from Space that Sees: A Posthumous / Pre-Posthumous Dialogue between C.K. Williams and Alan Shapiro

1.

The cell phone rang in the middle of a poetry workshop I was teaching at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Charlie’s name popped up on the screen. I had heard just days before that his cancer treatment had been discontinued and he’d gone into hospice. I excused myself and went outside to take the call. Though his voice was weak, almost otherworldly with fatigue, Charlie got right down to business as he always did on the phone. He was dying, he said, matter-of-factly, without a trace of self-pity. He was calling to say goodbye. I tried to disguise my shock and sorrow by joking, “But you’re my reader, Charlie, my audient! Who am I going to show my poems to now?” He deadpanned, “Find a younger reader.”

2.

Since the mid-1980s, my two closest poet friends have been Charlie Williams and Tom Sleigh. In fact, in the thirty-some-odd years we’ve known each other, and until Charlie’s death in 2015, I don’t think I’ve written a single poem that Charlie and Tom haven’t helped with—that hasn’t been shaped or influenced by their judgment and imagination. All poets work alone in some ways, but in other maybe even more important ways I was never alone when I worked, not just because I showed my early drafts to Tom and Charlie but because I think I so internalized their different ways of looking at language and at life that I could feel them watching over my shoulder as I wrote. The process of composition was (and with Tom still is) more collaborative than solitary. But here’s the thing: the recognition I received from them (and by recognition I don’t mean praise, I mean the respect of serious critical attention) was so much more durable and fortifying than the ersatz recognition of a fancy publication, review, fellowship or prize, nice as those things are, or so I’ve heard. To a significant degree, having found my ideal audience insulated me from the worst aspects of “fame envy,” which Milton calls the “last infirmity of noble mind;” the respect of their attention gave me just enough protection from the marketplace and the crippling sense of irrelevance I still experience, for instance, when I go on Facebook or when I step foot inside the great hall of the AWP book fair. While it’s hard not to feel sometimes like all we’re doing when we write is sitting in a room talking to ourselves, what poetry friendships like these can do, or have done for me at any rate, is connect the practice of the art to its beginnings in a pre-modern—even pre-agricultural—hunter-gatherer-past, when agents and publicists did not exist. It’s given me a kind of freedom from the expense of spirit in a waste of shame that has accompanied the art’s professionalization—and it’s showed me how poetry, while drenched in a market economy, still has its roots in older, more intimate forms of human belonging.

*

3.

Several months after Charlie’s death, I was asked to speak at his memorial service at the New School in New York City. I dreaded the assignment, not because I couldn’t think of anything to say about my dead friend, but because he didn’t yet seem dead to me at all, he still seemed very much alive, still a vital part of my day-to-day reality; I wasn’t ready to write about him in the past tense, as if my relationship to him were over, finished, fixed for all time; I was afraid that if I eulogized him I’d somehow lose this persistent sensation of his living, still-evolving companionship. For hours I’d sit at the computer staring at the blank screen, the cursor flashing at me like a dare. Some atavistic part of me may even have believed that his continuing existence depended on my not writing anything for his memorial service. So long as I refused to eulogize him, he would still be here with me in some way more than just symbolic.

I thought back to our first real conversation in the fall of 1986, around the kitchen table in his Parisian flat. I was on sabbatical, spending the year in Paris, subletting an apartment from Charlie’s father-in-law. We were talking about Dante, the end of Canto 4, when Virgil introduces the pilgrim to four of the illustrious poets of antiquity: Homer, Ovid, Horace, and Lucan. When the classical poets welcome Dante into their company, as the “sixth among so much wisdom,” they walk on together, talking of things, Dante says, it would be best to leave in silence. I asked Charlie what he thought they might have talked about as they strolled through limbo. Without hesitating, he said they talked the way poets talk when they get together: they talked shop, they talked syllable, pitch and tone, duration, stress, and weight, phrasing and timing, formal choices, diction, metaphor, all the subtleties of singing. Not meaning? I asked. Good and Evil? The divine? War? Honor? Betrayal? Advances, publications or awards? No, he insisted, only primary, first-order elements. Only essentials. I remember thinking how odd this was, coming from a poet whose work had always been so ethically grounded, devoted to what he called a comprehensive vision of reality, to outer worlds as well as inner worlds, and their dense entanglements. He sounded more like Walter Pater than Walt(er) Whitman, like an aesthete, not the democratic bard I assumed he was. What I considered at that time mutually exclusive possibilities were in fact for Charlie mutually entailing. In our thirty-three years of friendship, I would learn that he was nothing if not congenitally paradoxical and nuanced in his thinking, on and off the page. The notion of summing up someone like him seemed impossible if not offensive.

