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Alan Shapiro
Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
"Song and Dance: Poems"
February 16, 2005

The book Song and Dance, is about my brother. So it’s a book length eulogy for my brother David who was an actor, a musical comedy star. His last big credit was Sunset Boulevard with Glenn Close who was diagnosed with brain cancer in November of 1998 and moved down to North Carolina where he received treatment at the tumor center there at Duke. And lived with me and my family over the course of the thirteen months of his treatment. The title Song and Dance is partly in homage to my brother because he was a song and dance man, but the book isn’t simply an account of his illness; of the experience of watching a brother die. It also, in a way that’s the occasion of the poems, the subject of the poems is really the beauty and supreme value of human attachment. And also the limits of art, the limits of poetry and representing illness in trying to find some sort of consolation and solace in art for the lost of a loved one. So the title Song and Dance refers simultaneously to the fact that my brother was a song and dance man and it also draws on the pejorative expression of don’t give me a song and dance. Don’t try to put a fast one. Don’t try to deceive me, which is what, in a way, what the beauty of the poetry tries to do. I often think in this regard some of the great English eulogies, particularly Ben Johnson’s poem for eulogy on his son, which is short enough to recite. And the poem goes like this: Farewell bow child of my right hand and joy. My sin was too much hope of the loved boy. Seven years thou were lent to me and I thee pay. Exacted by thy fate on the just day. O could I lose all father now for why will man lament the thing he should envy? Have so soon ‘scaped worlds and fleshes rage. And if no other misery yet age. Rest in soft peace and ask, say here doth art lie. Ben Johnson, his best piece of poetry for whose sake henceforth all his valves be such as what he loves may never like too much.

Johnson blames himself for being too attached to his son and should have rejoiced that his son was taken from him and now is with God. But the poem is so beautiful. I have always regarded it. It is one of my favorite poems. And I have often found my self thinking that because of the beauty, feeling in a way glad that Ben Johnson had a son who died to provide Johnson with the occasion of writing this great eulogy that has given pleasure and consolation and solace to generations after. And I am not comfortable with that feeling at all. As if there is something in the monumentalism of the poem that makes you feel like it’s a good exchange of a flesh and blood individual for a psalm. For a monument. For a representation of the individual and of course the monument, the representation has the advantage that’s it’s not made of flesh and so it does not change.

So as I was writing these poems and writing of course in an eulogic tradition, I found myself increasingly impatient with the sort of eulogic beautiful gesture. And making a monument to my brother, which isn’t any kind of monument and doesn’t replace him. And I came to feel that the only adequate beauty in art, particularly in art that has to do with the loss of a loved one is a beauty that recognizes its own inadequacy. Is a beauty the recognizes that it would be better if it didn’t exist at all and that person that you are memorializing were brought back to life.
The kind of art that I needed when I was writing these poems and that I need now. Is the kind of art now that can literally raise the dead, not figuratively raise the dead and anything less than that is not enough. Is inadequate. However necessary it is. However much we still need it, it still is not enough. And unless the beauty acknowledges that somehow within itself, it’s a song and dance, hence the title of the book.

So what I will do is I will read some poems from the book that take place in different parts of a hospital. Waiting room. An examination room. A hospital room. The first poem I am going to read is called “Sleet” and it’s about what it feel like to be sitting in a doctor’s office and be told that your brother is going to die of incurable brain cancer. And there are two voices in the poem. There’s a voice that’s asking questions. A kind of disembodied voice that is asking the questions and then there’s a voice that’s answering the questions. And it is answering the questions by way of a metaphor. The metaphor in a way expresses the feeling of what’s its like to be in that doctor’s office and be told that your brother is going to die. The poem is called “Sleet”.

What was it like before the doctor got there?

Till then, we were in the back seat of the warm
dark bubble of the old Buick. We were where
we'd never not been, no matter where we were.

And when the doctor got there?

Everything outside was in a rage of wind and sleet,
we were children, brothers, safe in the back seat,
for once not fighting, just listening, watching the storm.

Weren't you afraid that something bad might happen?

Our father held the wheel with just two fingers
even though the car skidded and fishtailed
and the chains clanged raggedly over ice and asphalt.

Weren't you afraid at all?

