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How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems

How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems

by Harvey Shapiro

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With enormous wit and vitality, Harvey Shapiro's new collection of poems focuses on the approach of death, mingling canny observations of the city that never sleeps with homages to Hart Crane, George Oppen, the poet Rachel, and David Ignatow. Characterized by its focus on the urban world of New York, the Jewish tradition, and domesticity, Shapiro's poetry achieves


With enormous wit and vitality, Harvey Shapiro's new collection of poems focuses on the approach of death, mingling canny observations of the city that never sleeps with homages to Hart Crane, George Oppen, the poet Rachel, and David Ignatow. Characterized by its focus on the urban world of New York, the Jewish tradition, and domesticity, Shapiro's poetry achieves a distinctive brilliance and true wisdom. These poems view life from the vantage of seventy-six years, deeply informed by the serious study of literature and language and always attuned to the present, as well as to the body, weather, and sex. With its passion, humor, and rich detail, this exquisite volume marks Harvey Shapiro's finest work to date.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Though his subjects range from aging to Judaism, Harvey Shapiro here proves to be foremost a New York poet, one who evokes the city’s neighborhood landmarks and native traditions in spontaneous, snapshotlike montages . . . But for Shapiro, the great poetry about New York is just as integral to the city as any store or street . . . poets like Frank O’Hara, David Ignatow, and George Oppen appear as both subject . . . and a seeming influence on Shapiro’s talky, improvisatory voice and lines driven by unpredictable, energizing enjambment.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Several decades of curt and understated verse, devoted at once to his native New York City, to the literary forebears he admires, and to a gruff, self-consciously masculine sound, dominated Shapiro’s 1997 Selected Poems, also from Wesleyan. This new collection shows the poet sadder and more reflective, but essentially unchanged . . . several [poems] work well as reflections on a long life, and plenty include well-made and humbled stanzas.”—Publishers Weekly

Product Details

Wesleyan University Press
Publication date:
Wesleyan Poetry Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.34(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    Brooklyn Snaps

Another gaudy spring in Brooklyn's Botanic Garden.
Under the heavy-laden cherry trees
the scattered families sit, so
many Japanese among them, I think
the trees bend low to catch the talk.

The sky itself is a painterly blessing,
a pale wash of blue
with delicate white clouds.
So is the red brick of the low houses.

Blessings on the traffic cop who says
"Move your vehicle, sir" to her double-
parked black brother. How the ancient
words ring out on the Brooklyn street.

Watching the perps and the cops and the lawyers
on Court Street enter the Supreme Court, State of New
Maybe the ugliest building in the borough,
massive concrete bunker with slits for windows,
uglier than the jail on Atlantic Avenue,
only a few blocks south.
Stalin would have loved it.
Still, the juries I've sat on there
have delivered justice. And the open square
leading to it catches the December sun
brilliantly in the morning,
gilding the green benches—if you have
the time and money to enjoy it.

A black queen
approaches my car
at the corner of Atlantic and Henry.
"I need $100,000
to help me pick up
the pieces of my life."
A shrug, moves off.

A hot haze envelops the city.
Even the buildings seem worn out,
their windows sag. On a bench
in Fulton Ferry Park
an elderly gent sits, killing time.
Yesterday he was young and hopeful.
Tomorrow he might be dead.
In the meantime, he looks at the East River.

All his life, he sat on a roof in Brooklyn
as on the deck of an ocean liner. He thinks,
though his voyage was brief, it was sweet.

They lift the Chinese delivery boy
from his shattered bicycle.
The Vietnamese taxi driver
stands in the rain, sucking
on a cigarette. White cops
take it all down.

A very trim green and white
Circle Line boat passing under
the Brooklyn Bridge. It's nice
to see the multitude on board
enjoying the sun and scenery.
Manhattan is my favorite island,
seen from this shore. These days
when I see it in sparkling sun
I think of the poems of Schuyler and O'Hara
as I used to think of Reznikoff and Crane.
Yesterday I saw a man land
a two-pound striper on the pier near
the Bridge. A noble fish. But the fisherman,
speaking in an accent I couldn't place,
told me the Russians were killing all
the fish, big and small. They take
babies, he complained. I figured he meant
off Brighton Beach, not Vladivostock.
Dandelions and lilacs are out in Fulton Ferry Park.

