Friday, November 17, 2006

Old Joke by Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro starts this poem off in a grand and classic style: with a call to the god Apollo, complete with lyre and plectrum (plectrum?), but he's only setting us up for a fall. In the sixth stanza, we plummet from the realm of gods and goddesses down to, well, a bathroom, where some very personal, and very human, flaws are on display--the gods' old joke on us. Thankfully, Shapiro isn't done. Even while casting us in such embarrassing light, he champions us--looking up from the tiled floor to, at the very least, shout back.



Old Joke
by Alan Shapiro

Radiant child of Leto, far working Lord Apollo,
with lyre in hand and golden plectrum, you sang to the gods
on Mount Olympus almost as soon as you were born.

You sang, and the Muses sang in answer, and together
your voices so delighted all your deathless elders
that their perfect happiness was made more perfect still.

What was it, though, that overwhelmed them, that suffused,
astonished, even the endless aether? Was it the freshest,
most wonderful stops of breath, the flawless intervals

and scales whose harmonies were mimicking in sound
the beauty of the gods themselves, or what you joined
to that, what you were singing of, our balked desires,

the miseries we suffer at your indifferent hands,
devastation, and bereavement, old age and death?
Far working, radiant child, what do you know about us?

Here is my father, half blind, and palsied, at the toilet,
he's shouting at his penis, Piss, you! Piss! Piss!
but the penis (like the heavenly host to mortal prayers)

is deaf and dumb; here, too, my mother with her bad knee,
on the eve of surgery, hobbling by the bathroom,
pausing, saying, who are you talking to in there?

and he replies, no one you would know, sweetheart.
Supernal one, in your untested mastery,
your easy excellence, with nothing to overcome,

and needing nothing but the most calamitous
and abject stories to prove how powerful you are,
how truly free, watch them as they laugh so briefly,

godlike, better than gods, if only for a moment
in which what goes wrong is converted to a rightness,
if only because now she's hobbling back to bed

where she won't sleep, if only because he pees at last,
missing the bowl, and has to get down on his knees
to wipe it up. You don't know anything about us.


Alan Shapiro is the author of eight books of poetry. He teaches at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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