Poets publish collections like this one when they are preparing how they want to be remembered. These little surveys of their careers allow them to create the image they hope will follow them when they cannot write anything new. Jane Shore has done a good job at that, charting her path from young poet to insightful elder with deft grace. She presents herself here as somebody well worth remembering.
Based now at George Washington University, Shore’s career , excerpted here, has taken her all over the contemporary American poetry map. Her earliest poems reflect the image-driven tone in Twentieth Century poetry. Verses like "The Lifeguard" and "Clock" present a world viewed through a lens of such unique content that she could not be mistaken for anyone else. Shore openly acknowledges her debt to Elizabeth Bishop in some poems, and lovingly quotes from Emily Dickinson and Randall Jarrell. Yet notice the casual intimacy of these lines from "Young Woman on the Flying Trapeze":
Shooting with his Bolex,
my father kept nature in perspective.
He caught the trapeze artist catching
his partner in midair, swinging
in and out of my line of sight.
I was five. In nightmares, the body
falls straight into the dreamer's eye;
he wakes before hitting bottom.
Did I blink then, did I glance away,
the moment that she tumbled
like an angel out of heaven?
I don't remember, but I saw her fall.
I particularly like how these opening lines to a much longer poem emphasize not only memory, but also the memory of memory. This duality, of self as observer of self, reflects the inner turmoil that accompanies modern Jewish life; that is, the knowledge of oneself as both a member of a community, and an outsider. Shore is at once joined with others, and separated, a divide that makes its way into many of her best poems.
Shore expands on this layered approach in her mid-career poems, which have a primarily autobiographical thrust. The memory of a Garment District childhood cantilevers images to recreate the tension between urban American life and Shore's Jewish heritage. Christianity permeates her poetry, like it does in our culture, making her innate difference a choice which she must make fresh every day, as in these lines from "The Holiday Season":
The electric eye of the mezuzah
guarded our apartment over the store,
as innocent of Christmas
as heaven, where God lived,
how many stories above the world?
Was He angry when He saw
all the windows on my street—
the assimilated grocer's, druggist's,
even my father's store—
lit up like an Advent calendar?
I enjoy Shore's early and mid-career poems, but I have to admit, in a poetry market that has more writers than readers, not much makes these conventional verses stand out from the crowd. Beyond a doubt, the best poems in this book are the most recent. I can't excerpt from these poems like from her prior career stages, because they have a very different structure. And that's what makes them most readable.
Shore's newest poems tend to start in a light, conversational tone, as though surprised to find themselves forced into verse format. But as they progress, they ascend into higher, more incisive language that, in the closing lines, takes the reader by surprise. Shore's "big finish" generally consists of subverting our expectations, or juxtaposing two unexpected truths, or just saying what we need to hear in a way only Jane Shore could say it.
These progressions through the author’s stages are driven by subtle, concise image. When Shore talks about, for example, her beloved Chatty Cathy doll, which demands to be fed, but which she must not feed, she never has to say the word “futility.” The knowledge of her doomed actions permeates every image she draws out. And when Shore’s childhood recollection gives into that futility, we feel her sense of disappointment keenly, without ever needing to be told.
Thirty-five years after her first book, Shore has a robust career to look back on. Her highlight book, though slim, contains no useless or ornamental poems. She probably will not receive the recognition she deserves, in a society grown indifferent to poetry. So perhaps I can pay her no greater compliment than to say that reading this book inspired me to get up off my dusty sofa and write some new poetry of my own. I hope it lives up to the high standard she sets.