    New York Notes

Caught on a side street
in heavy traffic, I said
to the cabbie, I should
have walked. He replied,
I should have been a doctor.

When can I get on the 11:33
I ask the guy in the information booth
at the Atlantic Avenue Station.
When they open the doors, he says.
I am home among my people.

    Three Flights Down the Stairs

Three flights down the stairs,
south one block to Houston,
cross the street and maybe a half-block
west to Russ & Daughters.
Take a number—why is that woman
buying all that sturgeon?—for black
Russian bread, 3 smoked fish, farmer
cheese (the bulk kind) and nova.
Retrace the route, up the stairs,
and she's just getting out of the tub
right by the kitchen sink, pink
thighs slowly rising so you can get
the whole flavor of it, water
streaming from the red muff thick
as bread. That was Sunday.

    Manhattan in Summer

The drier whacking away, next to the refrigerator
in the tumbled together kitchen. You lie
on the bed in your nightgown.
It is this tropical island, Manhattan in summer.
The Puerto Ricans, carrying their music and forlorn star,
have left for the barrios. At Victor's Café,
the green sauce is so splendid
we carry some back to the apartment.
When yon leave for your other island, your
New England white steeple and lobster pot town,
I will remain with my cigars and cerveza,
the streets sinking under my feet, the brilliant taxis,
sun fierce on the stones of the Museum.

    Movie Life

"The future ain't
what it used to be"
Robert De Niro says
in Johnny Angel.

When my son Dan was born
I sat in a car
outside Columbia Presbyterian,
in a July dawn, weeping
copiously, as light began
to fill the streets and
avenues of my city.

    Brooklyn Promenade

There they are
the water-hugging giants of Manhattan
breathing the dun-colored air of morning.
Silent, mysterious
seen through a white scrim of fog.

Directly beneath me, commuter traffic of the Brooklyn-
    Queens Expressway.
Across that, on the Brooklyn docks
one lone forklift tractor, loaded with steel rods,
jockeying back and forth
before the Strober Bros. Building Supply depot.
Across the water, dimly descried,
nested in the green arches of Battery,
a perky yellow Staten Island Ferry.

But the buildings pulsing in their various shades of white
and now, as the fog thins slowly,
a pale dusty blue, out of Giotto,
seems to descend behind them.

These mighty presences at the end of Manhattan Island,
fronting the East River that is not a river
but a tidal strait carrying
the North Atlantic to our very doorstep.

These monuments that dominate our day
as if they had been fixed there forever
though they are in flux as the waters are in flux.

They stand before us
like tribal gods meting out success and unsuccess,
all that we have to lift our eyes to.


The thickness of things I felt strongly,
sitting in the sun, in a public place,
people strolling, voices in different languages,
as if life were a canvas—
but one would have to know the drama
and recognize among all the clumsy figuration
who is caught in the vectoring lines.
A pigeon bathing
in a puddle on the roof of a warehouse
abutting the Brooklyn waterfront, looking in its preening
like a blue heron eastward down the island,
in Gardiner's Bay, among the blues of summer.
But this is November, in Brooklyn, and I look
to the smaller island where my father and mother,
each in turn, came to the New World.
Voices across the bay, my grandmother's Yiddish
talking to the Yiddish of her green-boxed radio.
Is that the drama—bewildering change and nostalgia?
Enter the New World, mother and father.
Sit on the bench with me, overlooking Pier 3 of the
Port Authority Piers. Try to make sense of it with me,
and with your other son, who sits by the dark Kinnereth.
The harp of David and the harp of the Brooklyn Bridge.

    War Stories

My father read the World Telegram & Sun.
Sometimes he agreed with Westbrook Pegler.
But he never brought home a Hearst paper
except for the Sunday Journal American
because I was a kid and needed the colored comics—
Maggie and Jiggs, Popeye and Dick Tracy.
All those strips I was to see again in high school
in their porno resurrection, strips
in which even Dagwood had a big erection.
I listened to radio serials every afternoon
from five to six: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,
Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy.
Each one had a special anthem. Later,
in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at an army base,
I heard them all again. We were in training
as radio gunners in heavy bombers. It was
midwinter and my group was on the midnight shift,
getting up and marching to class in frigid Dakota dark.
The commanding officer issued a directive:
We weren't singing when we marched as Air Force men
"Into the air Army Air Force. / Into the air pilots true."—
So from now on sing! The night the directive was read out,
I was marching in the middle of a squad
when suddenly, all around me, everyone
began to sing: "Who's that little chatterbox,
the one with pretty auburn locks. Who
can it be? It's little Orphan Annie."
And so on through all the songs of all
the serials of my childhood.

