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Nathan Hauke

Meditations on David Shapiro:
Memory and Lateness

In this issue of Jacket you can read:
button Thomas Fink: David Shapiro’s ‘Possibilist’ Poetry
button David Shapiro (in conversation with John Tranter, 1984)
button David Shapiro: Six poems (from A Burning Interior, 2000)
button Carl Whithaus — Immediate Memories: on the Poetry of David Shapiro
button Nathan Hauke: Meditations on David Shapiro: Memory and ‘Lateness’
button Kent Johnson: Poem Upon a Typo Found in an Interview of Kenneth Koch,
Conducted by David Shapiro
In Jacket 15: David Shapiro’s 1969 interview with the late Kenneth Koch.

The gradient is so gentle the current is invisible.
                              — David Shapiro

This piece is 1,400 words or about four printed pages long.

I first came to Lateness a week or so after my wife, Margaret, and I were married; it was one of the only books that I took to the cottage where we were staying while she finished her teaching. Sitting on the dock reading “The Devil’s Trill Sonata,” I watched the distinct wash of a maple’s leaves reflecting in the smooth gray lake-skin; ribbed with silver, they opened into flat breaks of green, light green, yellow, yellow-brown, gold. The lake’s activity seemed to echo David Shapiro’s treatment of memory. Colliding and flattening into diagonals, textures of bark became an ongoing process of revision. Looking at the distorting surface, I struggled with the responsibility to remember the maple as it was in the same manner that I believe Shapiro’s poems often struggle with the responsibility to create, recreate and carry portraits of people, places and things that they love. This insistence on preserving is illustrated in the dedication that Shapiro has chosen for Lateness; he indicates that the collection is written “To my father and in memory of my mother.”

In a sense, the movement of time in Lateness suggests Novalis’s conviction that for every moment one must recognize both the moment that comes before and the one that follows, and more recently, Michael Palmer’s conception of time as a three-fold device in Palmer’s “Autobiography, Memory, and Mechanisms of Concealment.” Acknowledging (and celebrating) simultaneously within “1) a present of past things, 2) a present of present things and 3) a present of future things,” the “I” that remembers becomes a constellation of moments (and perspectives) free to explore different times and voices (215). (Even the title Lateness appears to enact two antithetical motions — something back and something now, that is, as of late.) Attempting to write to someone, the poems in this book measure (and re-measure) their distances. “Music Written To Order” begins with such a dance, “Now and then, now and then, now and then / Now-ness and Then-ness / And between now and then / You hear the sound of a projector.”


Attempting to cross its multiples, the “I” of poems like “The Devil’s Trill Sonata” creates experiences profoundly realized and intensely intimate. When the poet realizes that “the bullet” will not “always reach the target” and “the ferryboat” will not always manage to “[sail] straight across the river,” he realizes that anything can happen. I have been discussing this with my friend Gina recently, and she has pointed to the passage, “A stone is seen to pass through the window, but now that stone is snow.” The possibilities of revision are endless — they accept moments of contradiction and blindness, moving forward with new freedom.

Shapiro’s interest in Jasper Johns’ process of revision seems to be very revealing. In “The Drawings: Encountered Signs,” part of the text Shapiro supplied for Jasper Johns Drawings 1954-1984, he suggests that “opening and closing . . . boundaries through erasure,” Johns’ constant revision — his need to draw and undraw (or cancel) what he has drawn — renders a more true representation of his subject (24). This feels very much like a description of the way many of the poems in Lateness work to create meaning. The likeness of the maple disappears in the distortion of the lake’s surface and becomes something else entirely; blackbirds skitter in the beach-sand. Shimmering, sliding apart in diagonals, reflections appear to offer a more true representation of the challenge of memory to maintain integrity over time; memory — the past — is truly a lost original.


Perhaps it also seems that the motion of memory in Lateness can be placed alongside another comment from Shapiro about Johns’ work in the aforementioned text. He suggests that, for him, Johns’ ecstatic scribbling (within or over his flags, targets, numbers, etc.) represents the struggles of the individual “caught against the impersonality of the public sign” (12). Certainly time, if anything, is a public symbol. As I am writing this, a murky white Fed Ex truck (purple Fed, green Ex) has stopped behind the bookstore in the parking lot across the street; the driver climbs down, collects the intended packages and runs them inside. Everything is moving forward in clockwork and, although the mind is under pressure to think of the world this way, it does not. It refracts, dissembling time in many directions. Many poems in Lateness appear to reveal this tension. Beginning with the notion that the speaker’s violin is playing by itself, “The Devil’s Trill Sonata” encapsulates the speaker’s sense of helplessness. Looking against time, poems in Lateness discover (and rediscover) great humility as they attempt to relocate what is lost. The “you” of “Music Written To Order” admits that they “would want Mother back.” Likewise, “The Devil’s Trill Sonata” locates longing for the nurturing maternal schema in “nipples on TV.” Other poems plead for more time — for someone to “Stay stay / stay stay” (“Stay Stay Stay Stay”).

Could it be that given to remember — to say God’s name — acknowledging the impossibility of accuracy — one must turn to the revision of rewriting and overwriting as a means of compensation, letting “the snow . . . plink at random targets” (“The Devil’s Trill Sonata”)? Crediting praise — or prayer — as Novalis’ origin of speech in Novalis: A Romantic’s Theory of Language and Poetry, Krisin Pfefferkorn accounts that for Novalis “the experience of nature awakens in the young savage an inspired or enthusiastic idea of a higher being, which he lacks only the words to express. Not having words, he bends his knees and shows all the feelings that crowd in around his heart with a mute gesture” (61). This notion of a divinity that awakens (and awes) seems to speak directly with Lateness’ desire to preserve; the need to praise drives the need to say — to remember — and in the absolute moment of one’s need for speech it fails, falling into the white noise of utterance.

By recognizing this tension and allowing their concerns to exist in and out of linear time — always calling time and the effects of time into question — the poems in Lateness attempt to fight back against the pressure (and forgetfulness) of forward motion. Many of the poems in Lateness use anaphora (and repetition) as a vehicle against time because it allows for sensual expressions of textures. In this way, struggling, many poems still fumble gracefully toward us with a joyful inclusiveness. There is a certain bravery in the poems of Lateness (that can also be found in Shapiro’s poems elsewhere). They often permit the secular and the sacred to interact as one inseparable entity; cartoons, lions, ice cream, ferns, The Divine Comedy, and the Supreme Being are allowed to exist equally as keys to our experiences and this feels very honest. Allowing for these interactions to take place outside of the arena of scrutiny or stiff high-mindedness is courageous and very striking; it allows one to imagine what is as what could be.

Every moment might not be as valuable as prayer, but it could be — a prayer that is pale or green, lovely, devastating or funny. And this prayer would certainly treat memory and the promise of its processes as they try to remember — to hold, to write towards the ones we love — as a bewildered kindness. Sitting reading, I tried to remember the way that Margaret and I had found ourselves standing together, kissing behind a green cake, holding hands, surrounded by family and friends — how had we found our way here? Only a week had passed and already, looking down, the sunlight scattered, opening holes in the lake’s surface; the maple was dissembling in slats against the spring, lilac-smell — so many small moments wanted to be carried.


Palmer, Michael. “Autobiography, Memory and Mechanisms of Concealment.”

Pfefferkorn, Kristin. Novalis: A Romantic’s Theory of Language and Poetry. New

Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.

Shapiro, David. “Introduction: The Hand As Voice,” “The Drawings: Encountered Signs.”

Jasper Johns Drawings 1954-1984. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1984.

Shapiro, David. Lateness. Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press, 1977.

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