Dad sang for someone to fly him to the moon,
to let him play among the stars, while Mom
held up the lighter to another Marlboro.

But when the doctor started speaking. . .

The tip of the Marlboro was a bright red star.
Her lips pursed and she released a ring of Saturn,
which dissolved as we caught at it, as my dad sang Mars.

When you realized what the doctor was saying. . .

They were closer to the storm in the front seat.
The high beams, weak as steam against the walled swirling,
only illuminated what we couldn't see.

When he described it, the tumor in the brain and what it meant. . .

See, we were children. Then we weren't. Or my brother wasn't.
He was driving now, he gripped the steering wheel
with both hands and stared hard at the panicked wipers.

What did you feel?

Just sleet, the slick road, the car going way too fast,
no brother beside me in the back seat, no singing father,
no mother, no ring of Saturn to catch at as it floats.

Next poem is about sitting in a waiting room. My brother is getting an MRI and it’s partly about the odd kind of community that springs up among total strangers in a situation like that. Everyone has a loved one who’s in trouble and people tell their stories to one another whether or not the audience is interested in hearing the story or not. And in the room itself, there is a TV screen over the doorway and there is a basketball game on and the sound is off and a woman starts to talk to the speaker of the poem. And starts to tell her story about her husband and what happened to him and at one point, the poem just sort of slips into her voice and then back into mine. And I think it should be pretty clear when that is happening. Beth in the poem is my sister who died of cancer a few years before my brother did. And the poem is called “Scan”.

I wanted to watch the game.
The small room strewn

with magazines was too dark
to read in, lightless

but for the frenzied pulsing
of the muted screen

above the door, and for the
door which a nurse would open

now and again onto
a blazing corridor

that this one's wife or that
one's son, when called, would leave for,

or drift back from, dazed
either way, coming

or going, by the light
first, then the dark.

I wanted to watch the game,
I could tell that time

was running out by how
the white team, spreading

the court, touch-passed
the ball from corner to key

to corner so quickly that
the yellow team couldn't

get close enough to foul,
the ball sailing just

beyond their reach as they lunged
for it, scrambled and dove,

frenetic, hopeless, in a
dumb-show of defeat.

I wanted to watch it, but
the lady next to me,

soon as my brother's name
was called, was telling me

"the story,": what we all share,
our bond, our lingua franca.

the before, the after, the signs
now unmistakable

but at the time ignored
until the stroke or seizure.

I wanted to watch the game.
I wanted to tell the lady,

Lady, I don't know how long
my brother has to live,

my sister's dead, my parents
are dying, can't you just let

me watch the game in peace?
But the automatic iron

gears of courtesy
engaged, and I was just

so many different engines
of attention: a nameless friend,

a confessor, an innocent
who can't have any idea

of what it's like to live
with someone you've spent your life with

and see him this way, unable
to feel emotion, like a

well-trained zombie,
because that's what the tumor

damaged, where the feelings
come from in the brain.

My goodness, you must think
it's so selfish of me

to complain like this. I should
feel grateful, shouldn't I?

I mean, I know he has
no sense of what we're all

going through for him,
and so he can't really

love us now, not me, not
even the children. But at least

he isn't scared of dying
since he can't feel fear—

It's a blessing really …
She looked away and

smiled, apologizing
for going on like that,

the way my sister did
in her last days each time

the nurse would decompact
her bowels by hand—I'm

sorry, she'd mumble, barely
conscious, sorry, sorry,

till the nurse was through,
her relief, then, less relief

from pain than from the need
even then, to think of

others (didn't we all say
it was so like Beth to do that?).

She could just sleep and
no longer fuel the still

inexorable autonomous
machinery of obligations

that displace us even as
they make us who we are.

Now he was back, her husband,
he smiled when she introduced me,

and before they left for the next
test, next waiting room,

he placed his hand on my shoulder
and said, good luck, god speed,

said it as if he meant it,
as if he could feel it, the gesture

performing itself without him,
like a blinking eyelid

with no eye behind it.
Up on the screen, the crowd

stormed the court in silence
as time expired. My brother

was probably by then
inside a long white

tube where he'd doze while
pictures were being taken

of all the hidden places
in his brain. He was sealed off

and all open, he was free
and confined, and I wanted

him to stay there where
he didn't have to apologize

to anyone for the delay,
the inconvenience, as

he would to me, as always,
when he returned. I wanted

to sit here and keep watching
the nodding, radiantly

bald head of the color
man as he smiled a stiff

smile as he held the mike
up high toward the mouth

of the stooping six-ten player
of the game who (I could tell)

was thanking the good lord
for his god-given this or that.

