Easy Math: Poems, Lauren Shapiro, Sarabande Books (Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry), pp. 65, $14.95, February 2013.
Reading Easy Math by Lauren Shapiro is like being invited to an outrageous party where “the only escape/is realizing you’re already there.” It’s a come-as-you-are party, so readers are encouraged to show up with tousled hair, wearing their flip-flops and shower towels, or pajamas and ratty cardigans with tissues spilling from their pockets. Pink curlers optional.
The guest list will surprise you. There’s you, of course, even though you won’t remember being invited once the speaker throws open the door, a little breathless, and says, “I have been away for some time./ I don’t speak this language anymore. / Please teach me.” The speaker, you soon realize, is the alter ego of your host, Lauren Shapiro, who has written the kind of breakout first book that any poet, emerging or otherwise, should be ecstatic to have written. Her speaker, however, is more preoccupied with stuffed animals, among other things, including but not limited to the beautiful absurdity of the universe.
The speaker tells you straightaway, “A hundred stuffed animals/ the size of a fist and I can’t make the claw catch.” You nod. You like her already. Later, she says, “Saturday I’m at the carnival, which means/ I’ll have another stupid chance/ to win that giant panda I couldn’t win/ in fifth grade for Stephanie St. Clare.” You relate to this impulse—the desire we all have to rectify the clumsy shortcomings of the past. But later, when you hear her refer to “The stuffed panda with the bikini/ [she] didn’t win at the fair last weekend,” you’ll wonder exactly how long exactly you’ve been at this party, and then you’ll realize you don’t care. The important thing is that you have no intention of leaving.
Things start to get truly surreal when you discover who else is in attendance. For starters, there’s the Australian painter Dale Hickey, with whom the speaker purports to spend a lot of time hanging out at bowling alleys.
There’s Martha Stewart, but when you get a little closer, you realize it’s not the actual Martha Stewart, but her namesake rose. Now what you overheard in the garden makes more sense:
________Martha Stewart opens up her petals
like a cup of tea in the jungle. The delicate dog takes
a delicate piss. The quadriplegic smells Martha Stewart.
I smell her. A line starts. Even the infant wants a go.
Nostradamus is there, of course, because what’s a party without Nostradamus? His mind grew cloudy with the weight of his perceptions in a manner with which he was all too familiar.”
You take some other inventory of this enigmatic scene: “all the posters/ [a]re of Homer Simpson smoking dope.” Curious. “I’m not that innocent, sings Britney. / Baby, Baby, Baby, sings R. Kelly.” And who let in that know-it-all, “little orphan Annie on a soapbox”?
The speaker’s grandmother “walks into the room/with a bowl of sucker candies. / Isaac Newton is on the lam again, she says.” And because this is the kind of fine-tuned, madcap, neosurrealist writing that it is, you know once Isaac Newton has been mentioned, he’s sure to show up. When he does, you never take your eyes off him. You listen intently: “I can’t be found out, he says. / He is very hypochondriacal.” You like the word “hypochondriacal” and appreciate especially that it appears in a poem with other words you like, including but not limited to “bereft,” “fairytale,” “pineapple,” and the mouth-watering phrase, “sucker candies.”
Passing through to the patio where a barbecue is underway, you hear the speaker whisper to someone you can’t see, or maybe to no one in particular, “She’s pregnant/ again. I could have sworn/ she had her tubes tied.” You laugh because she’s funny like that, candid and incisive as hell. But the speaker turns to you and says, “Just let it go./ Just eat it,/ it tastes like chicken.” She points to a man you noticed earlier, whose name might be Greg: “I shoved his tie in the air vent. / Don’t tell.”
Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton arrive separately but leave together, “holding their skirts up out of the mud.” It tickles you to observe their matter-of-fact flirtations.
St. Augustine makes a brief cameo—just long enough to invent the Just War Theory. Lindsay Lohan is there, but in headline only. General Tso is there, but in chicken only. Hans Christian Andersen inspires the speaker’s striking realization “that there is a tiny world in each pore of the universe/ populated by tiny people who also dream/ of larger realities.”
The TV is on in the background almost the whole time, not as a distraction so much as a running sounding board. The speaker mentions it only in passing: “Television/ reminds me of a math problem/ I got wrong on the SAT.” You relate to this feeling and feel especially implicated when “Kathy says, / can’t you just enjoy it for once?” Who says you aren’t enjoying it? You were just talking with someone in the den about
_____the finale of Weeds in which
another hysterical woman blames herself
for sucking up tragedy through a straw.
It’s a beautiful and intriguing straw,
even psychedelic. Likewise, the commercial
shows a woman escaping with a blindfold
in the back of a minivan, which is like burrowing
into a locker in the gym.
Popular culture under scrutiny of the right mind has been known to result in some killer insights: “Thing is, most of the time no one’s looking, which is both a relief and cause for further paranoia—/ no one can hear you fall like a tree in a forest/ of trees with no ears. What were you doing/ in a forest anyway, bro?” Good question. And it all started with the Weeds finale and that commercial about the mini-van.
Someone sighs, “I don the hard hat/ and the ski mask only to find/ it’s not a costume party after all.”
That’s OK, you say, and you have a tremendous urge to repeat what you’ve heard now, so you slap the stranger on the back and offer, “Thing is, most of the time no one’s looking.”
The party should be winding down by now, you think, but Joan Rivers walks in, flashy and overdone as usual, and the speaker says, “Nothing Is More Beautiful When You Try to Make It that Way, Joan Rivers,” her voice in all capital letters just like a headline or the title of a poem.
Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs and Al Gore all get a mention, and the parakeets sing a Bob Marley song. You realize that a lot of legends, living and dead, are here in spirit.
You should be tired at the end, but instead you feel exhilarated. This party has punch—strong punch, like the stuff of these poems. It packs a wallop. You thank the host for what you can only describe as an experience not unlike a multi-valent, multi-vocal, multi-dimensional game of Words with Friends.
“Who isn’t looking for the intricate equation of the universe/ in CliffsNotes?” the speaker says. She’s being sincere, not snarky. You realize she empathizes with the Cosmic Predicament.
And “as [you] walk home […], the world looks like a Brueghel painting and all the trees/ are sending off beautiful/ little equations into the air.”