These are a conquered people,
said the British sergeant,
putting his hand on my shoulder
at the bar in Foggia, Italy—
this is 1944. He was instructing
me on why I should not tip
the Italian barmaid, as I was doing.
A conquered people. I liked the phrase
because it had the ring of history,
suggested dynasty policy, put
the British empire with the Roman
down the long reach of time.
But in the real world it made
no sense. How did it apply
to the Italian kids who came
to my tent each morning to trade
eggs for cigarettes. Or to the old
Italian lady in town who was teaching
me the language. Or to the girl
in the Air Force rest camp on Capri
I fell in love with Christmas week.
They were hardly a people, much less
conquered. They were living
as I lived, on the bare edge of existence,
hoping to survive the interminable war.
But high above their cities
on my way to Germany to kill the enemy
I was part of that sergeant's fictive world,
part of the bloody story of our century.

We were approaching Berlin
at 23,000 feet, our usual
altitude for bombing. P38s,
looking like flying catamarans,
had accompanied us most of the way—
little friend, little friend—from Italy.
Now, nearing the target, we had P51s.
We knew that when their auxiliary fuel tanks
were jettisoned from their underbellies
and came floating down like silver baubles,
a sky full of them,
enemy fighters would shortly show.
A clear blue light flooded my cabin.
Through my window and hatch
I could see what looked like miles
of Flying Fortresses, the big-assed birds
in their tight formations. Blue all around them,
followed by white contrails. Later,
colored tracers would connect bomber
to enemy fighter, and then the black flack
would spread in the sky, a deadly fungus.
Planes would blossom into flame
in that bewildering sky.
How to believe all that happened,
as in a movie, a tv drama, or some other life.


These shards of our lapsed rhetoric,
what a generation meant to say,
speak in me still. A flame guttering.
That the slashed landscape, the railroad
yards, the crumbled snow-strewn depots
of a vanquished Europe, all their dying gods,
flame, flare up, add to the smoke
of sacrifice. Millennial stars,
pools of light, sucking the last meaning
from the tremendous century.
The writers, hunkering down like monks
in their stone outcroppings
over the clear blue slate, catching
visions of the dystopian dawn.

    Where I Am Now

I seem to be withdrawing from my life slowly
like pulling out from an alcoholic fuck.
Savoring it but glad that it's over. Tired
and not knowing what to do next.


I have lived three-quarters of a century.
I remember the man bringing ice
into the kitchen for the ice box.
He came down the narrow alley
that led to the back of the house.
He used tongs to lift the ice.
Our first car was a Nash.
From our window on Riverside Drive
I saw them building the George Washington Bridge.
When you had ice cream at home
your mother had to make it.
Cases of Dr. Brown's Celray Tonic and Cream Soda.
I kissed my cousin Muriel under the piano.

    How Charlie Shavers Died

He had a gig
but he was hurting.
His doctor said, play the date,
then check into the hospital.
That night, when the party ended
and the band packed up,
Charlie started to give stuff away—
his watch, his rings—to the women
in the room. Then
he circled the room with his horn
playing: "For all I know we may never meet again."
At this point, the man who was telling the story
in the locker room at the Manhattan Plaza gym
and who had sung the line slowly, with
a pause between each word, began to cry.

What People are Saying About This

Hilda Raz
“ ‘These poems are filled with regular flashes of the character of a man who is lusty and long lived, learned, and smart with prosody, joyous in the regular act of writing, and generous to his audience. Nothing here is weak, only exquisite poem after poem vivid with the sensory and sensual life of Harvey Shapiro’s city, his friends and his passions.”

Meet the Author

Harvey Shapiro's many books include National Cold Storage Company (Wesleyan, 1988), The Light Holds (Wesleyan, 1984), and Battle Report (Wesleyan, 1966). In 1997, Wesleyan and Carcanet co-published his Selected Poems. Shapiro published his first book in 1953, shortly before joining the editorial staff of the New Yorker magazine, where he was fiction editor from 1956 - 57. He was editor of the New York Time Book Review from 1975 until 1983. He is now senior editor of the New York Times Magazine.

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