2012 National Book Award finalist in Poetry: Alan Shapiro, Night of the Republic
November 1, 2012 § Leave a comment
Only the edge
is visible of the tightly spooled
of what is soon
to be the torn-off-
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.
– second stanza from “Supermarket”
Poetry, for myself at least, is more than just an ode to a Grecian urn or a sonnet rhapsodizing on whether or not a mistress’s eyes are anything like the sun. Poetry, at least that produced by an adept, can transform the mundane into something profound and even frightening. It is one thing to take the splash of water from the shower head and create a sensory buffet of metaphors and similes to describe the emotional state of the person taking a shower; it is a very different thing to take an ATM transaction and create something memorable from it.
In his latest collection, Night of the Republic, Alan Shapiro does just that. His poems touch those hidden recesses in our minds, shedding light upon the crevices where we have those passing thoughts at 2 AM about that lonely street light shining above a deserted basketball courtyard or those crumbling gas station bathrooms, where the mold sometimes seems to overpower in smell even the most foul of human waste residue. Take for instance that excerpt from “Supermarket.” There is a confluence of human traffic and impersonal produce within such buildings. Where Allen Ginsberg could find Walt Whitman stalking its aisles, eying the meat (and the grocery boys), Shapiro finds poetry within the hail of torn, discarded receipts, the green lights of the scanners, with registers that are “too precise” and “too intricate to feel.” It is, perhaps, “[a] paradise of absence,” where the imprecisions of humanity come into direct contact with the cold, unfeeling exactitude of machines.
What world is this in which we live where the glow of the phosphorescent lights and LED screens have become our moon and stars? That is the sort of question that Shapiro explores in his poetry. He finds a semblance of eternity within a barbershop:
Eternity is the spiral up the pole
spiraling to its endless end.
Time is the vitrine
of antiquated gels,
stray sections from yesterday’s Today
all over the table
in the waiting area where
Eternity is waiting.
– first lines from “Barbershop”
The association of eternity with the antiquated tools of a barbershop, itself a relic of a neighborly past that is fading in our consumerist “stylist” culture, works on several levels. First is the visual power of Shapiro’s lines, as the tools of the barbershop, itself a cutter of strands that any of the Fates might appreciate, serve to remind the audience of the fleetingness of our own conceptions of “eternity.” Then there is the metaphor of the “swept floor,” where all of the cut hair (time) has fallen, only to be gathered up and disposed of in a bin. Beauty fades or is altered through these passages of time and hair, until another replaces the customer in the chair. “Barbershop” is one of the more haunting poems in Night of the Republic, as there is much that could be gleaned from re-reading its two pages, most of that leading to disturbing thoughts about the ephemeral nature of ourselves and our desires.
This sense of a sweeping time that gathers us in only to dispel us is echoed in the poem “The Family”:
Three million years ago, three barefoot people –
A father and mother and a little child –
Were walking close together in moist ash.
– First stanza from “The Family”
Readers familiar with the discoveries at Olduvai Gorge in the Great Rift Valley of eastern Africa by the Leakeys know what is being alluded to here. Who has not seen the traces of long-dead beings and wondered what traces that they themselves might leave behind (a grave, a mausoleum, a pyramid?) for succeeding generations to ponder? What ever happened to that ancient family? Did they escape the volcano’s eruption? Were they made a meal for fearsome carnivores? Or did they survive to give birth to the most complex and neurotic omnivores of our day? Shapiro’s poems provoke several questions about ourselves, our identities, and how we relate to the world around us; he is not interested in providing possible answers or solutions.
Night of the Republic is a subtle collection. It sneaks past our guarded selves, forcing us to consider the questions that underlie something as “ordinary” as a supermarket or a barbershop. Shapiro’s verses are sharp, while seeming to be effortless. The metaphors created by the placement of concrete items (such as a gas station bathroom) in the midst of his ruminations are mostly fully-realized, with few that ring false. Night of the Republic is a strong collection, one of the best in this year’s National Book Award poetry shortlist, and it certainly is deserving of multiple readings in the years to come.