Jo Shapcott – Her Book 2 – Life

One of the things I love about Shapcott’s poetry is its passionate and joyful embrace of the world.

A poem reflecting on this in general terms is “Life”, which you can find here

The speaker of the poem describes three lives, as bat, frog and iguana or hearing, touch and tongue. I want to comment a bit on the last of these.

When a poet writes about tongue and mouth we tend to think of them as organs of expression, but Shapcott’s poem presents the tongue as a means of discovery, a way of receiving the world:

My life as an iguana
is for tasting

My tongue is very fast
because the flavour
of the air is so subtle.

It’s long enough
to surprise
the smallest piece of you

from extremely
far away.
Iguana death is a closed mouth.

One thing that makes the embrace so joyful is the humour. I love the teasing hesitation before “everything”, such a gift to the performer, who can interpret it in a range of very different ways, as coyness, as brashly self-dramatising emphasis, or as awe at the sheer immensity of what the world offers. The play on meanings in “fast” has some obvious components, like the visual image of the rapid flickering of an iguana’s tongue, the idea of someone talking fast and the idea of a “fast” woman. For the Shapcott reader there’s also an imaginative link to “Cheetah Run”. But of course the poetry isn’t something you find by separating out the components, it’s something that ignites when they come together, sparking off each other and interacting with the other ideas in the stanza in such complicated, subtle and indefinable ways.  I love the bold innuendo of the third stanza of the quotation. Above all, though, I love the swerving of tones that keeps it all so alive, that makes the writing itself so fast and subtle, so responsive to the sheer diversity of the world.

Metrical structure plays a crucial part here. No doubt the short-lined form is partly a way of capturing the quick, explosive flickering of the iguana’s tongue, but it also both emphasises this swerving of tones between lines, and gives breathing space to the competing play of different tones within them.

“Capturing” brings me back to the meaning of this section of the poem as a whole. The poet captures the world by making it live in words. Clearly Shapcott isn’t in any sense trying to suppress the idea of the tongue as an organ of expression. What I think she’s suggesting is that for the kind of poet she is, reception and expression of the world go hand in hand, are almost one thing. A closed mouth is iguana death because it means ceasing to experience the world by “tasting” it. It’s also poet death, because it means ceasing to express it.

“Life” is a very sexy poem and of course it may be that in Shapcott’s private life “you” refers to an actual and particular person. What comes through for the reader is the joky but intense eroticising of the poet’s contact with the world and creation of poetry. In that sense I suppose it is addressed to the Muse who fertilises the poet’s imagination and makes it create.


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