Lauren Shapiro’s second poetry collection, Arena (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2020), deals with a father’s attempted suicide and its traumatic aftereffects. These poems move back and forth between lyric and prose as the speaker seeks to bring out psychic truths—some deeply hidden and some hovering just beneath the surface. Shapiro’s talents center around her ability to write about the psyche using multiple poetic perspectives with a sense of artfulness. Shapiro is very conscious of image and metaphor in this collection and uses them to great effect. This collection also includes photographs that add another layer of sensory and artistic complexity to the poems. Arena is a good, mature second effort; it is a book that does not shy away from heavy truths, but rather, explores them and exposes them in profound ways.
“Lake Space” is the heart of the book; it is a poem written in multiple parts that directly confronts the psychic pain of the speaker as she tries to come to terms with her father’s suicide attempt. It is also a poem that contains some of the most complex lyrical moments. Here is a section of it:
so he was found
so he was committed
so they let him out
you are cured, they said
and sent him out
to where sunlight is an oppressive brick
and the people are mechanized
and happy just beetling around
to where life is a clump of dirt nestled in the bone
of a tree where a dog likes to shit
and each step takes you to the same plateau
and after that plateau there is another
and another just like it
this is the world, they say
this is the start, the way
congratulations, they say
In this part of the poem, the speaker uses compression and irony in the most heart-wrenching ways. In describing the events after the suicide attempt, the speaker says, “so he was found / so he was committed / so they let him out / you are cured, they said.” These poetic devices point to the speaker’s inability to give details, but also, the speaker’s mindfulness of how traumatic events are regarded by society. They are not seen as complex, but rather, a simple problem that can be solved by professionals. Also, the lyrical quality of the poem encapsulates the devastation of the traumatic moment as well as the false notion of what it means to be “cured.” Shapiro employs impactful metaphors as a way to expose psychic states: “where sunlight is an oppressive brick,” “where life is a clump of dirt nestled in the bone;” people are “mechanized” and are “happy just beetling around.” There is a masterful turn toward the end as Shapiro includes a series of statements from “they,” the supposed “healers” who are essentially faceless: “this is the world, they say / this is the start, they say / congratulations, they say.” Compression and irony are applied here again to intensify the problematic nature of what it means to receive mental healthcare in a society that is utterly dismissive of psychic trauma.
“The Workshop” is one of many prose poems in the collection. It addresses the speaker’s desire to confront how imagination is treated in the workshop setting. Here is the first part:
One student writes an intricate poem using a spider web
as a metaphor for a failed romantic relationship. Another
writes a political manifesto with line breaks. Three write
autobiographical narratives about childhood traumas.
I am also a student but when I turn in my imagined
historical encounter between Clara Burton and Florence
Nightingale the other students look at me and say, Write
what you know.
This poem addresses the idea of what it means to write authentically. The students, who are writing from personal experience, see the speaker as not being as “authentic” because she chooses to write from her imagination. The workshop participants fail to see that the imagination is also a vital component of personal expression; they chastise the speaker by saying “Write / what you know” as if their methods for writing about selfhood are more effective because they resist imaginative forms of expression. The speaker, wounded by this experience, responds:
Next week I turn in a poem about a poet
who is tired of other poets’ lousy personal narratives so
she brings in a gun and shoots all the poems in the chest
before taking the life of her own poem. The professor
calls campus security.
The professor makes the decision to exacerbate the situation rather than soothe it by calling in campus security. Once again, there is a failure to understand imaginative expression. When talking to the police officer, the speaker says “This isn’t about me…This is a failure of imagination.” However, this explanation is lost on him. In describing his office, the speaker observes:
His office is full of the usual detritus—framed
certificates of completion and honor, the college calendar,
an inspirational photo of skydivers. On his desk there
is a picture of his wife and two children. He sees
me looking at it and turns it away.
This poem exposes the insensitivity of the institutional setting and its inability to understand the imagination, one of the primary ways the psyche expresses itself. “The Workshop” astutely points out how creativity is often stifled and at times censored by institutions that claim to uphold it, but in reality fail to understand it, and therefore, end up destroying it. The speaker, rather than feeling affirmed in her creativity, is made to feel less-than and responds by confronting the group in a way that lands her in trouble with campus security, so that she is in fact picking up more trauma through the humiliation of being reported by her professor and then being harshly dismissed by the police officer.
Lauren Shapiro’s Arena is a valuable poetry collection because of the ways it navigates psychic trauma. In “Ocean Tree,” the speaker says, “I opened my arms / to touch the beautiful butterflies / as they landed like leaves coming back / to a dead tree. I was the tree.” These lines encapsulate the book as a whole in regards to how the speaker sees herself in relation to the natural and psychic world. She holds deep wounds, but is also full of wonder. In the concluding lines, she says, “I could only understand the present. / I can only understand the present.” Remaining in the present moment is vital to dealing with trauma because it is something that occurred in the past. Those who experience trauma tend to remain in the past, reliving painful experiences over and over again. Here, the speaker is looking for ways past trauma, past pain and suffering, by seeking to remain in the present moment. Shapiro, who excels at exploring the traumatized psychic state in imaginative ways, is a poet who is still in the process of sharpening her poetic skills. It will be interesting to see how her poetic talents continue to open up and unfold from here.
Originally published in The Literary Review, January 2021