This is called “The Match”. It is about one of my brother’s trips to North Carolina while he was receiving chemotherapy. He didn’t want to put the family through the after effects of it so he stayed in a hotel and there was a pool in the hotel and when I would walk him back to his room, we would past the pool and invariably there would be these young, very healthy, lusty teenagers swimming in the pool. And so the poem is pretty much these two images of my brother walking back to his room and these kids swimming. This poem is in address to life. It is like an ode to life.

“The Match”. O Lord of life. Bountiful as sunlight and like the sun, impartial in your shinning. Neither kind nor unkind, but we call you both at different moments as you flash refracted through the ever shifting prism of what happens. It’s you, yourself; you give to when you give to us. Yourself you show yourself to through us whenever we’re on display to one another. You sorting us out haphazardly for the selections we think are only ours to make. Who else but you could have arranged the scene? The two boys in the hotel pool. The girl at the pool’s edge, legs dangling in the water. All three so freshly post-puberisant that the change itself could have been happening right then before us as we stopped to watch. My brother and I returning to his room after a day of treatment. We could tell by how completely they ignored her that their every gesture had the girl in mind. Hands locked around each other’s necks. Their foreheads touching. Water lights and streams of water running everywhere along their arms, backs, shoulders. Every trembling muscle, force requiring counterforce to feel how strong it is, how irresistible. As one now quickly slipped down under the other’s arm and groaning lifted the twisting torso up and threw him and was on him before the splashes fell. You neither kind nor unkind, both the end and means. The contest and the prize. The girl who dipped her calves, her dripping fine boned ankles in and out of the water. Way too nonchalantly to be nonchalant. And the boys who grappled in what could have been the first rush of the flowering strength inside them. Of you who were no less there inside my brother. No less ferociously inside each flowering cell. No medicine could beat back or slow. Angel of being who are you? Who are all your disguises? Your many forms. There is no blessing. No secret to be wrestled from you, neither kind nor unkind with magnificent indifference sorting us out to see who best will serve your riot of good fortune. I had to hold my brothers arm to keep him steady while the two boys and girl began to swim together in a circle so we couldn’t tell who was chasing whom. He sad he was tired. He wanted to get back to his room and sleep before the sickness came on. And he woke entangled in the sheets. Drenched. Doubled up. Contorted. Shifting all through the long night from side to side as if somehow to get a better grip on what he wrestled with.

The next poem is set in two places. It is set on a porch in North Carolina where I was sitting and a hummingbird was sort of hovering near me. And it is also set several hundred miles away in New York City where my brother was hospitalized for meningitis as it turned out. And while the nurses were helping him from the commode back to the bed, they dropped him and so it is about those two things. The poem is also a kind of argument with three of my favorite poets. Emily Dickinson who has written beautifully and memorably and blasphemously about death, but has a very famous poem about a humming bird. The first line of which is “root of evanescence”, she describes the hummingbird as the root of evanescence. This argument as well is with Walt Whitman, who in crossing the Brooklyn Ferry denies the power of death. He says, “It avails not time or space, distance avails not”. The poem can make this bridge between generations and between people and he has also in “Song of Myself” has a phrase about the death is luckier than anyone supposes. And then finally it’s also an argument with Wallace Stevens, who in “Sunday Morning” has this famous line – “Death is the mother of beauty” and that without change, without loss without the seasons, we would not have the sensation of beauty. The thinking behind that is something like in order to satisfy our desire, you have to move from a state of wanting to a state of having to a state of having had. Therefore the satisfaction or the consummation of a desire implies change. Change implies loss. Loss implies death. Therefore, without death, there is no fulfillment and no beauty. So interesting, wonderful, powerful ideas, but in the presence of someone who is truly suffering and truly dying, they don’t really amount to much. And that’s what the poem is really about. So it’s called “The Accident”. And again. Even though it is not stated, it’s the hummingbird that starts the poem. It starts off the thinking of all these wonderful poets who have written so beautifully about death and consolingly to me - who is not dying - about death.

