Alan Shapiro’s book of poetry, Night of the Republic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), offers the reader a bleak view into a moonlit territory of despair, but without succumbing to the pitfalls of melancholy, self-pity, or maudlin navel-gazing. It’s fueled with wit and bursts of lyrical insight that remind us much of Denis Johnson’s book of poems, The Incognito Lounge, which came out almost thirty years ago. Much like its predecessor, Shapiro’s book entrances us, and as we read through many of these brilliant poems, there is an utterly overwhelming sensation of sleepwalking, or dream-walking, or wake-walking through this spectral landscape that is Shapiro’s vision of America.
Each poem in this collection presents the reader with a familiar place—a post office, a library, a museum, a government building—and proceeds to dismantle it, then put it back together, image by image, until what we, the reader, are looking at is something entirely new. In this way, Shapiro is taking us on a journey through America’s night: a dark, surreal, spectral landscape that is as empty and silent and unsettling as it is alienating. But as Shapiro gives voice to these solitary places, we slowly begin to occupy his headspace and what we experience from here is not so much dread or alienation, but rather a kind of communion, a kind of intimacy of loneliness that emerges from the darkness of solitude. It really is something otherworldly, something quite beautiful to witness.
In one poem, titled “Government Center,” Shapiro walks the reader through an empty plaza at night: “At Washington and State,/the wide brick stairs lead up to wide brick stairs/up to the bricked/expanse, the brick field of the benchless plaza/edged here and there by lampposts whose light/spotlights the little public trees/that tremble leafless/and raw in stone tubs/for everyone/who isn’t there/to see.” While this poem offers the reader the many pleasures of language—lyrical flourishes and a compression of images—it is also giving the reader something more. It is giving us a look into what true emptiness looks like, true vacancy. The plaza of this government center seems to almost transcend itself here, at night, when there is no one to see it. It is made almost more beautiful, more sublime, by the absence of people, by the silence, by the darkness that envelops it. Thus, what Shapiro is giving us is a privileged look into the pure, unseen beauty of a certain kind of void—America’s nighttime. It makes us wish we were actually there to see it, knowing, too, at the same time, that if we were there, something would be lost. It wouldn’t be the same.
But the greatest accomplishment of these poems is in their modesty. Shapiro is never esoteric to the point of isolating his readership. He never trivializes or demeans his experiences with the easy stylistic devices or cheap gimmicks so often seen in poetry these days. There is true, genuine honesty here, in these poems. You can tell that Shapiro simply wants to share these places with us, these emotions, these deepest pangs of loneliness that haunt us all, and in doing so, jettison them, clinging to the tremendous love and joy that is life shared with others. And when he despairs, it isn’t self-pitying or self-indulgent. It is only to make us feel more welcome in his dark, bleak world. So thank you, Alan Shapiro. Thank you.
Reid Maruyama was born and raised in Santa Cruz, California. He currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.