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Night of the Republic Hardcover – January 17, 2012
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In his twelfth collection of poetry, Shapiro, who holds an endowed chair at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is concerned with phenomena and places. He finds the most generic location and douses for its most evocative associations. A gas station restroom at night, for example, has a stink and anonymity that seem to evoke the general unease of road tripping. An empty strip club during the day holds the presence of its lonely strippers and their lonelier clientele, inching their chairs too close to the stage and the women’s nudity. “Stone Church,” “Hospital Examination Room,” “Indoor Municipal Pool”—all receive this schematic treatment. Old buildings are “embarrassed” by their modernist neighbors, “by how nakedly / outside / outside is here.” Here the line breaks add emphasis to a resonant idea, the sense amplified by the sounds. In the last third of the book, Shapiro uses a similar approach, formally and aesthetically, to visions from his childhood. Readers might take comfort in Shapiro’s visions. The poet is also debuting as a novelist this month with Broadway Baby (2012). --Michael Autrey
From the Inside Flap
In Night of the Republic, Alan Shapiro takes us on an unsettling night tour of Americas public placesa gas station restroom, shoe store, convention hall, and race track among othersand in stark Edward Hopperlike imagery reveals the surreal and dreamlike features of these familiar but empty night spaces. Shapiro finds in them not the expected alienation but rather an odd, companionable solitude rising up from the quiet emptiness.
In other poems, Shapiro writes movingly of his 1950s and 60s childhood in Brookline, Massachusetts, with special focus on the house he grew up in. These meditations, always inflected with Shapiros quick wit and humor, lead to recollections of tragic and haunting events such as the Cuban missile crisis and the assassination of JFK. While Night of the Republic is Shapiros most ambitious work to date, it is also his most timely and urgent for the acute way it illuminates the mingling of private obsessions with public space.
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Divided into four section with section one and three, both also called Night of the Republic, presenting nightscapes of deserted locations—a gas station restroom, a park bench, etc.—as points of meditation, almost as if one were looking at a still life. These are places people have been and will be but are for these few dark moments of the poem are simply place (like Edward Ruscha might interpret Hopper’s Nighthawks, i.e. sans folks).
Sections three and four give us portraits of the people from those places. We encounter life and death, certainly death. The poems in section four are the most formally structured, each composed in seven three lined stanzas.
I love Shapiro’s use of words and images. The conceit of the book is very tight.
The only image in the book with which I have a problem is in the poem “Piano Bench.” He refers to records as a “tight cell of concentric grooves.” This may bother me only because I spent so many years of my youth working as a clerk in a record store, but records do not have concentric grooves, rather each side has one grove that spirals in.
Alan Shapiro as a poet? Well, after finishing Night of the Republic once through, I went to Amazon.com and ordered a two more of his titles—I like his work enough that I want more.
The contents did not disappoint. Common everyday scenes are described in the detail most people overlook or take for granted. Shapiro highlights and accents the unseen or neglected aspects of the scenes he describes. In the poem titled "Hotel Lobby" we see descriptions which describe the uses of light as described in words. This poet treats the use of light in his poetry very much like Edward Hopper treated light in his paintings.
In the poem titled "Close to You" we see a common and nervous woman coping with the stresses of paying her bill at the counter. What makes the poem so different is that the language and cadence are very different from his other poems. It is an ongoing ramble, which by the way is neither vague nor obtuse.
In the poem "Galaxy Formation" I was taken aback by the cadence and meaning. To be frank it took me three readings to really understand it. While on the other hand the titled poem "Cigarette Smoke" was straight forward, simple and very thoughtful. Simple writing of common things making one look at different things in a different light. These are the strengths of Alan Shapiro who is indeed a poet extraordinaire.
The book is a thematic collection of about fifty poems arranged in four parts. The first and the third parts are titled "Night of the Republic" and explore familiar American scenes in the stillness and loneliness of night. The second part of the book, "Galaxy Formation" has a similar meditative character but its subjects are somewhat more abstract and not limited to the United States. The final section of the book, "At the Corner of Coolidge and Clarence", is different from the earlier sections but shows continuity of themes. This section consists of 20 poems in which Shapiro reflects on his boyhood in Brookline, Massachusetts. Unlike the prior sections which are written in a free, unstructured style, these last group of poems each consist of seven unrhymed three-line stanzas.
The poems show a sense of quiet and repose as Shapiro focuses on things of the everyday. Many of the poems are gritty.as a "Gas Station Restroom", "Downtown Strip Club" and "Race Track". Such places are intriguing subjects for a poem, but for me they were among the less successful works in the collection.
The poems have imaginative turns which allow the reader to think of their objects in an unusual way. For example, in a poem called "Car Dealership at 3 A.M", Shapiro describes a lot full of new cars which "modest as angels/or like angelic/hoplites, are arrayed in rows." He describes the shiny, polished new cars under the bright lights in the dark, as they await the customers who will be attracted to them come day. Shapiro compares the brightness of the new cars with what they will soon become, "the dented, the rusted through,/ metallic Eves and Adams/ hurry past, as if ashamed,/their dull beams averted,/low in the historical dark they disappear into".
In a poem called "Park Bench" Shapiro describes a lonely bench at night with a river and bridge on one side and park facilities on the other side. The reader sees the city and the park from the perspective of sitting on the bench by moonlight. In the middle of the night, Shapiro recalls the city and its past and activities that frequently take place unobserved on the bench: "haunt of illicit tryst; of laughter/or muffled scream, what/even now years later/may be guttering elsewhere on the neural/fringes of a dream, all this/ the bench is empty of".
The poems' stillness frequently evokes a spiritual quality. In his portrayal of a church at night, "Stone Church", Shapiro contrasts the heavy, downward push of the stone construction, with the church's religious mission of uplift. In a poem about a more mundane place, titled "Barbershop" Shapiro manages to capture a mystic spirit from the humdrum paraphernalia of cutting hair. "Eternity is the spiral up the pole/ spiraling to its endless end./ Time is the vitrine/ of antiquated gels." And again: "Eternity/ is the swept floor,/the bald air,/the faceless mirrors,/while Time, and its one idea/of beauty falling,/is a book of blank pages/ghostwritten by/Eternity in vanished/passages of hair." A number of poems such as "Galaxy Formation" have a more overtly cosmic theme as Shapiro shows a fascination with science generally and with astronomy in particular.
While the poems in the first three sections of the book take night objects and bring them to day, the poems in the final section take events from the past and bring them to current light. These final poems are the most personal in the book and are confessional in character. The poet describes a family life that does not appear altogether happy while he uses his writing to remember and to achieve a catharsis. The poems sometimes set personal details against larger events as in "Solitaire", in which the lonely alienated figure of a woman playing cards is compared with Ralph Kramden on the "Honeymooners" and his antics towards Alice. Other poems recollect the young boy's reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis and to the death of President Kennedy. In the final poem, "The Doorbell", the poet recalls how as a child he would run downstairs to answer the door to the distinctive chimes of the doorbell's melody. He remembers going down to meet the caller and finds that this caller has now become himself as compared with the time when he was a boy. "You who I am now, whom I have become,/ The one the world's impatient to take back,/ The one behind the door who's pushed the button,/ And waits there listening for the sound/Of anybody's footstep coming near."
These poems have a reflective feel. At times I thought more could have been made of the themes and places. The poems are in simple language and are more accessible than much modern poetry. All the same, they require close attention from the reader.