12 floors above the earth - title

Myra Shapiro
Author photo: Lynn Saville  
In 12 Floors Above the Earth, Myra Shapiro’s new poems are extraordinarily passionate, sensual, honest, and heart-felt evocations from a life richly lived. They draw upon the author’s Jewish background, questioning intellect, love of family, and refusal to abide by conventional strictures. More than enduring, Myra Shapiro prevails. About the book, Tony Hoagland has said this: “Like Grace Paley or Stanley Kunitz, Myra Shapiro possesses a cultivated, tough-minded voice, and an unflinching human commitment to know more. Whether she is asking hard questions about the flickering strangeness of sexuality, solitude, or religion, her special intelligence finds the difficult hinges and pressure points of life. And, because she does not hide from what she finds, her probing is both beautiful and moving. ‘In longing you close your eyes,’ she says, and ‘in wonder you open them.’ 12 Floors Above the Earth is a wonderfully alert and honest collection of poems. It is also darkly witty. “It turns out I am God,” she says. “No wonder I am terrified.” And this from Susan Mitchell: “Splendid, irreplaceable—and spicy. Shapiro’s poems are rich in history: family history, with its festivals and shadows, and also that larger history that includes wars and crusades and pogroms. I love the inclusiveness of these poems—love, sex, death, and poetry, the full sweep. And the full sweep of geography as the poems move from Manhattan to Bruges and Berlin, from the Middle East to Africa. There is also wisdom in these poems and zest, along with all the complications of a full life repeatedly examined and explored by a narrator whose voice is conversational and accessible. These are poems that a discerning reader will return to again and again.”

Front cover painting by Mary Frank

Myra Shapiro, born in the Bronx, returned to New York City after forty-five years in Georgia and Tennessee, where she married, raised two daughters, and worked as a librarian and teacher of English. She is the author of I’ll See You Thursday and In Greenwich Village We Talk of Love, collections of poetry, as well as Four Sublets: Becoming a Poet in New York, a memoir. She was awarded the New School’s Dylan Thomas Poetry Award, named a finalist for the Poetry Society of America’s Robert H. Winner Memorial Award, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the recipient of residencies at the Banff Arts Centre, Hedgebrook, and The MacDowell Colony. She serves on the Board of Directors of Poets House and teaches poetry workshops for the International Women’s Writing Guild.

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ISBN 978-1-936482-31-3

Copyright © 2012 by Myra Shapiro

6" x 9" paperback, 94 pages






Towers: Century City, L.A.

for Syud

We have traveled across a continent to this expectant ocean,
to these towers
which rose from the guts of immigrants, from the chutzpah
of moguls
for whom the stars in the sky were not enough. They had to be
defined, stood up to
with a platinum Jean Harlow.

On a crescent-curved balcony, 15 floors above
The Avenue of the Stars,
6 lanes of multi-colored metal traffic zipping back and forth,
in the middle a strip designed
not only to divide cars North and South but to entertain the traveler,
its eye of concrete,
grass, and lily-shaped spigots projecting water skyward,

cadenced kick of shush, shush, shush rocketting
over the rumble of motors, we are waiting for a birth, the birth
of our first grandchild,
the third generation conceived in this new world where—
imagine it—the grandchild of a Rabbi
meets a Pakistani Muslim, they fall in love no matter what
we fear, and they will
have a baby whose name will be as old as

history. Benjamin.
And I will plant a garden with flowers for his eyes
because I will not be here,
because I want to give him a ground of many colors: coreopsis,
black-eyed susans, my father’s dahlias,
Mama’s herbs—seeds lifted by the wind or beaks of birds
flying over time zones, oceans.

Last night I dreamed I watched for hours a baby’s babbling
and twisting, babbling
and shifting, when suddenly he spoke—“Bon, bon” and then
“Good, good”—two languages!
Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals. In this city of the angels
which may fall
at any moment, I take as blessing the two-ness of his speech,
believing it will save him.

Kosher Home

He didn’t have to ask. It felt exotic.
I was a wife with books
for how to cook and how to
organize a closet. Keeping kosher
was the embellishment, the trope,
the heightened form I set
to make of ordinary life
a drama. For him it was just
ordinary life, the ease of his God
bless you. It didn’t do, and
leaving the butcher one day,
I refused to continue.


“’Tis the breed of lighthouse keepers,”
she laughs, the innkeeper
giving me to understand
why I stay up past midnight

writing, searching the shelves,
finding Hopkins,
taking him by the fire.
A blow-in I am,

settling into an Irish idiom.
’Tis the breed of Semites,
perpetual nomad I am,
finding myself in a Catholic

land, suddenly brazenly
Jewish. Even Hopkins
sounds Jewish, skewed syntax
my parents’ broken English—

Leaves, like the things of man, you
with your fresh thoughts care for,
can you
? I can. In air
I can live like a book

moving from there to here.
Only travel to arrange,
turning the pages.
“Do you miss your husband?”

