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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Memoir Is an Odd Script of a Poet's Existence : THE LAST HAPPY OCCASION by Alan Shapiro; University of Chicago Press $22.95, 229 pages

November 07, 1996|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Poetry makes nothing happen," wrote W.H. Auden, but poet Alan Shapiro knows otherwise.

"For good or ill, it wakens the psyche to unimagined or unrecognized or forgotten possibilities of being," writes Shapiro in his brief but beguiling memoir, "The Last Happy Occasion." "Each poem pleads whatever else its words are saying, 'Come live with me and be my love.' "

Shapiro, not unlike Auden, doses his wordplay with a certain sly irony, and the six essays that make up "The Last Happy Occasion" are enlivened by Shapiro's descriptions of the odd bounces a writer's life can take when the ambition to put words on paper threatens to outshine the humdrum stuff of ordinary life like love, marriage and children.

For example, Shapiro tells us how, as a newly minted college graduate with a passion for the poetry of Seamus Heaney, he made a pilgrimage to Ireland, fell in love with an enchanting young woman named Carol Ann, but found himself even more deeply in love with the prospect of a becoming a poet himself.

"She associated poetry, my poetry, with betrayal," Shapiro writes of Carol Ann. Writers, as Joan Didion so famously said, are always selling someone out--and the beckoning siren that prompted Shapiro's betrayal took the form of a creative writing fellowship at Stanford. "That night she lay beside me weeping inconsolably, as if she saw too clearly, even then, the heartache that the future held in store."

As Shapiro allows himself the luxury of a quiet midlife contemplation of what has gone before and what is yet to come, he sketches the outlines of an autobiography--his childhood and adolescence in Boston, his undergraduate years at Brandeis University, his life as a professor and a working poet.

Indeed, "The Last Happy Occasion" is a model of a certain kind of confessional literature that has become a cottage industry among baby boomers staggering through middle age.

Shapiro casts his memory back to his adolescence, flashes forward to his own years of fatherhood and uses one experience to illuminate the other, as when he describes a chance encounter with an old woman whose groceries he carried on one Sabbath eve in 1964.

"Nothing I buy or dream of buying, none of the artifacts of contemporary culture, will ever shine as durably as the Sabbath candleholders in that woman's kitchen," he writes. "I see an image of the spirit world, in which solitude and communal order, the freshness of the present and the stability of the past, consoling history and regenerating freedom, are necessary conditions of each other."

At moments, Shapiro allows his prose to take flight and soar into poetry--an appropriate self-indulgence, since he always seems to turn to poetry as the touchstone of reality in his own life. He reminisces about what he beheld as a "Woodstock puritan" during the hottest years of the counterculture, but he insists that he did not really understand the experience until 10 years later when he happened across "The Geysers," a poem by Thom Gunn.

"The poem taught me that, as an artist, as a technician of awareness, of keen perception, immersed in language, in the transpersonal history that language bears," writes Shapiro, "one is always doubled, always standing to some extent outside of what one writes about."

Shapiro concedes that "The Last Happy Occasion" started out as "a personal testimony to the power of poetry to alter how we live," but ended up as something much less celebratory.

Poetry, for instance, does not soften the sting of his sister's final illness; even though she asked him to write a poem for her as she lay dying, he came to realize that "she was beyond the reach of anybody's love or kindness, of poetry, of conversation, of relatedness of any kind."

We come away from Shapiro's book with an intimate appreciation of the little subversions that poetry can work in one's life.

"Poems don't necessarily make us better spouses, parents, citizens or friends," he concludes. "More often than not, what art insists we take a long hard look at is how limited its power is to save or console us in the face of extreme or terrible experience."

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