4.

After hours of staring at a blank screen, I finally shut down my computer and went for a long walk in a nearby forest. It was a chilly late January afternoon, the sky clear, cloudless, the forest hilly, pathless. For hours when I wasn’t clambering over fallen tree trunks, half moss-coated, half disintegrated back into forest loam, I had to push carefully, twig by twig, through a leafless, thorny understory. No matter what direction I took, I ended up traversing the same dense tangling patch of ground, the same understory bristling with twigs and thorns, the same fallen, decomposing trees. The day too seemed as timeless as the place was placeless. The afternoon light had sunk to a certain Dickinsonian slant and then stopped sinking, so the shadows lay eerily still. I was way past the midpoint of this life’s journey, too old for Dante’s dark wood full of lions, leopards, and wolves. Besides, I’ve never been much of an outdoorsman. More the rugged indoors-man type, I’m afraid. Inward bound, not outward bound, that’s my motto. If I had to be outside, I’d rather it be the outside of Robert Frost’s much shorter poem, “Birches,” “Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs / Broken across it, and one eye is weeping / From a twig’s having lashed across it open.”

And with that thought, the dark woods thinned and gave way, and I found myself in a clearing in the middle of which was a low-lying spherical structure made of large stone blocks with a roof of thick green turf. If not for its one wooden door, it would have looked like a stone igloo or a hobbit hut that eons ago had sunk below ground and then been discovered and partially dug up. It was somehow both underground and unearthly, as if the underworld had come up for a peek at what it used to be. The interior was made of cement; a stone bench ran around the inside wall. When I shut the wooden door behind me, the chamber went pitch black, except for a tiny hole in the roof, a pinhole of blue sky in what was otherwise outer space at its most ink-black. I sat inside that stone camera obscura unable to see even the hand I held up to my face, the fingers I touched my face with. But then, as my eyes adjusted, a mineral sky began to open, expanding all around me on the walls, and in the sky a cloud formed and drifted across my vision, and below the cloud trees were stiffly swaying, and while the sky was blue, the cloud white, the trees a grayish brown, the colors were at the same time bled of color, were ghosts of color on the walls of the stone chamber, like something the newly dead might see.

“I said a younger reader, Alan. Not a deader reader.”

5.

Across from me a chalky spark flashed in the dark under the ghostly trees and then expanded to a restless hovering cloud shape (like what happens when two blackboard erasers full of chalk are clapped together). I could make out a face, a lanky body; he was wearing jeans, and as he did in life two or three layers of shirts—a turtleneck jersey, over which he wore a work shirt, and a jacket over that. The many shirts made sense here in the chill of the cloud chamber, whereas in life they had seemed peculiar, like he could never quite get warm enough no matter how warm it was.

“Is it really you Charlie?”

“You tell me,” he said, his voice at once amused, affectionate, and a little detached, as if ventriloquized from some other place. The cloud shape seemed to thicken as he spoke.

“I don’t know,” I said, “you do look a little posthumous.”

“Being dead will do that to you,” he smiled. “And you, if I don’t say, you look a little pre-posthumous. Posthumous–Pre-posthumous, some pair we make, huh?”

“If you don’t mind my asking,” I said, “What’s it like over there, on the other side?”

“Can’t quite put a finger on it,” he mused. “I mean, I have no idea if what I’m about to say relates to how I actually am or to how I was before you found me here, how I was without you here to talk me into talking back to you. Or if it’s just a consequence of a serendipitous encounter. But I’m thinking the best description of my current state is the letter ‘c’ in the word muscle.”

He nodded and grinned with satisfaction. Or was he smirking? I couldn’t tell if he was mocking me or if he’d just now solved a thorny age-old problem humankind had been grappling with since the Pleistocene, when we climbed down out of the trees.

“I don’t, I’m not quite sure I…”

“Come on,” he said, impatient and encouraging at one and the same time. “Of course, you do. What’s it doing there, that ‘c’?”

“I don’t know; nothing, I guess.”

“Exactly,” he said, “it’s vestigial, it’s silent, it’s like a little fossil hidden in the word. The fossil of a Latin mouse inside our English muscle.”

“And your point is?”

“My point is that it’s doing nothing but reminding no one of the historical process of the word’s emergence.”

“So, you’re the silent ‘c’ in muscle?”

