Reel to Reel

Reel to Reel

by Alan Shapiro

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Reel to Reel, Alan Shapiro’s twelfth collection of poetry, moves outward from the intimate spaces of family and romantic life to embrace not only the human realm of politics and culture but also the natural world, and even the outer spaces of the cosmos itself. In language richly nuanced yet accessible, these poems inhabit and explore fundamental questions of existence, such as time, mortality, consciousness, and matter. How did we get here? Why is there something rather than nothing? How do we live fully and lovingly as conscious creatures in an unconscious universe with no ultimate purpose or destination beyond returning to the abyss that spawned us? Shapiro brings his humor, imaginative intensity, characteristic syntactical energy, and generous heart to bear on these ultimate mysteries. In ways few poets have done, he writes from a premodern, primal sense of wonder about our postmodern world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226110639
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/17/2014
Series: Phoenix Poets
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 88
Product dimensions: 8.70(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Alan Shapiro has published eleven books of poetry, most recently Night of the Republic, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Griffin Prize, and Old War, winner of the Ambassador Book Award. He teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Read an Excerpt

Reel to Reel



Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-11063-9



    Not gone, not here, a fern trace in the stone
    of living tissue it can somehow flourish from;
    or the dried up channel and the absent current;
    or maybe it's like a subway passenger
    on a platform in a dim lit station late
    at night between trains, after the trains have stopped—
    ahead only the faintest rumbling of
    the last one disappearing, and behind
    the dark you're looking down for any hint
    of light—where is it? why won't it come? you
    wandering now along the yellow line,
    restless, not knowing who you are, or even
    where until you see it, there it is,
    approaching, and you hurry to the spot
    you don't know how you know is marked
    for you, and you alone, as the door slides open
    into your being once again my father,
    my sister or brother, as if nothing's changed,
    as if to be known were the destination.
    Where are we going? What are we doing here?
    you don't ask, you don't notice the blur of stations
    we're racing past, the others out there watching
    in the dim light, baffled,
    who for a moment thought the train was theirs.


    Passed on to me after my brother's death,
    My name in marker on the see-through plastic
    Of the giant reel, on which the melody

    But not the words of "Jeepers Creepers" breaks off
    Halfway across the bridge into my voice
    At nine, with two friends on the tape, three boys,

    Three voices on the tape, three high-pitched in-
    Distinguishable voices hamming it up
    Together on some day I can't remember

    In a far corner of the playroom where
    My brother every evening sang the words
    While the tape recorder played the melody,

    Every evening no matter how tired he was,
    No matter what else he needed to be doing,
    Or wanted to do, despite the pleas, the sulks,

    The tantrums, because he had a gift, she said,
    And, fine, if he didn't want to honor it, fine,
    His choice, he could kiss it goodbye, for all she cared,

    But one day he'll realize what he's lost, one day
    He'll wish he'd listened to her—one day, that one
    Day each day shaken at him like a club.

    Which voice is mine? Who's there with me? What's left
    Of that day, of any day of all those years
    In the cramped house: two reels, one thin, one fat,

    And brown tape threaded through the housing, which,
    When you hit record, sounded (if you said nothing)
    Like water rushing far off underground,

    Turning the reels too slow to ever see
    The thin one fatten or the fat one thin.
    And "Jeepers Creepers"—that was his specialty,

    His show stopper, what he always opened with,
    Her little Mel Tormé, her Buddy Greco,
    So cute, so sexless, she could eat him up,

    When he was on stage: the adorable red blazer
    With bright white piping on the lapel, white pants,
    White patent leather tap shoes, straw hat, and cane.

    I see him when I hear the melody,
    And somehow I hear every word he sang,
    But not him singing on those evenings half

    A century away, no single one
    Of which I can remember anymore.
    "Where'd you get those peepers, jeepers creepers,

    Where'd you get those eyes" that hated me
    Every evening as they couldn't not
    Because I didn't have a voice or gift

    To be alone inside the spotlight of,
    No fear of any day that lay in wait
    To make me sorry. "Gosh oh git up

    How'd they get so lit up ... how'd they get that size ..."
    The slow reels changed without appearing to.
    "Woe, woe, woe is me, got to get my cheaters on"

    The moment when the tune breaks into nothing,
    No words, no music, the hush a sound of water
    Rushing underground, until a boy

    Laughs while two others wrestle for the mic,
    And then all three are laughing, hamming it up—
    "Heavens to Mergatroid!" "A wise guy, hey!"

    Just that, those seconds, "gosh oh gee oh," just
    The voices of a ghostly slapstick now
    From reel to reel to ferry us across.


