Poets touch us with the everyday

March 16, 2008 

  • Spill

    Michael Chitwood

    Tupelo Press, 61 pages

    Michael Chitwood will read from and sign his book at 7 p.m. April 16 at The Regulator in Durham.

    Old War

    Alan Shapiro

    Houghton Mifflin, 96 pages

If you love the idea that poets are whacked-out crazies driven to drink, drugs and suicide by souls too sensitive for this brutal world, "Spill" by Michael Chitwood and "Old War" by Alan Shapiro will break your heart. The two poets, who both teach at the University of North Carolina, write beautifully about married love, children, mortality and the world we read about in the newspaper. They are resilient, thoughtful men. But because they write with the sensitivity of poets, they will break your hearts anyway -- just in different, smarter and more useful ways than the wild men.

Chitwood writes about dogs with the complex love of a man who has lived with them all his life. He knows what it is to be a boy who prays for his sick dog to live. He knows what it is to be a boy who finds the body of his missing dog in the woods, and he also remembers, in a happier moment, waltzing with a dog. The dog's paws rest on his shoulders as the two of them "made something God-like,/ upright, part one thing,/ part another, both of them/ awkward, out of their world."

Chitwood writes about getting a letter from his church in "On Being Asked to Pray for a Van." It's the opportunity for a bit of serious humor at the expense of those who make the spiritual the servant of the material, and the poet does it with the language of a man who has read his Bible closely and prayed more serious prayers: "Deliver their differential/ and anoint their valves and their pistons./ Unblock their engine block/ and give them deep treaded tires./ Their brakes cry out to You. Hear them, O Lord."

Like any praying man, Chitwood has thought about the old bedtime prayer we are taught as children. "If I Should Die Before I Wake" meditates on how our understanding of the prayer changes as we age. As a child he didn't hear, he says, the "chill last line." But now that he's older, he does hear it: "Now I lay me down to sleep/ and don't, or not as easily/ or as blissfully quick./ And the terrible white fish/ that swim up to be from the darkness/ kiss and leave/ the red welts of their sucker mouths." Responding to that nightmare of death, he has changed his prayer to one in which he asks not only for another day but for full consciousness in the day: "Old last things said,/ before I die/ let me wake."

Like Chitwood, Shapiro writes movingly about married love, but he puts more emphasis on the erotic. In ways that can't be quoted in a family newspaper, the partners touch each other until "the cry/ you cry then is/ the opposite of grief." Shapiro explores the loving pleasures that relieve grief because he knows grief intimately. For every tender poem about pushing his daughter on the swing while discussing the shifting nature of "now," "soon" and "then" ("then makes soon/ a not yet now, and now a not yet then," the laughing and precocious girl says), there's another poem about infirmity, dying parents and friends' illnesses -- all the sorrows that, after a certain age, are the stuff of life.

But Shapiro is never bleak. A meditative joke is never far from his lips. In "After," the poet sits under a replica of the Virgin Mary in the hospital cafeteria, eating with a friend who is probably dying, and he sees his dead sister at a nearby table: "not someone similar/ but Beth herself as she was exactly .../ ... the thick pre-/ cancer brown hair falling/ over her face..." From the wall, "the Virgin dolefully/ looked on and in my brother's/ variation of the old joke/ said, "You're dying,/ and the food is awful,/ and the portions are small." Life may not be that great, but we don't want to stop eating.

In the gorgeous title poem of "Old War," the poet longs for the innocence of poetry, as it's embodied in the old poetic word "bower": "Where is the bower?/ Inside the book/ Beside which window/ In an ancient city/ I went to more/ Than thirty years ago?" When a bomb goes off out in the city, the poet's innocence is shattered along with the glass that is blown over the pages of the book: "A silver shower/ Showering red/ over the words/ That told how birdsong/ Answered birdsong/ Everywhere overhead." When the poet asks again, "Where is the bower?" the answer, we know, is where it always was -- in the book. The world's harsh realities have taken both the bower and the romantic innocence that let him love it. Like all of us, he misses what is necessarily missing.

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