One of the first poets Shapiro brings to mind is Dickinson, herself no stranger to mathematical theories and methods. Dickinson, if not incorporating the technical vocabulary or acting out some operation, often performed some count or measurement as part of her inquiry of the world and her attempt to express what might transcend that. “I spend all day trying to chart/the equation of my feelings,” writes Shapiro, “but I didn’t get/that far in math.” In the work of both poets we come across an enduring contradiction: the utter inadequacy of the most precise system we have to characterize the abstract. “In broken mathematics,” wrote Dickinson, “We estimate our prize,/Vast, in its fading ratio,/To our penurious eyes!”
The word “mathematics” stems from the Greek mathema, “what one learns.” The beauty of Easy Math is that it grapples with uncertainty by engaging with what is known. With smart turns of word, line, and context, Shapiro picks apart contemporary axioms, personae, and events to enact their underlying comedy and tragedy, so reflecting the brilliant mess that is the human condition. Take for instance the opening lines of “They Promised Me a Thousand Years of Peace”:
The snow falls blank as a contract no one
How the rules of language construct the space in which we relate to each other and the world, and furthermore, how we relate within that space, are the bones and meat of these poems. Language can simplify as much as complicate any problem, and as the best poets often do, Shapiro challenges its rules by composing with a crystal clear syntax while maximizing the possibilities for meaning. “If we stand in a circle we reach a unity/that comes with the impersonal,” she quips in “How I Wrote a Belated Love Letter,” not without the same cunning of Dickinson’s “One and One—are One.” Shapiro is on a mission to expose the contradictions of what we take for granted as comforting notions, such as the geometry that we feel is so demonstrative of a unifying love. Yet with that geometry comes the reality of being any one of an endless number of uniform points on the circumference, with little to distinguish one as an individual. Easy Math is as much about the reconciliation of these contradictions.
In “Bent Syllogism,” deductive reasoning is misleading alongside “postmodern theories, signs and cosines.” The mathematics of absolute truths and sound logic—its perfection as consoling as it is stifling—butts heads with a mathematics of multiple interpretations and enigmatic expressions. However, such examples as “pi, infinity, the artist formerly known as/the artist formerly known as Prince” almost approach meaninglessness: “I take the symbol out of my pocket, brush it off/and send it on its way.” Who’s to say which prospective end is the more overwhelming? It’s not the “end” Shapiro is after, and we can breathe a sigh of relief as the date for the apocalypse reset yet again. Regardless of our preferred math camp, philosophy of language, etc., what one learns in probing the problem—in this case, a contradictory culture of listlessness, complacency, and unstable identity—takes precedence over some coveted tell-all answer:
The way I feel about mathematics bespeaks a love
With the same supplication as the poet’s own in the final line of “Bent Syllogism”—“Please teach me.”—we step into a collection whose author’s crowning achievement is to write of twenty-first century malaise and make us feel like we’ve been left unsupervised in a regenerative playground. It’s with the same unadulterated glee that we enter into Easy Math as when we first heard the elementary joke that begins, “Why is six afraid of seven?” Sure, we were disenchanted with the punch line before we hit double digits. But look at what it says about humanity, the poet seems to hint incessantly. Shapiro manages to re-enchant by reacquainting us with that sincere wit and curiosity, coaxing us to know the world (but know it slant):
When I bite into the apple, it tastes like an apple.