National Poetry Month Poem-a-Week: Jo Shapcott’s “Of Mutability”

April 9, 2011

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 25:  Author Jo Shapc...

Jo Shapcott. (Image by Getty Images via @daylife)

Another poet from across the Pond for this week.  British poet Jo Shapcott was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004.  She once described how the treatment left her feeling “reborn as someone slightly different.”  Last year, she published a collection that emerged from this experience, Of Mutability.

“The body has always been a subject for me,” she told The Guardian in an interview. “It is the stage for the high drama of our lives, from birth to death and everything in between.  When you observe your own body under physical change like that, there’s a new kind of urgency.  I had a lumpectomy, my lymph glands out, chemo and radiotherapy.  You go through several different stages, so you don’t know how ill you are for a while, and the verdict keeps getting worse and worse, until you can actually take action, start treatment.”

The concept of mutability has a long tradition in English poetry extending back as far as Chaucer.  Mutability points to the transience of things and of the inevitable changes of life.

Wordsworth spoke of “the unimaginable touch of Time” in his poem, “Mutability.” Shelley ended his poem of the same title,

It is the same!–For, be it joy or sorrow,

The path of its departure still is free:

Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;

Nought may endure but Mutability.

Shapcott is no stranger to life’s mutability.  Her parents both died unexpectedly when she was 18.  She found solace in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, who had also suffered early loss and dramatic change throughout her life.  Shapcott went to Oxford to pursue a PhD on Bishop’s poetry, but left for Harvard to study with poet Seamus Heaney when she received a scholarship.  It turned out to be a fortuitous mentorship.

Her books include Electroplating the Baby (1988), Phrase Book (1992), My Life Asleep (1998), and Her Book: Poems 1988-1998 (2000).

Shapcott writes with a “‘rangy, long-legged’ brio,” as one critic described her tone. Her language is equally intellectual and sensual, enigmatic and direct, which makes for poetry of breadth and range.  Consequently very few poems feel alike in the way you can tell the work of certain poets, a Gary Snyder poem or a Billy Collins poem, for example.  (The one exception in Shapcott’s work is her “Mad Cow” persona poems.)

Like Bishop, Shapcott is rarely overtly personal, even when writing about her illness from which she is now, thankfully, fully recovered and working on a new book.

Here is Jo Shapcott’s poem, “Of Mutability”:


Too many of the best cells in my body

are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw

in this spring chill. It’s two thousand and four

and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small

among the numbers. Razor small.


Look down these days to see your feet

mistrust the pavement and your blood tests

turn the doctor’s expression grave.

Look up to catch eclipses, gold leaf, comets,

angels, chandeliers, out of the corner of your eye,

join them if you like, learn astrophysics, or

learn folksong, human sacrifice, mortality,

flying, fishing, sex without touching much.

Don’t trouble, though, to head anywhere but the sky.

–Jo Shapcott

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3 Responses to “National Poetry Month Poem-a-Week: Jo Shapcott’s “Of Mutability””

  1. HC Says:

    A really sympathetic post that draws threads together. Thanks.

  2. […] read: Of Mutability possesses a quiet power that sets it apart from Shapcott’s earliest work, and the title poem contains some of the most memorable lines in the […]

  3. […] read: Of Mutability possesses a quiet power that sets it apart from Shapcott’s earliest work, and the title poem contains some of the most memorable lines in the […]

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