“Or consider ‘consider’,” he went on, the mist of him condensing with excitement. “From the Latin sidereus, having to do with stars, and the prefix con-, to be with or among; so, to consider, to think, to meditate, is to be among the stars, to see as from high above!”

“So, what you’re saying is—to be dead is to be out of this world?”

“No, not exactly,” he said. “What I’m saying is, I’m history.”

He drifted back against the wall. In the sudden silence he began to thin a little. Behind him, through him, as though inside him, a shadowy black bird fluttered down into the branches of a tree. It rested for a moment on the tip of a twig, then pitched away, and the twig trembled in its absence up and down. Eyes closed, Charlie dreamily swayed and, swelling, began to half-sing, half-chant,

The storm rushes away; from my window, I watch it seemingly sweep itself
from the horizon;
uncertain columns of thin, smoky vapor behind it, then the darkening clear sky
of sunset,
the purified air…

He broke off suddenly. The lines took shape for a moment in the mineral sky, then like ink in water they blurred, came loose, and swirled away.

“Beautiful,” I said. “Is that something new?”

Don’t be absurd,” he said. “There’s nothing new in a place like this. It’s something I was playing around with toward the end. Who knows what I had in mind, where it was going. I got so good at that in my later years. Not knowing where I was going, thrashing about in so many unknowables.”

“You wrote right up to the very end, didn’t you? How did you do that, sick as you were? What kept you ‘thrashing about?’”

“The mind I wrote with wasn’t sick,” he said.

“But how did you keep going without losing hope? You sounded so weak over the phone…”

“Joy, I guess,” he said.

“Of dying?” I asked.

“No!” he answered, “Come on. Don’t be silly. What’s that epigram you once recited to me, by your old teacher, J.V. Cunningham? ‘Life flows to death as rivers to the sea. / And life is fresh, and death is salt to me.’ No, there’s no joy in dying or in death. Under the shadow of death, in the throes of illness, there’s shame, grief, degradation, appalling agony and terror, and if you’re lucky, as I was, unsurpassable intimacy, love bound up with anguish, but joy, no, not so much.”

“So then how did joy keep you going? What’s joy got to do with it?”

“The joy of making,” he said and as he said it he seemed to inflate and thicken. “The joy of witnessing, of being conscious as much as possible, even if what you’re conscious of is losing consciousness; joy of contemplating every nuance of a devastation.”

“I don’t know, Charlie,” I said. “That kind of joy seems like a synonym for suffering. Why does everything with you have to be so mixed and complicated. Your mind is like a Möbius strip in which one thing keeps turning seamlessly into its opposite.”

He continued as if he hadn’t heard me, or didn’t think what I said was worth responding to, “Agony in my ruined body, and joy in the way the ruin freed me up.”

I let the words hang in the air. A vapor trail from a passing passenger jet wrote and erased itself above the line of trees. Charlie stood up and drifted soundlessly back and forth, lost in who knows what.

6.

When he finally sat back down, he said apropos of nothing, “It is an edgy sort of joy, without question, that allows the mind to skip and skid away from whatever it thinks it’s saying without worrying that some aesthetic or moral commandment or intention is being violated. To trust that the mind, no matter how far and for how long it strays from the theme or idea you think you want to explore, will sooner or later return when it is ready and able to do so, and may well be the richer, or wiser, for the diversion and delay.”

“Not a very American joy,” I said. “I mean, it’s so inefficient. Seems like you could squander a lot of time skipping and skidding.”

“To keep going you have to vacillate, to wobble, to shilly-shally, and still not suffer from a sense of oneself as irresponsible, indolent, or weak.”

“You remember Callie, my ex-wife, a welder; end of the workday Callie used to come in from the shop all hot and sweaty, covered in metal dust, and find me on the couch reading, and when I’d say I was beat from working all day she’d laugh, though without amusement.”

“Patience,” he continued, “is surely the word here…”

“Hers for me, or mine for her?”

Ignoring the question, he went on, “Because the rightness of art is more often than not a consequence of being willing to be wrong, about anything and everything, of knowing that even when your line of reflection or imagining might be viewed as absurdly illogical, you should be able to go on to its—however provisional—conclusion.”

“Conclusion, logic, reflection,” I said, “this seems more like the kind of language a philosopher or mathematician might use. We’re talking about writing poetry, Charlie, not solving the Riemann hypothesis.”

