Review of Night of the Republic by Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro. Night of the Republic. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 92 pp. $21.00, cloth.

The most memorable exhibit at the 2003 Venice Biennial was an installation by Mladen Stilinović titled “Dictionary of Pain.” Stilinović had removed a hundred or more individual pages from an English dictionary and framed them on two rows of columns in a large warehouse. On every framed page the definition of each word was neatly whited out and replaced by the single hand-printed word: “pain.” It was a simple concept, and maybe even a cheap one, but the work’s force was cumulative. Walking the length of the warehouse and seeing all those pages—all those meanings erased, all that minuscule labor, all that evidence—gave one comfort, as if pain could take objective representation. The installation’s formulaic blandness seemed apt for recording the unspeakable.

Something like this starts to happen around twenty pages into Alan Shapiro’s new book of poems, Night of the Republic. Shapiro’s eleventh, the collection takes as its subject matter not everyday life as we experience it, but rather the settings that support this life. These settings, and the parts they comprise, tend to be invisible until broken or abandoned. They are abandoned here by everyone but the unselfed speaker who visits them at night. Over the first thirty-two pages, no human beings appear, aside from a single dozing clerk. Two of the book’s four sections are called “Night of the Republic,” and these comprise tender, tedious portraits of mundane locales all seeming to exist in the same small city in the same long night.

Shapiro writes mostly in short lines without regular meter or rhyme, though consonance and internal rhyme leave some passages pleasantly clotted. The fourth section is composed in very loose blank verse, but the form of any individual poem in the book is unremarkable. Reading poems in order—“Gas Station Restroom,” “Car Dealership at 3 a.m.,” “Supermarket,” “Park Bench”—can start to impose a sublime sort of boredom. These poems are baldly impersonal, but unlike “conceptual poetry,” of which Kenneth Goldsmith says, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the text,” the exercises in Night of the Republic reveal a deep and thoughtful rigor.

As if in correspondence to the deserted places Shapiro describes, the poems’ minor words —articles, pronouns, prepositions—gain foreground as he guides the reader through his visions. Here are the first several lines of “Car Dealership at 3 a.m.”:

       Over the lot a sodium aura
       within which
       above the new cars sprays
       of denser many-colored brightnesses
       are rising and falling in a time lapse
       of a luminous and ghostly
       garden forever flourishing
       up out of its own decay.

Any spiritual promise is fixed to earth by clumps of stubborn connective speech: “within which / above,” “up out of its.” Language in these poems mimics subject matter: rich at times but always of the world.

Going from poem to poem in the titular sections feels at times like moving through rooms of an empty house. The suspicion that one is alone grows to certainty and then gives way to lonesome curiosity. As with Invisible Cities—Calvino’s novel-in-street-plans—these installments reveal a formal consistency. One comes to understand them as a kind of lipogram, in which the missing element is human presence. “Downtown Strip Club” begins, “Its night is all day long,” six words that close off hope for a lively scene. These poems restore a little blood flow to our ready-to-hand use of daily stuff. “Funeral Home,” the last poem in the first “Night of the Republic,” concludes with an enumeration of the furniture in the empty parlor:

       on the spotless breakfront
       and between the chairs
       and couches and on either
       side of the doorways to the
       family room, the chapel,
       and the roped-off staircase
       which if not for the rope
       could be a staircase in an inn
       made to look like a home
       made to look like a mansion
       where no one lives.

This stepwise postlude to a room’s things calls to mind the children’s book Goodnight Moon, but that likeness only makes the passage more unsettling. All the shapes that frame the world we take for granted—even in mourning—grow through Night of the Republic ever less always-already there.

After the first section’s long, unpopulated night, the book’s first use of the word “I” is both comforting and jarring. “Galaxy Formation,” as the second section is called, begins with the strongest single poem in Night of the Republic. The book’s power comes mostly from accumulated meaning, but one can imagine “Triumph” surviving extraction for an anthology. “I saw him as I drove by,” Shapiro begins, “I don’t have to tell you what he looked like.” A description of a stranger’s public suffering, the poem has some of the plainness of speech one finds in work by Carl Dennis or even Billy Collins. Here, though, the narrator offers no avuncular wisdom, no crinkly-eyed solace. Shapiro is crisper and a little crueler than either of these poets. In exchange for warmth lost we get clarity:

       But whatever I did or didn’t do
       I did it to forget that
       either way
       he was the one asleep on the sidewalk,
       I was the one borne along in the car
       that might as well have been a chariot
       of empathy, a chariot
       the crowd cheers
       even as it weeps
       for the captured elephant too wide
       to squeeze through
       the triumphal arch
       and draw home
       to bed my sweet
       sensitive Caesar of a soul.

That most of the other poems in Night of the Republic are forgettable does not make the book a failure. The emptiness with which Shapiro views both populated and unpopulated zones of the republic lends his poems a compassion unavailable to more tender-hearted poets. With unblinking attention he observes a flustered woman holding up the line at the gas station, “scavenging through receipts / pens tissues / and prescriptions.” He overhears a lady on her cell phone in a bar, her voice “tense with what it’s trying not to sound like, saying, ‘Honey, listen to me, honey. Honey. Honey. I am not your mother.’” In a chilling but unfocused poem about the young bride of a death-camp commandant, he notes with calm “our ignorance about the many ways / there are to suffer,” never stepping forth to offer a lesson or a judgment.

The last section of the book is a series of riffs on images that hold what seems to be personal meaning to Shapiro. After the expansiveness of the preceding three sections, these poems feel a bit dinky. Still, at ninety-two pages, Night of the Republic provides more fine poetry than some new-and-selecteds. It seems right to conclude by mentioning the last poem of the second titular section, the only one of its cohort not to take a location as its subject. “The Public” numbers two sentences in all, one short, one long. The second is an epic simile that tries to draw into light the shadow that trails every citizen of a republic. Homer assigns to his great subject, war, two contrasting epithets. Sometimes he calls it “man-wasting war,” and sometimes he calls it “war where men win glory.” But it is always both. For one man to taste victory, another has to die. Shapiro’s subject is less violent, but not maybe not any less grim. His is a book about comfort, the slightly boring comfort of civilized life, the reverse of which is a desolation that is––he suggests––just as ubiquitous. Defining the title of his poem, “The Public,” Shapiro shrugs knowingly: “The no one of it / is everywhere.”

Matthew Buckley Smith was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia and earned an MFA in poetry at Johns Hopkins University. His first book of poems, Dirge for an Imaginary World, won the 2011 Able Muse Book Award. His poems have appeared in various publications, including Beloit Poetry Journal, Commonweal, Iron Horse Literary Review, Sewanee Theological Review, Measure, Verse Daily, and The Best American Poetry 2011. He lives in Baltimore with his wife, Joanna Pearson.