    My sister first and then my brother woke
    Inside the house they dreamed, and so the dream
    House, which, in my dream, was the house in which
    I found them now, was vanishing as they woke,
    Was swallowing itself the way the picture did
    Inside the switched off television screen.
    It was the nightmare picture of them sleeping
    As if alive beside me in the last
    Room left to us, the nightmare of the picture
    Suddenly collapsing on the screen
    Into the tick and crackle of the shriveling
    Abyss they were being sucked away into
    By having wakened, while I, alone now,
    Clung to the screen of sleeping in the not
    Yet undreamt bedroom they no longer dreamed.


    Of and not of
    water, moving in water
    through it
    while the water lifts in place
    as it passes
    buoy and boat, the way hands
    in one row
    rise as one to fall
    as the next
    row rises, in a phantom
    billowing of
    and not of, in and other
    than, across
    the stadium, over the bed
    in the flapped
    sheet rippling as it's drifting down.

    Sine and swerving cosine
    of the starling
    cloud, of the shock waves
    of the bomb blast,
    of the slithering snake or the snaking
    river which somehow
    is the same shape as the building pressure
    of the urge of
    the desire in the middle of which
    the air, too,
    atom by atom, rises and falls
    with the cries cried
    at the same time from your lips to my ear,
    and from mine to yours.


    There in the last before
    of early late,
    when our bodies become both garden
    and unlocked gate,

    both the children playing hard
    and the game they play,
    so lost in playing that
    they couldn't say

    what turns in the sensation
    of sensation turning
    from long and slow—just when?—
    to sudden burning,

    burning in taste and touch
    so thoroughly
    that my skin tastes of you,
    and yours of me—

    and taste is scent and scent
    is everywhere
    enveloping us like
    an atmosphere

    of briefest having that
    we can't believe
    up to its breathless end
    will ever leave

    until it does, and in
    the dark we find
    the children we thought we were
    left far behind—

    back in the garden while,
    beyond the gate
    that's gone as soon as entered,
    soon shrinks to late,

    and play to pulse receding
    to withdrawn kiss
    to garden bed now just
    the bed it is.


    Shaking the chill
    off starts with you
    pretending not
    to know I watch you
    while I watch you
    pretending not to,
    in the lamp-lit
    twilight we prefer,
    that we can both
    half hide in—
    because it suits
    what sags, what shrinks,
    and leaves us free
    to think I'm watching
    you be watched
    by me in secret
    as you unbutton
    now and now unhook
    untie let
    slip so nonchalantly I
    can hardly stand it
    while I pretend
    I can because
    that's how it quickens
    in you to the
    shimmying out
    of and the sliding
    off and down
    to only shadows
    falling all
    around bare skin
    that though goose-
    fleshed and shivering
    won't be rushed, no,
    it just takes longer
    at this stage
    to shake it off,
    the chill, the change,
    the sudden cold
    front heightening
    the heat it meets
    at last under
    the covers I
    am lifting up.


    Imagine the electric
    Air ways
    Suddenly visible,
    All of them
    Everywhere like
    Neurons firing
    In air, the empty
    Air we move
    And breathe in
    Crosshatched now
    And crisscrossed
    Like a planetary
    Nervous system
    Passing through
    The very bodies it
    Began as, as if
    There were no bodies,
    Every hate and
    Love cry of the body
    Old and young,
    Long dead and dying,
    Scribbling their lightning
    Urgencies at once
    In all directions
    In an inverse
    Of the parable where
    Inside is outside,
    And lights are shadows
    Of us flashing at us
    Over bright
    Cave walls of air.


    Your face as an unbroken
    line of moments
    reaching back from
    old to young to
    unrecalled and
    beginnings—your face
    at any and every
    moment all along
    that daisy-chain
    of faces changing
    even while each face
    is bordered by
    identical versions
    of itself—the
    transient sameness
    of the face before
    and after just a
    slower kind of
    cloud drift
    ever young
    till not, and never
    old till old,
    as hand from paw
    from wing from fin
    ("How? When?") day by
    indistinguishable day.


    to Annie Dillard

    And what of the bird-headed dwarfs
    on page 657, the naked boy
    and girl in a bleak light
    on a shameless table, propped up
    side by side by a single hand,
    by a thumb and finger?