But my brother had gone beyond the reach of that consolation. While it was happening, the absolute not me of it. The awe of a sudden see-through whir of wings beside me that the late sun just as I looked up turned to a hovering flash. A water of gray-green iridescence as the beak dipped into a funnel of blossom. Dipped and was gone and not even the blossom’s white tip bent in its going or shivered. While this which could have happened without me here or elsewhere happened the way it did and would continue happening for others, for no one, for nothing, but the blind urge of its happening. This ever transient, accidental crossing of momentums that was in this case beautiful, but could have not been and so seemed all the more consoling for the thought. Even the thought of death just then consoling. Shaping itself inside me as the now there, now not there hovering of bird flower, late sun iridescences, beloved singers. You who in the aftermath surged from the shadows to sing in your different voices, the same song. Root of evanescence. Mother of beauty. It avails not time nor space. Distance avails not. If you had known just then, three hundred miles away in another state, that one of the nurses getting my brother up from the commode and back to bed; the one who held him on his left side, the dead side, all of a sudden lost hold of him and as he fell hard, grabbed hold for the loose, papery gown and ripped him off

so that he lay there naked,
          utterly exposed—

beloved singers, tricksters
             of solace, if
you had known this, seen
             this, as I did not,
you would have offered him
             no sumptuous
destitution, no fire-
             fangled feathers,
or blab about death as being
             luckier than one
supposes. You would have bowed
             your heads, you would
have silently slipped back
             into the shadows
out of which you surged forth,
             singing to me.

Of course while of this was going on, I was raising children and when my brother finally went beyond the reach of any kind of care, he went to Los Angeles, where his daughters were. He died out there. And when I was leaving to keep watch at his bedside, my daughter Isabelle accompanied me out to the car and she said she loves musical comedy like my brother and at the time was always singing “Westside Story”. This is a poem inspired by “Westside Story”, my daughter singing it and also by some of those National Geographic documentaries that show lions running after antelopes and herds of antelopes trying to escape from the lion. And it is a series of metaphors for joy for it's called “Joy”. What never comes when called? What hides when held? Guests, most at home, were least expected. Vagrant bomb of galliard. What soon is here becomes the body’s native ground and soon as not, is banishment. Coming and going in different magisterial. My lovely daughter walking me to the car to say goodbye the day I left to keep watch at my brother’s bedside. Suddenly singing, “I feel pretty. Oh so pretty,” as she raised her arms up in a loose oval over her head and pirouetted all along the walk. Savage and magisterial, the joy of it. The animal candor of each arabesque, each leaping turn and counterturn. Her voice now wobbly with laughter and I pity any girl who is not me tonight. Savagely beautiful, not so much like the lion that the camera freezes in mid-pounce. Claws outstretched for the stumbling antelope; it’s like the herd is escaping that the camera pans to. Zigzagging. Swerving as one. Their leaping strides now leaping higher, faster. Even after it seems the fear subsides. After the fear and the relief, they keep on running for nothing, but the joy of running though it could be any one of them is running from its fallen mother or father, sister or brother, across the wide Savannah under a bright sun into fresher grass.

A poem that is influenced by Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz when I Dies.” It’s a short poem. So the Dickinson poem goes like this:

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

So there are phrases from that poem that are lifted of it and put in this poem. It’s again keeping in deathwatch. There’s a voice that asks a question and then there’s a voice that answers. These are just three short poems.

What was it like to see him die? I was thinking how the body, mine not his, didn’t care about any of it. Not the hush around the bedside, not the stillness in the air. Not even my own sorrow, it just went on blindly feeding on the food I had fed it until it needed more. A furnace craving fuel and moved me to the refrigerator where I made myself stare too long at the refrigerator light so when I looked away, the after image, like a ghostly pulse appeared to hover a moment in the air before my eyes before it failed and there was nothing between the food and me. Was he ready to die? In the last moment, his eyes opened and the blue rims of the beautiful pale green irises looked toward us as he all of a sudden rose on some invisible wave and just as suddenly sank back and the eyes stayed open like a doll’s eyes wide unblinking and the doll was inside a box inside the closet in a house no one was living in.
Was he at peace like the refrigerator light after the door is closed?

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