In this collection of poems, Alan Shapiro looks unflinchingly at his brother David’s illness and death from brain cancer in 1998. David was an actor and a "song and dance" man on Broadway, hence the title and the frequent allusion to songs and show business. The poems trace an arc from the two boys’ childhood, when they dance together lip-syncing to Ethel Merman’s "There’s No Business Like Show Business" ("Everything the Traffic Will Allow," p. 1) through the diagnosis of brain tumor ("Sleet," p. 8) to the poet’s "Last Impressions" after his brother’s death (p. 57).

The everyday, ordinary world bursts its seams as the poet sits in a radiology waiting room waiting for his brother to return from his "Scan" (p. 10) The poet tries to watch a basketball game on TV, but "soon as my brother’s name / was called" a woman sitting next to him begins to tell the story of her husband, who has turned into "a well trained zombie." Soon his brother David moves toward zombie-hood as well. In "The Phone Call" (p. 23), he listens to "the mangled speech, aphasic / pratfalls halfway through the / sentences . . . " that tells him "you can’t imagine it at all."

But brain damage doesn’t mean the loss of wisdom. In "The Last Scene" (p. 33) the poet sits beside his dying brother, who bestirs himself from somnolence to ask, "Do you think / you have a / problem?" "Look at yourself," he says, "how you sit here / drinking all alone."

David dies without missing a beat, according to the script, but his brother loses his place in the text; he simply doesn’t know his lines. In the beautiful "Broadway Revival" (p. 43), he concludes, "I play / the brother / who doesn’t know his lines, / and you the actor / who waits there in the wings, / who holds the script, / who knows it all / by heart and / will not say."


Alan Shapiro is a champion of Negative Capability who accepts and embraces ambiguity. He resists interpretation and resolution. These poems illuminate, explore, and deepen, but they don’t provide any answers, not even the assurance of peace or the end of bereavement.

Shapiro is an excellent craftsman and tends to the formalist side. In these poems his formalism explodes into short, broken lines, often scattered across the page like life’s debris. Yet each line, each placement of each line, fits--and works. In essence, Song and Dance is a single poem, an extended meditation on love, identity, and death.


Houghton Mifflin

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