Rapid Reviews: Tantalus in Love (Mariner Books, 2005) by Alan Shapiro

Welcome back to Rapid Reviews! The premise is simple: Our lovely blog correspondent Henry Heidger pulls up to a bookstore, walks in, and has an hour to read and study a book of poetry selected randomly from the shelf. Then, he writes about it here.

Tantalus in Love explores the emotional abyss that is trenched when a loved one leaves. As the title indicates, the collection utilizes the Ancient Greek myth of Tantalus, a man who sacrificed his son, Pelops, as a banquet for the gods. Citing the gruesome nature of Tantalus’ sacrifice, the gods refuse his offering. For his punishment, he is forced to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low-hanging branches. However, the fruit eternally eludes his grasp, and the water recedes before he can drink from it.

The collection’s first poem, “Tantalus in Love,” is epic in scope, encompassing the breadth of a marriage. Shapiro’s writing style is reminiscent of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. His verse is marked by loose structure, ambiguous, even blurry structure. But marriage is similarly messy, especially in the period that leads up to a divorce. Shapiro raises powerful images and messages out of the loose structure: bits of dialogue between a wife and husband, domestic images, unfinished interjections.

“The nearness of it, the right / there too bright mocking / plentitude that leaps away / so teasingly each time…” His skewed syntax recalls John Berryman, yet his voice is very much his own. Here, Shapiro become Tantalus. His wife is likened to the fruit that Tantalus can never reach.

As the marriage disintegrates through the poem, the narrator becomes more skeptical, even retracting and correcting previous statements. “She just ignores it— / no, / “ignores” suggests too much / awareness— / how / she doesn’t / so much as realize / he’s there—…” This type of self-correction is used throughout with powerful effect.

Tantalus in Love is a journey that ends with rebirth. Shapiro’s demons (his divorce and the loss of his parents and siblings) are finally cast out, and a lovely lightness illuminates the final section of the collection.

In “Iris,” Shapiro writes, “The flower bends under the blossom’s / weight; it trembles, bending / it almost / seems / to hold it up, as if / to hold it there forever…” It is in several poems near the end that Shapiro let’s go, releases his past and moves into the light of the future.

At the collection’s end, Shapiro’s voice is heroic, daring, and triumphant. In “Sunflower,” the collection’s penultimate poem, Shapiro writes, “Say / there-is-nothing- / I-won’t-do-to-live.” Tantalus grasps the fruit; however, this time the fruit is not the past, not his marriage, not his parents. The fruit is the future and all it holds—a new phase of life.

Alan Shapiro is an American poet and professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He has authored nine books of poetry, winning a Kingsley Tufts Award for his collection The Dead Alive and Busy (2001).

Henry Heidger

Henry Heidger is a senior in high school from St. Louis, Missouri. He is a poet, writer, and critic. His work is forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic and The Scapegoat Review, and he is a cofounder of Young Poets of St. Louis. His favorite poets are Anne Carson, Owen Sheers, and John Berryman, and he plays the violin in his spare time. He writes the column "Rapid Reviews," which appears on the blog of The Adroit Journal monthly.

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