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King of Shadows, Aaron Shurin’s new essay collection, is the San Francisco poet’s ninth book. An astonishing precision of language pervades these twenty-one portraits of a mind’s intercourse with the world. Most are quite short; some topics may seem slight: a friend’s appreciation of the care with which Shurin has decorated his apartment, a discussion with a cab driver about the difference between the Prairie and the Great Plains. But in these moments are worlds. Whether writing about sex, flowers, or home decor, sharp and surprisingly shaped perceptions tumble forth. In an essay on children, writing, and gender, a Dahlia’s scent is “a light broth of cellulose and sun.” Going through his father’s belongings after his death, Shurin finds “an old samovar not really worth its tea…” Or, simply, in the same essay, “The mood is October.”
There are a few longer pieces. In “The People’s P***k,” he explores his relationship to (and the friendship between) his mentors, Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. The essay is also a nuanced exploration of the late sixties/early seventies tensions between leftist politics and the emerging gay liberation movement. Shurin recalls the wound that opened when Levertov, his beloved friend and muse, responded to his first book by telling him that his poems were “too emphatically homosexual…”
This moment is remembered with understanding and sadness rather than rancor: Shurin himself now describes his early work as that of “a new pink officer of the doctrinaire.”
In another essay set in the late sixties, “In the Bars of Heaven and Hell,” Shurin shows, as he does throughout, that this master miniaturist has no fear of passionate, even Proustian, excess. Here is one sentence from his moving account of coming out in pre-Stonewall San Francisco:
Last call at the Rendezvous-we stood around drinking, eyeing, and we went home and sometimes talked and sometimes didn’t and spread our legs or got spread, we licked and bathed each other in sweat and sometimes traded tender kisses that seemed to matter and sometimes didn’t, a repertoire of intimate address played out in a microcosm of distance: the one-night stand, the trick; the Rendezvous which had no warning printed above its legendary unmarked door into which I entered shivering a hundred nights, all in my youth, eighteen, nineteen, not yet part of an army of natural lovers-but I will get there, it will come- not quite yet one of the soldiers of ecstasy.
Embedded in the above, one of Shurin’s many subtle surprises: we expect to read, as usually we would, that the tender kisses “seemed to matter and sometimes did.” By changing did to didn’t, Shurin makes us pause, think, wake up.
In the final essay, an homage to San Francisco, he writes that the city’s “small particulars” are “cherished here as amplitude … as immensity.” Cherishing the complex specificities of language and experience (and their interplay) is clearly Shurin’s ambition and creed. In King of Shadows, he brilliantly succeeds.
KING OF SHADOWS
by Aaron Shurin
City Lights Publishers
Paperback, 176 pp., $16.95