    What of the boy's chest, or the girl's,
    no wider than a deck of cards,
    each face no longer than a thumb?
    What of the normal eyes
    made huge by the shrunken
    features? Or the wick-

    like legs they cannot
    straighten, the twisted arms,
    the smile as sweet as any
    that only the girl
    is smiling, still too young
    to get it, as she holds her arms up

    high as if for an embrace
    and not because she had been told to
    for the picture for the textbook
    so we can see them better,
    smiling as if pretending so
    could make it so,

    while the older boy, who gets it,
    his mouth like crimped thread,
    grimacing, as he looks away,
    won't look into the camera—
    looking away as from
    a small unpleasantness

    he grudgingly gives in to
    for his own good,
    though he can't see how
    or why, the helpless
    rageful dignity of looking
    elsewhere, as if it were

    the body only, and not
    him caught naked
    there on page 657
    of the 1000-page book,
    unhoused, unhouseled
    on a metal table, in the blameless

    wrong of a design he gets,
    he gets it, if not all the time
    and everywhere, then there
    and then, when the camera flashes
    fixing him inside the isn't
    of what everyone else is,

    which is why he isn't
    smiling like his sister, no,
    not now, not here, not
    even if asked to, he won't
    be like the other smiling
    children in the book,

    who smile like children
    even while being spit
    out onto the page by what
    beyond the page outside
    the book is deeply
    drinking all the others in.


    What led you down, first mother, from the good
    dark of the canopy, and then beyond it?
    What scarcity or new scent drew you out
    that day into the vertical-hating flatness
    of the bright veldt, alone, or too far from
    the fringes of the group of other mothers
    following the fathers out among the herds
    and solitary grazers, the child clinging to your back
    when the noiseless wing flash lifted him
    away into the shocked light as the others ran?
    Two million years ago, and yet what comes
    to me, in time-lapse through cascading chains
    of changing bodies, is not the tiny skull
    I'm holding, not the clawed out eye sockets,
    his fractured jaw, but you, old mother, just then
    in that Ur-moment of his being gone,
    what I've felt too, on crowded streets, in malls,
    if only briefly, in the instant when
    the child beside me who was just there
    before he is again, that shock, that panic,
    that chemical echo of your screaming voice.


    Pervasive ghostly
    whatnot of the
    felt invisible
    streaming back
    and forth of massless
    particles that
    anything with mass
    reels out of itself
    to reel in whatever's
    smaller (how, by
    what means, pulling
    with what, or
    pressing?) along
    lines of force
    in fields of
    force that lessen
    never quite
    to nothing over
    infinite distances,
    at all times, in all
    directions where
    there's no direction
    and even light is
    sucked like a body
    into the densest
    hole of it, or curls,
    photon by photon,
    at its horizon like
    a flock of starlings—
    and in the dream
    vision of its utter
    opposite—which is
    not grace—you are
    the object only,
    the merely acted
    on, subjected
    to, dumb thing
    at rest, in nothing,
    nowhere, immoveable,
    or moved
    so continuously
    forward at the
    same speed it's
    the same as rest—
    it is the nightmare
    of the absence of
    all sense of this
    way or that or
    fast or slow, which
    suddenly you
    wake from, falling
    without time
    enough to reach
    for anything
    between what's rushing
    from you and
    what's rushing up.


    Broad leaves of bittersweet enveloping the dead
    and dying trees, flourishing up the trunks
    and out across the lower branches to
    the few abandoned nests they haven't yet
    invaded: every leaf now almost seeming
    to signal something to no one about the never
    to be disentangled moment of itself,
    how all their surfaces flash and go dim
    all morning, in and out of focus, too bright,
    too dark, too suddenly or slowly now
    in ever varying miniscule degrees
    of sun and shade too subtle to be named
    changing before my eyes across what also
    changes before my eyes without my seeing,
    like the bloated carcass of the squirrel
    caught in a crook of branches, bloated, seething
    with little scavengers that carried it
    away in sun and shadow as it shrank
    invisibly to nothing but this flattened
    wisp of dark between the flashing leaves.
    Leaves signaling about it, whether they are or not,
    something about what can't be thought about,
    impenetrable, irreducible,
    as the recurring no time of the ice
    you dream between you and an open door
    you cannot enter, where the ones you come for,
    look for, and even think you see inside it
    looking out, are looking out, but not
    at you, and only briefly, from a dark
    that all at once is darker for the ice
    that flashes up so brightly that it blinds.


Excerpted from Reel to Reel by ALAN SHAPIRO. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Wherever My Dead Go When I’m Not Remembering Them
Reel to Reel
The Family Bed
The Gate
Aging Lovers
The Cave
Thought Experiment
On Thumbing through Smith’s Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation
Taung Child
In Winter
Disaster Movies
Beach Towel
Law of Motion
Absolute Zero
Homeric Turns
The Bridge
The Open Door
Spooky Action at a Distance
Saint Christopher
Whatever Else They’re Singing
SunThe Not Lord

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