on Night of the Republic, poems by Alan Shapiro (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The poet’s dread – or one of the dreads – is that life may escape words. It’s a useful anxiety, a spur to productivity. But we may be better off abandoning the worry when the writing begins. Here are some reasons why. First, life does elude words; it is a fugitive from the frontier justice of our phrasing. Second, if there is an object in front of me and I employ words to double its existence, then there will be one thing too many in the world (the poem). Finally, life may escape and conceal itself in shadows, but it also makes them available to us. The poet’s endless education is learning proper manners -- how to return the favor.
The houselights dim and the shadows deepen at the outset of Alan Shapiro’s eleventh book of poems, Night of the Republic. The titles of the first section’s poems announce a gallery of urban tableaux vivants filled with the culture’s artifacts -- “Gas Station Restroom,” “Car Dealership at 3 A.M.,” “Shoe Store,” “Playground,” “Gym.” Before reading the first poem, I was already preparing to defend myself from the intentionality of the object-describing project, the virtuosic presence of the observer, the categorical weight of all this material. But by the third piece, “Supermarket,” the poems had overcome my resistance.
The one cashier is dozing—
head nodding, slack mouth open,
above the cover girl spread out before her on the counter
with indiscriminate forgiveness
and compassion for everyone
who isn’t her.
Only the edge
is visible of the tightly spooled
of what is soon
to be the torn off
inch by inch receipts,
and the beam of green light in the black glass
of the self scanner
drifts free in the space that is the sum
of the cost of all the items that tonight
won’t cross its path.
Registers of feeling too precise
too intricate to feel
except in the disintegrating
traces of a dream—
panopticon of cameras
cutting in timed procession
from aisle to aisle
to aisle on the overhead screens
above the carts asleep inside each other—
above the darkened
service desk, the pharmacy, the nursery,
so everywhere inside the store
is everywhere at once
no matter where—
of stray wisps of steam
from the brightly frozen,
of the canned goods and food stuffs
stacked in columns onto columns
under columns pushed together
into walls of shelves
of aisles all celestially effacing
of bodies that have picked
packed unpacked and placed
them just so
so as to draw bodies to the
pyramid of plums,
of apples and peaches and
in the bins the nearly infinite
gradations and degrees of greens
misted and sparkling.
A paradise of absence,
the dreamed of freed
from the dreamer, bodiless
quenchings and consummations
that tomorrow will draw the dreamer
the way it draws the night tonight
to press the giant black moth
of itself against the windows
of fluorescent blazing.
The eye is impelled to move rather quickly through the poem’s space, at the speed of the one-item shopper – in and out. (The poem’s original title was “24/7.”) By the third reading, I forced my eyes to linger on the lines – each mainly comprising a syntactical unit or a pivoting fragment. Night of the Republic is obsessed with “registers of feeling too precise / too intricate to feel / except in the disintegrating / traces of a dream.” And so, these are poems that want it both ways – to dissolve via accumulation, and vice versa. The implication is that “Supermarket” enacts a heightened means of seeing – a way of being present while subtracting overweening identity. The “registers of feeling” are exquisitely smudged, defogged, enshadowed and relit by the steam wisps, green scanner beams, vegetable mist and fluorescent burst.
No first-person appears in the first section, but these are poems of visitation by a very particular perceiver. A flâneur at the strip mall and on what’s left of Main Street. The vision is unabashedly discerning – it makes no effort to hide the avidity of its quest. This requires Shapiro to tautly restrain a judgment that nonetheless registers as severe even as it is muted. There is no “I,” the cashier is unconscious, and “paradise” is “absence.” Attention peels away the republic to its sensory effects. Here the speaker finds relief in a vacating plenitude. The republic is a removed community of non-observers.
