Or maybe it’s less death than the awareness of death, the recognition that all things are evanescent, that “time’s more like / a pool now than a river, / a pool whose glassy / skin of trees, clouds, / sky, the world entire, / my every step / is shattering / like a stone.”

These are songs not of innocence, but of experience, the work of a poet who understands loss and longing but also knows enough not to be subsumed by them, to appreciate the small illuminations they allow. In “Easy Street,” one of the collection’s finest poems, a doomed man in Pompeii, soon to be buried by the eruption of Vesuvius, considers himself “lucky” to be in his lover’s sustaining embrace. “Rain coming on so suddenly,” he reflects, “That we stop to listen, / Holding each other, / A couple suddenly entombed, / For all we know, / Beneath a rain of ash / From the exploding mountain.”

What “Easy Street” represents is a metaphor for “Old War” as a whole, a sense of how tragedy and triumph bleed together. This is a notion to which Shapiro returns throughout the collection, framing almost every interaction through this double lens. “Luck” -- there it is again -- describes an act of passion: “even / as your back arch- es, / and the cry / you cry then is / the opposite of grief.” In “After,” Shapiro recalls his brother and sister, both of whom died of cancer, in the wake of “the last scan’s last bad news, / and the breakdown, and then / the bitter composure / in the hospital cafeteria, . . . ‘You’re dying, / and the food is awful, / and the portions are small.’ ”

There is humor here, in an oddly fatalistic way, but even more there is acceptance, release almost, a kind of willful recognition of our ephemerality. “I couldn’t tell you where the Lord was traveling,” Shapiro writes in “People Get Ready,” but “as he passed I saw / he no more thought of me / than a train thinks / of the sparks scattering / under its iron weight, / bright, then dark.” That’s a gorgeous image, and exactly right, for this is what we are, brief sparks flashing, momentary bursts of illumination animated by a creative force so indifferent that “it / exaggerates our self- / importance even / to think you would / ignore the prayer.”

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At the heart of this, of course, is God -- or a conception of eternity at any rate. For Shapiro, that’s less a source of comfort than of silence, a caesura in the face of everything we cannot know. “and my friend said that until / his wife didn’t know him anymore / she raged and beat him to make it stop,” he writes in “Late,” “as if he were to blame that the ties / that tied the names down to the named / had loosened suddenly into smoke / that everything lifted up through / as it drifted away from what it was.”

Such lines are brutal in their clarity, but even more so in their implication that this is what awaits us all. “Clear” makes the point explicit: “that’s what it all comes down to, / what the Buddha teaches: separation, / sooner or later, from parents, spouses, children / most of all, no matter what, so what else / is there to do except accept it, embrace it, / trying to say it as if saying it / itself could be protection or escape.” Eventually, Shapiro even comes face-to-face with the fallacy of thought, of language; “Nothing,” he declares, “will make you less afraid.”

“Old War” slips a little in its final pages, which feature 17 monologues from a variety of perspectives, including a mayor, a country singer and an outfielder. These efforts are carefully crafted yet operate at a distance that seems at odds with the rest of the work. This can be jarring, especially when it comes to such poems as “Open-Mike Night in Heaven,” in which a dead Jewish comic riffs on the degradations of the body, or “Dentist” (“I know the drill. / I know the joke / About the final cavity / I’m soon to fill”), which pokes gentle fun at the concerns that motivate so much of the book.

Still, even at such moments, Shapiro manages to surprise us. In “Brother,” he re-creates his sibling’s gallows humor: “if I’m not what you would call / A happy man, / I can’t say I’ve ever really felt unhappy. / I’m like a happy man / with bad luck.” “Language” reminds us that words too will ultimately desert us, that we’ll be left alone, with no one “anywhere in hearing / to take away / the godforsaken howling.”

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And yet, if this means solace must be fleeting, what else, really, do we have? No, in the end, we cannot help but move from chaos to order and back to chaos, to come to terms with the idea that “now is the past of soon, and soon’s / no sooner now than it’s just now, / which is then, which then makes soon / a not yet now, and now a not yet then.”

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david.ulin@latimes.com


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