“Why couldn’t it be both?” he said. “Maybe we’re more like mathematicians than we think, and maybe the mathematicians are more like us. Solving any problem or conundrum, aesthetic or mathematical, takes tenacity compatible with fear, and a trust in systematic thought compatible with impulse. A Fermat may have an inkling that he’s on to something but have no clue how to get there. He has to think rationally and improvise, calculate and spontaneously act. He has to cultivate an abiding tolerance for error.”

“When it comes to error,” I said, “some of us are naturals.”

“Point is,” he said, “we should be able to regard our inner existence as a laboratory, in which mental phenomena are valued according to their potential usefulness, and considered harmless unless they demand to be concretized in malignant acts.”

“Are you saying that when it comes to imaginative thinking anything goes: Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Brett Kavanaugh?”

“Who’s Brett Kavanaugh?”

Don’t ask,” I said.

“Well,” he continued, “all bets are off so long as we keep in mind that the ultimate purpose of this sort of reflection isn’t action but self-knowledge, self-discovery, which, one hopes, will lead to more humane, considerate, or empathetic action later on.”

“Seems like you’re advocating a kind of imaginative libertarianism: you want to deregulate the mind, impose no checks on what it can think, no limits on where it wants to take you. You’re saying even the most horrible fantasy can be a source of illuminating image or symbol, can give one access to insight?”

“I’m saying,” he said, “the mind should be able to remark in itself and not repress too quickly anything that comes to it, even such ostensibly inadmissible emotions as, to mention just a few, lust, greed, envy, anger, even rancor, even genres of otherwise unutterable prejudice.”

“But Charlie,” I pushed back, “you’re asking for a mental free-for-all at a time when everyone assumes the very worst about each other, and maybe for good reasons—everything’s so uncertain now, contingent, fragile, except for obscene disparities between rich and poor, everyone’s finger on one kind of trigger or another, distrustful, helpless, so we shrink—we all do it—into little virtual hermetically sealed isolation tanks shouting at other isolation tanks shouting back. Even in the academy you’ve got to keep the mind on a short tight leash if you don’t want to be trolled or ostracized. Baldwin’s commitment to the truth and all its jagged edges, his refusal to simplify or replace a complicated vision with a palatable lie, seems quaint now. How do you let the mind skip and skid everywhere over such dangerous yet inescapable terrain as race, class and gender? Even in our writing programs, never mind academia in general—a place theoretically devoted to critical thought, to respectful yet vigorous conversation—people find it ever more difficult to talk to one another across our various differences. Just recently I was teaching a graduate class on prosody and one of the students actually claimed that iambic pentameter was invented by white men during the Renaissance—”

“Oy,” Charlie grunted. “You disabused them of this notion, I hope. I mean, good lord, the 10-syllable line is just a variant of the 11-syllable line, which goes back to our Indo-European roots.”

“Seems like for the left and the right as well as the beleaguered middle, the hermeneutics of suspicion has hardened into just plain old suspiciousness.”

“I know,” he said sadly. “I know that all too well. I remember one department meeting not so long ago—can’t recall if it was at Princeton or George Mason; department meetings tend to run together and pile up into a single not-so-ivory tower of excrement. We were replacing our Shakespeare requirement with a critical theory class and debating what to call it—Methodological Approaches of Postmodernism, Aporia Studies, Hermeneutical Trends. I said, “How about The Death of Joy.” Don’t get me wrong, I think seeing art as an artifact of larger forces, as a conduit of ideology and power, is vital. There’s nothing wrong with teaching students to distrust traditions they’ve been told are sacrosanct. There just has to be a place, too, for sympathetic appreciation, unembarrassed love of the beautiful, and understanding art as art, even as it participates in other less-than-humane aspects of a culture. My point is, when I talk about free play of imagination, the mind as laboratory, I mean keeping alive habits of mind that otherwise might atrophy if skepticism is the only value.”

“No argument from me,” I said.

Of course, as theory teaches, we have to have as accurate an awareness as we can of the quality of our ethical values, their limits and flaws, but we also need a firm sense of the difference between sins of the heart and sins of the hand: we have to recognize the mind has a life of its own that cares little for the parameters culture and society propose for it. If the mind won’t let itself imaginatively stray beyond those parameters it will be held hostage to what it fears, more likely to act out what it won’t let itself imagine.”

“I could name names,” I said, “of poems that pretend to expose evil as evil when all they’re really doing is providing an occasion for an evil indulgence. Where the judgment that this or that is wrong is just a pretext for a prurient fantasy, or a promiscuous, self-aggrandizing parade of selfless outrage at injustice, never mind how, in confessional knockoffs, self-contempt and self-glorification are often two sides of the same coin.”