No, not in this parlour,
throwing more peat on the fire.
Turf. Contentious word
feeding me light.

L’dor V’dor

A friend reminds me of my husband’s words
“I pondered my heart”
the night before our daughter’s wedding.

Could he really have said pondered?
Strange word, and yet, exact, the weighing
of his love, the way he thinks of worth,

then acts on it. He’d labored over giving
his yes to her, his first child, married beyond
his ken, to a Muslim. Here, there,

he sought advice—how can I say Yes?
A woman from Africa said, “Talk to
an ancestor.” And from his cry his father

heard. This man, a rabbi from a time
rabbis educated, chanted, circumcised and slaughtered,
spoke to his son: “Hershelle,” he said, “trust her.

The world changes. Learn to change with it.”
All of us heard those words—my friend still remembers—

of love passed on, the breath of generation.

Passion Flower on a New York City Rooftop

for Alice and Carmen

As a tight, two-inch green thing it begins,
a few mauve stripes along its length. All summer
before I rushed off to the streets,
buds along the terra cotta pillar
climbed, while I was eating breakfast, and
always there was one bud opening.

Today I’m lucky to have another chance.
Summer’s over. It’s October 6th, 83 degrees,
and I am eating on the roof
near one passion flower opening.
All the way.

I mean white purplish tinted petals
fling themselves
backwards like arms
eager for a lover—
Look at all I have to give you.

Deep inside, purple hairs edged black
are circling, and still
that’s not the end of it—
within the center of that circle
another offering—
a purple nub sends up a wheel
of pale green T’s
from which a black Y glistens.

In silence. You have to look to see
such absolute articulation, so much desire.

Before the Next Conversation

We wash the dishes. Quietly.
Somehow this loquacious man
knows it’s time for silence
as if by heart he senses
when to take a break
before the next conversation

Once it was recess, the break
we took which I hear
schools no longer
make room for. Space
scares the staff, that silly jumping,
the freedom to be simply

You see how it happens.
I said we were washing dishes,
then I let the words wander
and they ran, confusing my wanting
to be with him, washing dishes
quietly, with the water

The New Lover

The night
before my sister-in-law died,
from months of illness, she begged
her husband
to make love to her. She who was
to merge with trees
needed to press up against one.

After forty years
my husband has no tree for me, but
he has mottled flesh
which could be earth. With brandy
in two snifters,
torch songs telling our bodies remember,
we bare ourselves
to the velvet sofa better than the bed

we hunker in,
seldom to touch, and we begin to
stroke, our bodies
dulled for anything but winter. Tonight
it thrills me
with its absolute clarity: we
will come to
ask nothing of each other

and that nothing
keeps us standing eye to eye,
turning into sister-brother,
the taboo of them.
Cross that line to cross another.

I’m beginning to play footsy
with the ground,
thinking of its weight on me.


I’m not here right now
but if you’ll leave
your name and number
I’ll get back to you
as soon as I can

It’s Walter, his home,
only it’s a cell inside his dresser
and he’s in it. Dead
two months now, yet
his wife is keeping him alive.

We can do that.
Keep a voice next to us,
an unsick, bike-riding,
instructor-in-a-math-class voice.
Keep him twice.

On his cell. On his toes. Ready
to call back as soon as
hear him again
so clear I
leave a message—
Dear cousin, call me. I’m here.

The Ocean and the Kitchen

When Woolf walked into the river
with her pockets full of stones,
she wasn’t afraid of the river.
On Fishers Island the waves
invited me in, they were
like ink, brimming blue-green,
and I could become the pen
to receive their color.
Walking in
deep, without fear, I thought of this
and, though I would not,
there was a sense in my body
of submission, the way it will want to
give up, someday, gasping
for breath and ease itself
into the elements.
Fire is not for that,
maybe earth, but it is so brown—
I kept thinking water
until I turned ...
the house, the women
had come back from Race Point

and the lamps were on.

After the Massage

It was the wing
she touched.
Its trace beneath/
beside the shoulder bone
sent a flutter
through me, down
it went
in between my legs
pulse beat
from a thing no longer there,
hovering remnant
of once we flew,
once there was a bird

a humming bird
the voices in our house—
a sister
who lived 11 years
and died.
I am the vestige, the smartass
who’s lasted
seven times eleven.

There is a price
for such a rub. I gladly pay
and leave a tip.
Nothing’s free. Not me,
not the boatman
rowing toward me. So far
he’s out to sea.
And as his hands stroke
hour by hour
my body wants the breeze—
my bra’s off
for the wind—please not the wasp—
to touch me.

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