The National Catholic Review

Alan Shapiro, author of nine previous collections of poetry, two memoirs, a book of criticism and two classical translations, has published another volume of poems. Night of the Republic is accessible, engaging and playful, and if it does not probe deeply into dark questions, it enables us to see more clearly where those questions might be beneficially raised—namely, in the shops, industries and public venues where American life so often, and often unthinkingly, takes place.

It is a terrific idea. The dry cleaner, the race track, the post office, a shed—poem by poem the “public” of the republic is inventoried and detailed. The effect of the book is to awaken us to our surroundings (especially urban surroundings), to achieve new and informed awareness of where we are and what we are doing in our daily lives. To read this collection is to acquire greater consciousness.

Shapiro gathers his poems into four groups. The first focuses on mundane but iconic places, mostly during night-owl hours (these poems bring to mind the paintings of Edward Hopper); the second presents portraits of seemingly ordinary people; the third explores public spaces; and the last appears to approach, though perhaps not quite to be, autobiography. Parts I and III share the same title, which is the title of the book, I imagine because both sections examine empty spaces at night.

The majority of the poems in Night of the Republic share a strategy: short lines lead us down the page, forming longer sentences, many with subordinate clauses.

Occasionally a poem may leave us breathless, or slightly dizzy, as if we’ve run a race to get to the end. Here, for example, is the opening of “Museum,” my favorite of the night poems:

So much of once

and now and soon

is or will soon be

caught here, framed and

glassed—

free of the drifting air—

and hung, so that

the very halls

that lead from room

to room are rooms

themselves that make room

in little dim-lit alcoves

all along them for what

there wasn’t room for

in the other rooms.

Paradoxically, this torqued, or twisted, or waterspout syntax speeding toward the end obliges us to start over, to read the poem again, slowly, and take a closer look at phrasing. Occasionally, Shapiro carries the strategy a word or a few words longer than necessary, as if repetition will heighten the effect. I decided to think of these ornamental continuations as akin to grace notes in music.

Another memorable example is from “Amphitheater.” I’ve visited a few amphitheaters recently, but this poem made me think of them in a way that had not occurred to me before: as sites of gravitation.

In the dream time

of the molecular

what persists as

colonnade

or stair is struggling

blindly to hold

back, hold

in, what in it,

of it, every

moment wants

to whirl away

from what it is.

The poet goes on to suggest that molecular gravity—this resistance to chaos, this essential integrity—is a kind of “keeping/ faith, a loyalty” and then quotes from Pindar’s fourth Pythian ode—presumably this quotation is Shapiro’s own translation—and the poem holds these referents together easily, even casually, but also in a way that offers enlightenment. By poem’s end, we feel as though we have heard Pindar himself reciting in an amphitheater.

In a move that seems to me collateral to the torqued syntax and repetition, Shapiro sometimes expresses positive statements in negative terms, heightening a sense of irony or dismay. In “Supermarket,” for example, “[T]he cover girl”…has “compassion for everyone/ who isn’t her”). Another example, from “Edenic Simile”:

The way there wasn’t

anything to cover up

or hide from till

they heard in the sudden

leaf shiver

and fret of gravel

the Lord approaching....

“Fret of gravel” is one of many spot-on lines in the collection, though “black as night,” which is less wonderful, occurs twice in different poems. But even Homer....

Like Homer, Shapiro is much lauded. His awards and honors include two from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim, the O. B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award and an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His first novel, Broadway Baby, was published in January.

Kelly Cherry is the current Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia.