Afterglow: An Appreciation of Robert B. Shaw’s What Remains to Be Said

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A volume of “Selected” poems can be a way for a poet, long working in the fields of the Muses, with an eye on the flat surface of the page, the lines underfoot, to climb a hill and get a clearer view of the work. And it is a way to shape that work by framing the view: letting some things drop away and bringing others to the fore. For readers, a “Selected” represents both an overview and a convenience—an assurance that we have the greatest hits at the ready in one handy volume. Individual collections, even if they have won prizes, have a way of becoming ephemeral, of dropping out of print and critical attention within a year or two. A “Selected,” which is to say a poet’s anthology of their own work, aims to dig in its heels.

Just such a taking stock is Robert B. Shaw’s (the “B” stands for Burns—a distant poetic relation) What Remains to be Said: New and Selected Poems: spanning 45 plus years, from his 1977 collection, Comforting the Wilderness, through his 2016 A Late Spring, and After, along with a generous sheaf, 28 in all, of newer uncollected poems from 2020-2021. Many themes and subjects repeat: the melancholic “Boston Dinner Party” that begins his first book, with its aged hostess and polished generational silver, casts long shadows into other rooms and dinners with other polished silver, the particulate darkness “like fine ash” showing up again in “Dusk” (2011), where a child imagines that dusk and dust are somehow related, darkness “a host of milling motes.”

From Shaw’s debut and throughout his work, longer blank verse narratives (sometimes haunted with the mirroring longueurs of age and childhood, other times simmering with darker suggestions of desperation or violence) are leavened with shorter lyrics on the passage of time, and still lifes, sometimes playfully in the voice of the object or concept itself—whether it be a gargoyle, a bookmark, or a contagious yawn. Often these shorter object poems appear in a suite: “Library Gnomes” includes a brief poem for the card catalogue and the date stamp; “Chronometrics” explores different kinds of clocks, from digital to hourglass to Grandfather; it ends on the “Sundial,” which I quote in its entirety:

Bent-headed one, can it be time to linger
               watching my gnomon trace
the daylight’s path with one black, pointed finger
               while soldered to one place?

Having become a shade you will not cast
               a shadow you can see:
rove in your three dimensions while they last,
               and leave the fourth to me.

As with many of these poems, “Sundial” could work, sans title, equally well as a riddle, if “gnomon” did not tend to conspicuously give the game away. Clocks and shadows, shades and reflections, are among Shaw’s favorite imagery, and appear again and again throughout these poems, doubling and redoubling like an infinite regression of mirrors. “Chronometrics” is a reminder too that Shaw, the author of a book on Donne and Herbert, has a scholarly stake in the Metaphysical poets and knows his way around a metaphor. (For me, “Bent-headed” also somehow also manages to obliquely nod to Blake’s sunflower.) “Gnomon,” the technically correct term for the vertical “hand” (or nose, perhaps, as Shaw describes it in another sundial poem, “Sundial in the Rain”) of the sundial, comes from the Greek for “one who knows or discerns” via the ancient word for carpenter’s square—and contrasts, with its silent, swallowed “g” and long vowels, with the plainer language of the poem, casting its own shadow. (One is also put in mind of those library “gnomes.”) The meter too is marshalled to the poem’s purpose, more regularly ticking over in the first stanza, and hastening a little in the second with those initial trochees, “Having become” “rove in your three dimensions,” while the whole poem ends in five laconic monosyllables. It’s a relatively slight poem, part, as I mention, of a suite, but indicative of the skill and solid accomplishment everywhere evident in the whole.

In many of the longer-limbed poems, Shaw’s voice is recognizable by a pleasing prosiness, by which I don’t mean anything lax or prolix, but the illusion of an everyday cadence of speech and tangents of thought, in wry asides, self-corrections, second guesses, caveats and elaborations. Shaw’s talent for description, his willingness to unspool his thoughts without haste, lends itself to the ekphrastic, and can be especially effective for art works we think we know well. Consider, among the new poems, “Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man” :

Standing within a square that overlaps
a circle, but is mostly framed within it,
with his four arms and four legs fully stretched
to reach the boundaries of both square and circle,
he’s bound to look, as Huckleberry Finn
remarked about another figure drawing,
a little “spidery.”

The juxtaposition of Da Vinci’s idealized figure with Emmeline Granger’s bathetic drawings (with those palimpsests of extra ghostly arms) surprises us and tweaks us out of pious habits of admiration. Shaw continues:

Speaking of curiosity, why is it
so little has been said about the face
of this protagonist who, one might think,
should prize the perfect fit of his surroundings?

Looking for a smile of “dominance or triumph,” what Shaw finds instead is “manifest ill temper.”

He looks, in fact, like Thomas Jefferson
having a bad day.

I snorted aloud at this: a quick glance will show you this is spot on. But what seems like a digression is preparation for an unexpected close:

This hinge of history that haunts a gazer,
this mighty stab at putting Man (any man)
at the center of this bleeding world of ours—
how well has that been working out for us
throughout five centuries and counting? Tell me.

It certainly makes sense to use Vitruvian Man as a way of questioning the project of humanism, but Shaw has kept us so casually off kilter through the poem by our focus on the image’s particulars, and his own idiosyncratic observations of these particulars, that the sweep of the ending pulls us up short.

I found myself thinking a lot about taxonomies of endings as I perused this half-century span of work. Almost all the options are on display: the clever yet reverberating pun, the tidy chiming couplet, the radical departure, the dying fall, the triumphant chord, the admonition, the juxtaposed quotation, the wandering off, the close up of a particular image, the fade out, the rhetorical question, the refrain. Perhaps this is true of most poets over time (this is something I now will be reading with more attention to), but I think what struck me about these variations in Shaw’s work was that I only rarely had a correct adumbration of what kind of ending would conclude which sort of poem, unless in a form that telescoped its sign off from the get-go, as an Elizabethan sonnet or a villanelle. Take, for instance, the resonating pun. Rhymed poems are fertile for this, of course—the rhyme adding to the reason and resonance. But one does not expect it in a longer prose poem in sections, one that simply and harrowing describes “What Happened,” about the dying of the poet’s wife in Hospice care at home, a poem with simple declarative sentences such as, “The undertaker arrived. Tony took me out in the backyard until we heard his van going down the driveway” etc. We are unprepared, then, for a concluding pun, its hollow and harrowing paradox:

The same man came back the next day to reclaim the bed. After he wheeled it out, and also collected the oxygen tank and the other things—all this in a matter of fifteen minutes—I stood and looked at the bare stretch of floor, and wondered if it would ever sound right to me, after this, to call it the living room.

There is also of course the ending that delights or moves by its happily achieved aptness. I would be hard put to find a more charming topsy turvy ars poetica than “The End of the Sonnet,” which begins where the poet fails: “A word was missing from his fourteenth line.” The sonneteer of the poem mulls over several fusty nineteenth century solutions—if only “cattle still were kine” or you could still spell “over” “o’er”—only to be interrupted in his musings by having to get his daughter’s kitten out of a tree. The poem and the problem are solved in the same eucatastrophic swoop:

He got it down. His daughter’s satisfaction
was ample, quick, and real. His forearm stung
with scratches, but his brain hummed with a word
found on a high branch, fathered by distraction.

The battle of a new poet is to find their own sound, and to discover successful strategies of poem making. A mid-career poet strives to hone technique and perhaps to expand on ambition, to conquer new forms or subject matter or scope. But a mature poet, in later career, has the not inconsiderable problem of not covering the exact same ground in the same way: the anxiety of influence comes home to roost in the poet’s own backyard. Which isn’t to say the same subjects cannot be explored, over and over, but they must come from some new angle or awareness so as to elicit the little shock of surprise and delayed recognition—to reader and to writer, as Frost reminds us—that good poems happen upon.

Certainly there are kinds of poems here that bear a strong family resemblance. Several blank verse meditations describe the inner lives of thoughtful, lonely children—often, the boredom turns out to be hovering uneasily above something darker (dissolving marriage, domestic violence, or simply lives of quiet frustrated ambition among the adults around them, for instance.) In a sort of flipped way, there are also several poems where the speaker imagines the lives going on inside out-of-the-way houses—or in one case a church—he drives or passes by—inhabited, perhaps, by bored children on the fringes of tragic events. New England vignettes, landscapes, and portraits call up Shaw’s mentors, influences, and literary neighbors, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman—in hues of both New England Protestantism and Transcendentalism.

The one subject that is guaranteed to accrue or to acquire new facets in a poet’s experience over time is loss. In Shaw’s case, two heavy losses, the deaths first of his mother, and second and more devastatingly, his beloved wife, are sorrows at the heart of his 2016 collection, Late Spring, and After, and find their expression in several strong newer poems, with the fine lyric, “The Loss of the Joy of Cooking,” the poem of Shaw’s I would say is most secure of a place in the anthologies. The loss of a book of recipes proves the loss of a choreography of cooking and living, a couple’s pas de deux, a lost appetite for life and the flavor of things. The speaker makes do with halving a half-remembered recipe. The hacked-up onion falters as its “fund of hoarded tears / dissolves.” The ending is in that flat key of plain yet freighted statement:

The book is missing. Even if it’s found
and followed to the letter, there will still
be loss, the unlisted ingredient,
throwing the best efforts out of balance.
It bakes itself into what’s left of life.
The cold plate waits. Nothing now tastes the same.

An even newer poem about loss, Lacrimae Rerum, proves, as Mark Jarman points out in his astute blurb, a key poem of the collection. The poet, perusing a catalogue of “vintage volumes of poetry” sees that the book seller has described one book “by someone I once knew” with the phrase “small tears.” These are, it turns out, small rips in the dust jacket, but the poet reads it as tears (rhyming with years) instead of tears (rhyming with cares), and remembers the Virgilian phrase, “lacrimae rerum,” the tears of things. In a homonym not available to Latin, tears and tears seem one and the same thing, a comment on the fragility and mortality of things and of people. The phrase occurs, I believe, more than once in the collection—although I am now hard pressed to find the other examples—tears, anyway, percolate through it, in their way, whether as the sputtering of onions or in a poem such as “Lachrymatory.” (I would say if I have one criticism about this book it is the lack of an index of titles and first lines.)

Shaw, though not a Classicist by training himself, was taught by the renowned poet, classicist, and translator Robert Fitzgerald at Harvard; Shaw’s first book is dedicated to him. One suspects that Shaw is familiar not only with “lacrimae rerum” as a Virgilian tag, but has encountered it in its original context, where it occurs in book one of the Aeneid. The widower Aeneas, washed up in Carthage, is perusing the temple of Juno there with its vivid frieze that depicts the suffering of his fellow Trojans. (Juno, we remember, was on the side of the Greeks.) He is moved by the suffering in human events by a work of art when we encounter the famous line:

Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

In the translation of Robert Fitzgerald, “They weep here / For how the world goes, and our life that passes / Touches their hearts.”

There immediately follows a 30-line ekphrasis of that artwork, a reminder of similar topoi in Classical literature, such as the Shield of Achilles in the Iliad. I digress, but digression and ekphrasis is the way by which Shaw makes his larger poems.

The center of the book’s gravity is taken up by Shaw’s major work, The Post Office Murals Restored, a blank verse ekphrastic persona poem of over 300 lines which describes, from the point of view of the restorer, the eponymous murals. The anonymous restorer is cleaning up a piece of large-scale public art “earnest, public-minded 30s stuff,” with its optimistic propaganda of small-town America’s agriculture and industry, set in the Post Office’s secular cathedral. Beyond these two features, the muralist has depicted the town’s history, and prehistory, as the town itself likes to think of it, a “wholesome” picture of trade with the Native Americans that first inhabited the land, in “unbroken wilderness” that has since been “axed,” and a “night arrival at a station/ of the Underground railroad,” though “These Blacks are in every sense just passing through” (to Canada). As the restorer wryly remarks, “There are no Blacks in town now that I know of. / (Nor, you’ll be thinking, any Indians. Right.)”

The conclusion of the poem finds the restorer mulling over the difference between the image of this All-American small town (Americana standing in for America) and the reality, as when the muralist surely omits Depression-era images of homelessness in the town square. The Restorer decides this is “not a genteel aversion to the worst / sores and unrest a nation had to show / but a belief that they would not be lasting, / a flash of confidence.” Then immediately asks, “Why can’t we share it?” The tension between the optimism of the muralist and the realism of the Restorer results, I would say, in a Virgilian pessimism. The poem holds both the ideal and its limitations, the bright hues and “the smudge of squandered opportunity.”

“Too much has happened since those old hard times,” the Restorer says, “Three wars and fifty-odd Memorial Days.” We are at even a further distance—nearly 30 years on from the poem’s publication in 1994, we have at least two more wars under our collective belt, and an erstwhile unthinkable capitol insurrection. Is not now the Post Office itself—surely among the most respected and beloved US government institutions–under threat? So much more dirt and dinginess has settled on America’s image of itself, it might take more than a Restorer with soap and a Q-Tip to brighten the picturesque scenes. Which is my way of saying—the poem holds up, in a future beyond the moment of its making, and has only gained in import and gravitas.

Contemporary American formalism, of which Shaw might be described as an adherent—I won’t call it “new formalism” here, which suggests some sort of fracture with the past—has its tendencies and formal preferences. Sonnets are big, and villanelles eternally popular, but they are thankfully rare in this book. Instead, we get a host of stanza forms. Rhymed quatrains, straight ABAB and envelope-rhymed, in a variety of meters, are common enough, and there is a generous sprinkling of baroque and nonce patterns.

There are also generative forays into syllabic stanzas, such as “The Odometer,” which narrates the moment when a secondhand Chrysler’s odometer is about to kick over from 99,999 to a “Hundred Thousand.” This event also drives a tense family narrative. The father/driver is determined the children should pay attention to this historic moment, but instead, the odometer produces the King Learish “zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,” leaving the children unimpressed, and the mother thinking ominous thoughts about journeys that go nowhere. The stanzas appear to be in lines of 12/11/8/10 syllables (with a very occasional exception), a kind of syllabic variation on Alcaics—American Alcaics? The effect of the syllabics is to get away from the music of iambic pentameter to other kinds of speech rhythms, emphatically flat and unmusical (the string of trochaic “zero”s aside)—like the disappointingly prosaic turning over of the odometer itself, and the poem’s concluding dissatisfaction:

Up front, gripping the wheel a little tighter, their
father thought, Another couple thousand, and
               this heap gets traded. Their mother
felt rather than thought, Some things go too far

to think about starting over again, and soon
nobody noticed the no-longer magical
               numbers running, the children now
muffled by a candybar split three ways.

I should add here that Shaw, though skilled at syllabics and an expert blank verser—after all, he literally wrote the book (Blank Verse: A Guide to its History and Use)—is also a nimble and clever rhymer. Some rhymes I have underlined in the book include “portucullis” / “annul us” and “splurge” / “thaumaturge.” Couplets, too, where rhymes joyfully rub shoulders, make their appearance, most pleasurably in Ogden Nashian doggerel, in “Questions About Elizabeth Bishop’s Clavichord”.

Was it bedecked with marquetry,
grinning with choicest ivory,

in short, the classiest keyboard
on the Eastern seaboard?

Or was it modester, a mere
well-tempered clavier

the poem muses, off kilter, until concluding on soberer heroic couplets with verse that is less light than enlightened:

Distempered thus from hammering overmuch,
does it, like us, lament her lighter touch

too rare in any art this noisy while
since she departed with her pliant style,

leaving to blunter hands not only these
but her beloved ABC-clad keys

each note there too struck silvery and sure
so that her work, our wonder, both endure?

This elegant etude on Elizabeth Bishop’s clavichord proves, of course, to be more generally about the poet’s instrument and our appreciation of it.

A poem about the poet’s wishes for his own poems comes from the section of new poems, where, in “Postscript Ahead of Time,” Shaw declares that “Pages mount up,” and concludes “What I write now, let them say then. / And let the last word be Amen.” It’s a slight piece (one of a handful I might have omitted), with which Shaw wisely does not end What Remains to be Said. Rather, the volume is bookended so that it opens on the recent “Morning Song,” which starts “The songs I wake to hear / are songs unbound to words,” and closes on “Winter Sunset” (in the same trimeter quatrains—one could read these as halves of one poem). In between, perhaps, lies a sort of Marvellian “long love’s day” of work and craftsmanship. “Winter Sunset” closes with the poet’s (and the book’s) own modest bid for a well-tempered posterity of wonder and endurance:

I’d say this landscape frames
hints of how best to go.
Others may crash in flames.
My goal is afterglow.