In “Hotel Lobby,” the speaker says, “Light wants to fill dark with itself / and have it still be dark / so light can still be filling it.” The lines are an analog for Shapiro’s enterprise. The dynamic of filling-by-emptying is the gratification of Night of the Republic -- the pathos of the artist trained for years to reveal the world through description and personal statement, but who now is called to another aspect of his vocation. He struggles to adapt his habitual approach to the discovered strangeness that must be answered and allowed to stain the language. The urge to explain tries to accommodate the pleasure of passivity. A race track is “Oval of all / desire, desire’s / inside track.” The tic of metaphor goes on to meet the less sensible play of thoroughbreds’ names: “Pleasure Ride out of Nightmare by Recall.” In “Hospital Examination Room,” we see “fresh paper, innocent of flesh, / on the examination table / rustles a little / under a phantom restlessness.” Remove the human from the scene, and there you find his/her humanity. This is what the republic has come to.
The second section’s first word of the poem “Triumph” is “I.” The inhabitants appear: a homeless man, the bride of a concentration camp commandant, and below, two men at the urinals in a restaurant. In these poems, Shapiro comments directly on relations, but the poems are formed like those in the first section. The book’s rhythm rocks between the isolate and the social, engagement and cooler distance. The prosier long poem “Galaxy Formation” leaps between the science of dark matter, cell phone conversation, a TV screen in a bar (where the action takes place), and family anecdote. The gravitational force of dark matter is “holding in place what otherwise would wash away in the expanding universe.” This is both the responsibility and the behavior of the poem. The dark matter of the poet’s absorptive, restive mind is implicated as “the conjurer of the seen, as if the ten percent that doesn’t hide were being imagined by the ninety percent that does.”
He third section returns to the mode of the first – “what persists” in the ruins of an amphitheater “wants / to whirl away / from what it is.” As before, some observations are precisely comical. In “Museum”:
the very halls
that lead from room
to room are rooms
themselves that make room
in little dim-lit alcoves
all long them for what
there wasn’t room for
in the other rooms.
Shapiro’s poems are very much like splendidly odd audio guides – in the empty museum, they are “lined up / like black-suited docents.” A guard’s vacant chair keeps watch over empty galleries, and as the paintings themselves dissolve into darkness they become “docents of dispersal” – an epithet for the poems themselves. Bookstore, barbershop, post office, conventional hall, courtroom. A note of censure begins to sound. In “Government Center”: “You’d have to hurry not to feel / the feeling of what it is / you’re being told / about the feeling of being / looked at …”
The fourth section treats the objects of familial memory – but for some reason, in these poems Shapiro gives up on the plunging shorter lines that allowed him to avoid ponderousness. This section, with its whiff of conventionality and nostalgia, deflates some of the massed dark energy of the collection. All the shelves get restocked. But after all, Shapiro is a caretaker of a world that could fly apart in fragments at any moment. And there are fine moments here at the end in which the taste for deeply felt dissolution balances a long preference for concretions.
I lay back on the carpeted bottom step
Of the stairwell that like a well extended
Darkly up to the window near the ceiling,
Up where the Chinaman under the wide-brimmed hat
That hid his face pulled the flowerpot that held
No flower across the sill no one could reach.
There was a television on somewhere
Above me, and the doomsday clock was ticking,
Someone was saying. Someone was saying something
About a blockade and a quarantine,
Who would blink first, lose face, or push the button.
A fat man banged a shoe against a desk.
The Chinaman however didn’t care.
Pulling his flowerpot of absent flowers,
He was content to be a clot of darkness
Brightening the moment late sun caught the glass—
The hat tip first, and then the hat, the arms,
The rickshaw of the flowerpot he pulled.
And everywhere within the light’s slow fall
Infinities of particles were falling
Into the flowerpot they’d never fill.
Three decades ago, Shapiro wrote in In Praise of the Impure, “Poetry attempts to train us not to suspend our judgments (for we live by judging, choosing to do this rather than that) but how to judge better by keeping our judgments flexibly responsive to the widest range of possibility.” He is not about to allow the considerate narrator to evaporate into atmospherics at this point. But he finds ways to loosen the reins, especially in the first three sections where the mystery often seems to be plucking its own strings. Night of the Republic finds Alan Shapiro as flexibly responsive as ever to the range of response available and acceptable to him, insisting that “At night, / in the playground, / you could say anything.”
[Published January 17, 2012. 92 pages, $21.00 hardcover]