“Look,” he said, “most of everything is bad. So what? And, yes, we should refuse ourselves too ready an access to a transformative vision of such matters: evil must be perceived as evil even in oneself, and emotions which might threaten to be acted upon, like arrogance, cruelty, contempt, and ungrounded anger, should leave one nauseous, revolted, aghast. We have the obligation to discipline ourselves and our poems morally, to the point of apparent cruelty, but only for very convincing reasons: we should recognize that such discipline and rigors are finally for the purpose of making headway against ignorance and inexperience, and never as punishment for imaginary offenses, to others or the self.”

“Do you think the kind of imaginative freedom you advocate is compatible with current anxieties about identity politics and cultural appropriation?”

“We need to tread carefully here, for sure,” he said. “Let’s approach this subject scrupulously at a slant by discussing memory first, personal memory, and then move out from there. Self to group, not the other way around. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Let’s start by acknowledging there’s much to be reflected upon about the use or misuse of memory in poetry, but one thing seems clear: while we have the right to cultivate memory, we shouldn’t be too good at it, or too reflexive about it, because remembrance can become an end in itself, which is nostalgia…”

“In the same way, maybe, incident or anecdote can be an end in itself in narrative, a story with no other story inside it?”

“The present can be fetishized too,” he said.

“Nostalgia for the present?” I said, “Interesting idea. As in the here-today-gone-today theory of history otherwise known as Facebook: ‘There’s a Starbucks where the Starbucks used to be!’”

“The point is not to valorize either at the expense of the other, but to investigate the relations between the two. One might end up with too compelling a commitment to the present, and the present’s future, without adequately taking into account the causes from the past which determined it.”

“The story my ex tells about our marriage bears little resemblance to the story I tell,” I said. “In what and how we remember, it’s like we had two separate marriages.”

Charlie nodded. “We have to be aware of memory’s inherent ambiguities, but, given this, we have the right to inhabit those ambiguities without too daunting a compulsion to strive for ‘accuracy.’ It should be accepted that remembering is necessarily inventing, and that inventing is often remembering.”

“Tell that to her lawyer!”

“I’m talking about poetry, Alan, not divorce court. And, anyway, that doesn’t mean there are no standards for judging how things are remembered in poems. On the contrary, the poetic memory is art under oath, but real accuracy has more to do with the moral integrity of a poem, rather than fealty to a necessarily imagined past.”

“I get that,” I said. “But I had asked you about cultural appropriation and identity politics.”

“I’m getting to that,” he said. “If the right to remember is taken farther, and exercised with due diligence, that is, with skepticism in the name of accuracy, there comes the right to believe with conviction that one is participating in the common history of humanity, to feel, even if only glancingly, even if only for moments at a time, the concrete connection we have to what went on thousands of years ago to certain exceptional actual or mythical personages in Greece or Canaan or Iceland, or even farther back in caves in France or China. One’s own thoughts and acts, however humdrum and banal they may seem, should be able to be regarded as a portion of the same history, or destiny, or tragedy, if tragedy is what one comes to believe it is.”

“Kind of an old-fashioned idea, Charlie, don’t you think? That we all share the same history?”

“Only if you ignore the qualifiers,” he said: “‘due diligence,’ ‘skepticism,’ ‘even if only glancingly, even if only for moments.’ It’s easy, I suppose, to make too much of common biological/cultural denominators such as birth, death, love, thirst, hunger, tool-making, art-making, gods, dance, song, incest taboos, concepts of fairness. But without that lived sense of a shareable history, of a common humanity, which our particular histories incarnate in their own distinct ways, we’d have no way to empathize with or understand each other, as well as fictional characters like Hecuba, Achilles, Priam, Gilgamesh, Abraham and Isaac. That said, we still need to meditate on the nature of our own specific historical identity, and to move to some sense of the general slowly, carefully, so as to prevent rash deductions that might jeopardize a scrupulous regard of the single self in terms of the general, and vice versa. There should also be the recognition that the ultimate purpose of these reflections may be a kind of forgiveness, of oneself but also of the groups of which one is, or has been, voluntarily or involuntarily, a member.”

“First time I saw you,” I said, “was at a conference on politics and poetry at Northwestern University, in 1984.”

“The Poet in the World Conference,” Charlie said.

“You were on a panel with Derek Walcott, and he was talking about how as an admirer of Whitman he had to bracket off Whitman’s less-than-pristine views on race from the brilliance of the poems. He went on to say that, in appreciating any writer from the past, we have to historicize attitudes we disapprove of today, to see them as functions of a time and place, put them in context so as not to throw the baby of art out with the bathwater of bias.”

