This strangely titled poem was written in 1966. I’ve read it five times and still can’t make heads or tails of it, but the 1960s was a strange time for poetry, forms that people had a difficult time with (found poetry especially strange), and layers of meanings sometimes embedded by minds that weren’t all together present, if you know what I mean, cough, cough!
I thought that I might go online and find a sight of an academic who’s studied this poem and already done the parsing out for me, but I also thought that this might be a good time to do some detective work on my own. How does one interpret a poem? Especially a difficult poem.
I start with the year, the Vietnam War was going on, the Counter-Culture was under way and they were mostly the young protesting the war. The nation was deeply divided on this issue. Everything at that time had a political context, or a reference to drugs (or both). So it’s safe to assume that this is a political poem, or is making some sort of political statement.
Now, onto the poet himself. When I put Harvey Shapiro into my search engine, I sadly brought up his obituary from January of this year (2013). He was an editor for the New York Times who, according to the article, preferred newspaper work over academic work. His work is described as brief and epigrammatic; he liked to concentrate on the intimate details of small lives: the life of a father, the life of a son, the life of a Jew. The Times states his style, “had a dark humor, verbal economy and an eye for detail.” (Margalit Fox, January 7th, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/08/books/harvey-shapiro-poet-of-new-york-and-beyond-dies-at-88.html?_r=0). His career also intersected with another famous event during the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement. He convinced Dr. Martin Luther King to write him a letter from his jail cell. Shapiro tried to convince his editors at the time to print it, but they refused. Shapiro had fought in World War II and taught English at Cornell University. Interestingly, a book of his poetry with the title of this poem surfaced in 1988. The author of the obituary mentions that New York and its landmarks loomed largely in his poetry. This might explain why when we read this poem, we run across the Brooklyn Bridge and the Long Island Expressway. But other landmarks outside of New York are mentioned: Grant’s Tomb, Arlington (I’m assuming the National Cemetery which is the burial spot of the unknown soldier).
I know that many World War II vets also protested the war, they were not eager for another to be fought by another generation of young Americans. It makes me wonder if he was a part of this category.
Then I look at the language itself. “Cold storage” is where a person puts something to forget about it, but something you can’t throw away for one reason or another. It could be a fish that you don’t want to make that night, or a set of files that by law have to stay in storage, but could be buried in some deep hole of paperwork where it can’t be found by any but the most obsessed. So what does it mean to throw in “Grant’s tomb, the Civil War, Arlington,/The Young President dead”? (Kennedy, of course.)
And then comes the strangest line, “Above the warehouse and beneath the stars/The poets creep on the harp of the Bridge/But see,/ They fall into the National Cold Storage Company/One by one.” And at the bottom inside the warehouse is “a monstrous birth” which sounds something reminiscent of the thing that slouches toward Bethlehem in Yeats’s “The Second Coming”. And this thing “Must be fed by everything – ships, poems,/Stars, all the years of our lives.”
It is still a mystery to me, but the poem was published in the textbook under the “Myth” chapter, so I know that it isn’t talking about a real place, but a mythical one, and sense myths are stories, collective stories, then this one is about America and her troubled past. Could the National Cold Storage Company be all of America? Could it be the afterlife that we built for ourselves just as we built our own government, our own debt, our own troubled legacy? Could the monstrous birth be our unfortunate future that we don’t want to face? Perhaps the things we put into the warehouse are sacrifices we make to try to placate and keep it from coming into being? I can’t say, though he is observing us, the poet has kept his mythology about us close to his vest. Harvey Shapiro interpreter to tell me if I was on the right track.
But read the poem for yourself, do some internet searches (you can learn plenty about him and the era), or go to the library and find some books, read his other poems at the time, poems written by his contemporaries, even poems by those who influenced him (Hart Crane and Charles Reznikoff were two mentioned in his obituary), about New York which appeared in so many of his poems. Every single one will give you a clue, a piece of the puzzle, because those were the things and people who helped him to form his story and in turn you might find pieces to tell your own.
National Cold Storage Company
by Harvey Shapiro
The National Cold Storage Company contains
More things than you can dream of.
Hard by the Brooklyn Bridge it stands
In a litter of freight cars,
Tugs to one side; the other, the traffic
Of the Long Island Expressway.
I myself have dropped into it in seven years
Midnight tossings, plans for escape, the shakes.
Add this to the national total –
Grant’s tomb, the Civil War, Arlington,
The young President dead.
Above the warehouse and beneath the stars
The poets creep on the harp of the Bridge.
They fall into the National Cold Storage Company
One by one. The wind off the river is too cold,
Or the times too rough, or the Bridge
Is not a harp at all. Or maybe
A monstrous birth inside the warehouse
Must be fed by everything – ships, poems,
Stars, all the years of our lives.