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Night of the Republic

Shapiro, Alan

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An urgent and timely collection by one of America’s most inventive and accessible poets

In Night of the Republic, Alan Shapiro takes us on an unsettling night tour of America’s public places—a gas station restroom, shoe store, convention hall, and race track among others—and in stark Edward Hopper–like 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 Shapiro’s 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 Shapiro’s 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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About the Author:

Alan Shapiro is the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of nine acclaimed books of poetry. He is a former recipient of the Kingsley Tufts Award and the Los Angeles Book Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was recently elected as a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Gas Station Restroom

The present tense
is the body’s past tense
here; hence
the ghost sludge of hands
on the now gray strip
of towel hanging limp
from the jammed dispenser;
hence the mirror
squinting through grime
at grime, and the worn—
to-a-sliver of soiled soap
on the soiled sink.
The streaked bowl,
the sticky toilet seat, air
claustral with stink—
all residues and traces
of the ancestral
spirit of body free
of spirit—hence,
behind the station,
at the back end of the store,
hidden away
and dimly lit
this cramped and
solitary carnival
inversion—Paul
becoming Saul
becoming scents
anonymous
and animal; hence,
over the insides
of the lockless stall
the cave-like
scribblings and glyphs
declaring unto all
who come to it
in time: “heaven
is here at hand
and dark, and hell
is odorless; hell
is bright and clean.”

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.

The cars, meanwhile, modest as angels
or like angelic
hoplites, are arrayed
in rows, obedient to orders
they bear no trace of,
their bodies taintless, at attention,
serving the sheen they bear,
the glittering they are,
the sourceless dazzle
that the showcase window
that the showroom floor
weeps for
when it isn’t there—

like patent leather, even the black wheels shine.

Here is the intense
amnesia of the just now
at last no longer longing
in a flowering of lights
beyond which
one by one, haphazardly
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.

Supermarket

The one cashier is dozing—
head nodding, slack mouth open,
above the cover girl spread out before her on the counter
smiling up
with indiscriminate forgiveness
and compassion for everyone
who isn’t her.

Only the edge
is visible of the tightly spooled
white miles
of what is soon
to be the torn-off-
inch-by-inch receipts,
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.

Registers of feeling too precise
too intricate to feel
except in the disintegrating
traces of a dream—
panopticon of cameras
cutting in timed procession
from aisle to aisle
to aisle on the overhead screens
above the carts asleep inside each other—
above the darkened
service desk, the pharmacy, the nursery,
so everywhere inside the store
is everywhere at once
no matter where—
eternal reruns
of stray wisps of steam
that rise
from the brightly frozen,
of the canned goods and foodstuffs
stacked in columns onto columns
under columns pushed together
into walls of shelves
of aisles all celestially effacing
any trace
of bodies that have picked
packed unpacked and placed
them just so
so as to draw bodies to the
pyramid of plums,
the ziggurats
of apples and peaches and
in the bins the nearly infinite
gradations and degrees of greens
misted and sparkling.

A paradise of absence,
the dreamed-of freed
from the dreamer, bodiless
quenchings and consummations
that tomorrow will draw the dreamer
the way it draws the night tonight
to press the giant black moth
of itself against the windows
of fluorescent blazing.

Park Bench

Behind the bench the drive,
before the bench the river.
Behind the bench, white lights
approaching east and west
become red lights
receding west and east
while before the bench,
there are paved and unpaved
pathways and a grassy field,
the boathouse, and the playground, and the gardens
of a park named for a man whom
no one now remembers
except in the forgetting that occurs
whenever the park’s name is said.
Left of the bench there is a bridge
that spans the river
and beyond the bridge around a bend
floodlights from the giant dry goods
that replaced the bowling alley
that replaced the slaughterhouse
are dumping fire all night long
into the river; but here
where the bench is,
the river is black, the river
is lava long past its cooling,
black as night
with only a few lights
from the upper story of the trapezoidal
five-star hotel across the water
glittering on the water
like tiny crystals in a black geode.
Haunt of courtship,
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,
between the mineral river that it faces
and the lights behind it speeding white
to red to white to red to white.

 

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