“I remember that,” Charlie said.

“But then you asked him about Pound’s fascism and anti-Semitism.”

“Oh, yeah,” Charlie smiled. “We went back and forth over that.”

“Derek said he had no trouble whatsoever isolating the poetry from the politics, the beauty of the writing from the meretricious thought behind it.”

“And I said that to separate the two so easily did a disservice to both.”

“No,” I corrected him. “You said it trivialized both, made a mockery of both.”

“Yes,” he said. “I wasn’t terribly diplomatic, was I? Derek wasn’t pleased.”

“You said that the poetry and politics could not be separated, that you couldn’t isolate the aesthetic from the moral, and that therefore for you the only responsible response to a genius like Pound was anguish.”

“As I recall,” Charlie said, “as a counterargument, he recited those beautiful lines from The Pisan Cantos, ‘What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee / What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage…’”

“Yeah,” I said, “and when he finished reciting the lines, you agreed with him that the poetry was magnificent; at the same time, you wondered whom exactly those lines were written for, who was Pound addressing—certainly not the Jews of Eastern Europe, not the Slavs, not people of color, everything those people loved well, most of their true heritage, was irrevocably taken from them. He was speaking to a European tribe of white elites.”

“A point,” Charlie interrupted, “Derek acknowledged, right?”

“Sort of,” I said. “He talked about the virtues of forgetting, that he sometimes thought the only way post-colonial people could free themselves of murderous outrage was to undergo a cultural lobotomy, come down with collective amnesia.”

“That’s where forgiveness comes in,” Charlie said.

“But Charlie, what exactly does forgiveness mean? Even on a personal level, if by forgiveness you mean complete restitution of intimacy and trust, I can’t say I’ve ever forgiven anyone who’s seriously betrayed or hurt me.”

“I mean,” he said, “some modicum of understanding and acceptance. I’m saying it’s necessary, I’m not saying it’s easy. Sometimes I think it’s our entire species that needs forgiving.”

“But that’s like asking forgiveness of and for a virus,” I said.

Charlie shook his head. “As apt and tempting a metaphor as that may seem at times, you have to resist it. It leads only to self-loathing and paralyzing hopelessness.”

“How not despair, though?” I asked: “You of all people, who wrote so obsessively about climate change, war, social injustice, who said, and I quote: ‘It becomes clearer and clearer to me over the years that the basic issue about justice and injustice is power, pure and simple: it’s about those who desire, and attain, and possess power against the rest of us, demanding we die for them, make them wealthy, put them beyond our influence.’”

“But I also said that there’s a difference between practical justice and ideal or theoretical justice, which has more to do with aspiration than with fact. Poetry and all aesthetic endeavors exist in that realm of aspiration. Even if a poem doesn’t seem to be about justice or the spiritual urgency implied by justice, even if it’s lamenting the total absence of justice in the world, there is always something in the form of art itself, if nothing else, that implies justice.”

“How so?”

“Maybe we’ll come back to this later; for now though, since we’re talking about politics, let’s just say art seems to be what we attempt to do to perfect the human even if we can’t actually do it within society. There were times during the years of Bush and Cheney when practical injustice enraged me very much. But then things got better, didn’t they, a little, not as much as we had hoped, only incremental baby steps, and there was still the GOP to deal with, but we saw improvement under our first black president. And now, I assume, that improvement has continued under Hillary’s administration.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him; I didn’t know what to say. I looked away. I could hear the sound of wind outside, but the spectral trees inside the cloud chamber were completely still, so maybe the wind sound was the sound of distant traffic. Charlie was watching me, looking for something, some reassurance maybe, or sign of hope, as if his need for affirmation, even now, even here, was still just as unflinching as his lifelong need to face the bleakest truth without illusion, to confront the worst in himself or in the world.

Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro has published many poetry collections (including Reel to Reel, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Night of the Republic, finalist for both the National Book Award and the International Griffin Prize), 4 books of prose, including The Last Happy Occasion, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award, LA Times Book Prize, an award in literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, he is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His new book, Against Translation, will appear in March, 2019.
Alan Shapiro

Author: Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro has published many poetry collections (including Reel to Reel, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Night of the Republic, finalist for both the National Book Award and the International Griffin Prize), 4 books of prose, including The Last Happy Occasion, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award, LA Times Book Prize, an award in literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, he is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His new book, Against Translation, will appear in March, 2019.