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In Shafer’s Shadow

By (March 1, 2010) 2 Comments

Shafer Hall, a red-headed, bearded bearish man in his early thirties, tended bar early on a Thursday night at the Four Faced Liar, an Irish pub in the West Village. He wore dilapidated running shoes, shorts, and a blue and white football jersey, Dallas Cowboys colors, colors from his home state. Shafer’s a poet. His first collection, Never Cry Woof, was published in 2007 by No Tell Books, a small, independent press specializing in poetry. Shafer is also a senior editor at The Painted Bride Quarterly, a literary magazine published by Rutgers.

Armed with the thick skin
that covers the knuckles, and
armored with the hubris that
hardens in the fingernails

(“Brooklyn Aubade”)

He’s lived all over Texas: Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Lubbock. Houston was his favorite, a big, weird town right on the ocean, he said, where everyone looks different. In Austin, everyone looked pretty much like him. Shafer moved around because his father, Grant Hall, was then an archaeologist, excavating Spanish missions. His mother was a petroleum geologist. If you look up Grant online, you’ll find, in addition to numerous scholarly articles, an old photo, taken at the Choke Canyon excavation site in South Texas. He’s tall, wearing a cowboy hat and dusty jeans, looking down at a dead bobcat he’s holding by the scruff of the neck. Shafer’s father is a carpenter now, happier than when he was as an archaeologist, “Doing something more useful,” Shafer shrugged. His mother consults on cleaning aquifers of toxins and sends Shafer books on geology by John McPhee.

and water meet for the aloof
and curious alike

(“Brooklyn Aubade”)

Shafer talked to his regulars while he worked. Tina is ancient, with a beehive of perfectly curled orange hair, which the rest of the regulars inform me is real. Marco is Sicilian, pale and bald. He ended every one of his quickly delivered rants with “Why not?” before dumping another swallow of Guinness down his throat. Tina was careful with her drink orders, watching the clock as it neared 8 pm. She wanted to tip out before Shafer’s shift was over. “Me and Tina,” Shafer said, “We hate the heat and humidity. Makes our hair frizzy.” She nodded and said nothing, hunched over her bar stool.

Gentry landed me in this mess
of haystacks and merciful slaughter;
I am gentle with my ax – and quick

(“Pink Snow”)

“Ask me about poetry,” Shafer said. We were in a diner across the street from the bar, where Shafer ordered a grilled cheese on rye with a side of fries. Moving his fries around the plate, he told me the closest he’s been to killing anything was when he went hunting with his father. His father made him the bird dog, running after the dead birds and twisting the heads off their bodies. Shafer watched the blood eke out of the bird’s eyes, not knowing that you’re supposed to hold the bird to the side to avoid watching the gory unfold. “Pink Snow” is a riff on a Tom Waits song, “You wouldn’t believe how many of my poems start with that guy.”

I spent the remainder of the evening
handicapping the marriage of the couple next door
and the next morning
placed a long-term, sure-fire, big-money bet
with the sucker who lives downstairs.

(“Some Commotion Out My Door at Night”)

Shafer has a new collection of poems, written over the course of five years, ready to be published – except he doesn’t have a publisher. He was hoping Octopus Press would take it, but they didn’t, so he’s going to do another round of edits before he submits it somewhere else. Even his most humorous poems, I told him, have a core of sadness. Shafer doesn’t hesitate, “Yeah, I’ve been told that before. I like to think that people can access my poems in different ways. My ideal poem would be able to be interpreted as both funny and sad and whatever else….” He trailed off. “I think that’s a fairly accurate description of my work, and probably of myself too.”

Let spring blossom,
little possum, your world
is worse than you know.

(“Avery’s Possums”)

At nine that night, Shafer and I got on a C train to Brooklyn to go to a reading by C. A. Conrad, a poet from Philadelphia, and according to Shafer, a real lunatic. Shafer took a seat on an empty bench, looking at his reflection in the opposite window. He needs a haircut. A tattoo of a possum snakes up his arm and into the sleeve of his football jersey. Later he shook his head when I asked him what it meant. “I don’t know. It’s a polarizing animal,” he said, “You either love them or you hate them.”

From which it can be inferred
that life is like a train
and we are like cheap apartments
and we shake when the train rolls by.

(“How to Survive on Land & Sea”)

Shafer held the most recent New Yorker and a slim volume on geology by John McPhee in his hand. He tells me about the show trials in Iran. “Ee-ran. Ee-ron,” he says, as if deciding the correct pronunciation As we sat on the train, he opened the New Yorker and showed me two poems by Richard Wilbur. One was about the ocean; Shafer’s a sucker for the ocean. On a recent trip to Texas, where he turned 34, he motored around Galveston and navigated the remains of Hurricane Ike. Though the island is mostly cleaned up, the coastal areas aren’t, and one has to be careful.

I stunned myself
when I walked around a corner
and saw the evening;
it had out-dressed me
in blues and stars.

(“The Evening Wore Blue”)

We got off the train at Lafayette and crossed the Atlantic Yards to get to Freddy’s. We entered the bar and Shafer cleared a path towards the back of the room. A door leading to the basement opened up into a performance space filled with college kids. Instead of C.A. Conrad, a man in suspenders and a fiddle was playing onstage. Shafer paid my six dollar entrance fee and we stood on the steps, watching for a minute. A few moments passed, and Shafer caught my eye. He pointed at his eyes, his fingers in a V shape, and then at mine, and motioned at the door. GO.

Fat, waddling
his swagger was a swagger
of the soul and not the body

(“Near Magical Skills”)

Outside the bar, he gives me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and directions to the nearest street where I can catch a cab. After Shafer turned around, I watched him for a minute; the disappearing football jersey, hair curling at his neck, the shoulders of a mastodon, and clutching his geology book, he lumbered off and out of sight.

Jessica Breiman was born in Salt Lake City, Utah and raised in both Salt Lake City and Berkeley, California. She received her B.A. in Sociology and Anthropology from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and moved to New York City to study Art History and Library Science. She now works for the Women’s Refugee Commission and is a fellow at the CUNY Writers’ Institute.

Open Letters has published a couple of Shafer’s poems: “The Institute of Nautical Archaeology” and “A Fiction.”