Anything But: A Review of Lauren Shapiro’s Easy Math

Easy Math, by Lauren Shapiro, Sarabande Books, 2013, 64 pages. ISBN: 978-1-936747-48-1

            “Easy math” implies math with minimal thought – the multiplication tables you memorize, the formulas where you just plug something in for “x.” “Easy math” gives you the answers you anticipate. But read any one poem from Lauren Shapiro’s Easy Math and it’s clear you’re in for something else entirely: the book opens with “The Conversation” – a poem which finds an exasperated speaker at a bowling alley with an Australian minimalist, watching a woman stuck in an infinite loop of eating sandwiches. (“I’ve wanted to talk to you for ages, she says, / but instead I keep eating all these sandwiches.”) This is what you’re in for with Easy Math. It’s bizarre. It’s funny. It never adds up the way you expect.

            The poems in Shapiro’s first full-length collection demonstrate, perhaps above all else, their author’s keen eye for the absurd. With the volume and range of places where she finds this absurdity, Shapiro suggests that there’s plenty of it to be found, even in circumstances masquerading as mundane. Her poem “Botanical Garden,” for example, opens with a wry observation – “Of course there’s a rose named Martha Stewart” – and unfolds to reveal the darkly humorous, more unsettling layers of an otherwise pastoral scene:

            … The children, too, playing in the corner –
            they don’t know it, but they’re talking about Iraq.

            The sun is setting. 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.

Similar poems cast the same shrewd eye on the beast of celebrity (‘Photo Op”), the saccharine drivel of the greeting card industry (“Hallmark Aisle”), the umbilical cord forming between man and machine (“The Machine”). Each piece dives into the pocket of some contemporary condition and turns it fully inside out, forcing us to claim what is ours. The result is often the reader’s discomfort, and therein lies the key to much of the book’s humor: we laugh because we are made to see that we are ridiculous – and perhaps because laughter is a kinder response than some of the alternatives.

            At times Shapiro crafts absurdity herself, combining the familiar in surreal ways to see what sort of truth emerges. Consider “The Encounter,” in which Flora Nightingale and Clara Bow meet on top of a hill and wind up with a dinner date; out of this impossible scene emerges a very real meditation on love as an act of vulnerability as senseless as violence yet inevitable in the face of it. In “A Strange Thing Happened on March 8th,” a subtler sense of unreality pervades the moment in which a speaker reassures a young boy that the death of a lake and all its ecosystems over twenty-four hours has no greater meaning beyond itself, pushing the reader to examine how we understand humanity’s role in the natural world and how we translate that understanding for those on the precipice of inheriting it. Sarabande Books’s blurb for Easy Math likens Shapiro’s poems to fables, and in poems like these, the comparison rings true. Shapiro has embraced the potential of poetry-as-thought-experiment, and the results juggle playfulness and insight in equal measure. 

            In one of the collection’s standouts, “According to the Magazines, Lindsay Lohan Is Very Lonely These Days” Shapiro writes: “Not knowing / where to sit or who to talk to at the barbecue, / I choose the roof.” It’s an apt image for the vantage point of Easy Math; among all the raw strangeness, there’s a distance to the poet’s scrutiny despite her refusal to flinch at what she finds. Shapiro’s language is more cerebral than sensory, more worldly than intimate; a first-person speaker surfaces in many of her meditative lyric poems, but the “I” feels more like the vessel for the musings that form the key content of the poem rather than like part of the content itself. As a result of this intellectualization, the poems examine the world more than engage in it, and so the book compels the reader to examine the poems more than inhabit them.

            But perhaps, too, some measure of distance is necessary to see what Shapiro wishes to show us; perhaps only from the roof can you see the big picture. And the big picture is not entirely grim. Shapiro’s sardonic whirlwind does, occasionally, slow down to find an uneasy peace with the world. She is wise enough to recognize that “we’ve lived in the snow and the ice for so long / that when the crocuses come we turn our heads,” (“So Much Beauty from Despair”) and self-aware enough to count herself among those standing in the cold. By the book’s final section, poems like “A Tediously Slow Realization” open a bit to the possibility of something lovely – comical, and lovely – amid the senseless:

            … Internet, I don’t hate you.
            America, I don’t hate you. I never wanted it
            but now I wipe my forehead with your bandanna.
            Aw hell. It smells sweeter than I would have thought.

            Ultimately, there may be truth in Shapiro’s suspicion that “the algorithm / of finding solace is the algorithm of rejecting / such algorithms in the first place” (“According to the Magazines, Lindsay Lohan is Very Lonely These Days”); if there’s anything simple or real to be found, it may exist beyond the scope of the tools we’ve developed to find it. But what makes Easy Math refreshing is its refusal to give up on parsing meaning from that which defies it, despite just how easy that task isn’t. The poet’s willingness to wrestle humor and vision from such unwieldy numerals, broken formulas, and answers that are often further questions in disguise – that is what makes this book an easy “yes.”

—Emily Grise