David Rigsbee reviews Alan Shapiro's upcoming "Night Of The Republic"
The story goes that during World War II, when the rest of France's poets were training invectives against the Nazis or writing patriotic verses to steel the determination of the Resistance, Francis Ponge scandalized his colleagues with Le parti pris des choses(1942, Taking the Side of Things) and the first installments of Le Savon (1967, Soap), a book-length poem about a bar of soap. He raised lowly household objects by submitting them to a scrutiny of such penetration and status-elevation that a hue and cry was sure to follow: what was Ponge thinking? Was he off his nut? By the time Neruda published OdasElementales (1954, Elemental Odes), the reading world, chastened by dislocation and war, was beginning to catch up. Blake had famously seen eternity in a grain of sand, and it was Blake's purpose to wake sleeping giants and point them in the general direction of the New Jerusalem. While Blake's motive was religious, Ponge's and Neruda's motives were political and philosophical. In either case, the perspectival reset was in line with the march of science, which, pace Blake, postulated the systematic diminution of the human. But what—as we shrank—about our new ethical size? The emphasis on things rendered us smaller in the light of contrast, but the real point was that things became, as it were, our confreres, fellow participants in existence itself. To elevate things was to get us thinking of how we took these same things for granted, and how, in extremis, we could come to destroy them. It was a problem made familiar by Baudelaire, as well, who foresaw how the falling away of things (as individualism swelled) left us to our own devices, with spiritual acedia and its attendant boredom as the result.
Alan Shapiro's new Night of the Republic is one of the best collections I've read in a while. The poet picks up the thread left by Ponge and Neruda in having us spend quality time with the effects of the quotidian, leaving ordinary things, well, not exactly to their own devices (they have none) but to the devices of poetry, chief among them, description. Most recently, Miss Bishop showed that, in the proper light, just as journeys lead to pilgrimages, description leads to vision. To use Bellow's term, Shapiro is a "first-class noticer," and the fact, as it should, ramifies far beyond the confines of the page. If Night of the Republic sounds like it brushes by Night in the Museum, you may be pardoned for thinking that the resemblance is a more than coincidental. Things seem to acquire a life of their own by virtue of the poet's acknowledgment. Take the opening of "smoke," for example:
Released a single strand of smoke straight up
In a slender column that looked like it would go
On stretching in a straight line to the ceiling,
Though always at the same point—maybe a foot
Or so above the ashtray—it would waver,
And bend and branch, the branches branching too,
Thinning to veins, the veins to capillaries
Entangling and knotting up each other
Into a bluish opalescent cloud.
Shapiro's collection amounts to a grand inventory, Whitmanian in its delight in entering things into the register of the poems, and yet it is also largely non-Whitmanian in form (Shapiro prefers the short line). The inventory begins with the description of public places ("Gas Station Rest Room," "Supermarket," "Car Dealership," "Downtown Strip Club," "Park Bench," "Hotel Lobby," "Race Track," and so forth). These spaces become even more public ("Post Office," "Convention Hall," "Government Center," "Court Room"). After the pivotal, catalytic "Galaxy Formation," a long-lined, recursive and personal poem, the flip—and yet worthy counter—of so much that makes this volume work, the second half of Night of the Republic moves into reverse, where smaller, private things, reminiscent of Neruda's odes proliferate as content:"Dryer," "Desk," "Family Pictures," "Faucet." In "Dry Cleaner," we find,
like memory to the crumpled-together sack-
cloth of pant leg
cuff or collar
tomorrow will be churned away
till one by one the spilled on dripped on merely worn
in an aphasia of transparency
to sheer raiment
This rising of the ordinary into the ideal, by way of the actual, will probably remind some readers of early Wilbur, who also sought to find the angelic in laundry. Shapiro's pinpoint deployment of the word "raiment" likewise conveys a feeling, not merely of having stumbled on the sacred, but of having created something that goes by means of its association of sacredness, by virtue of the poet's having beheld it in all its splendor—which is to say, its ability to sponsor the right language.
In "Stone Church," another poem hungry to show its Adamic muscle, he locates spirit itself in the building of belief's paradox—itself manifested in a building consecrated to the reconciliation of spirit and stone:
gravity inside the
the grace that's risen
highest into rib
vaults and flying
each stone is another
stone's resistance to
the heaven far
beneath it, that
with all its might
it yearns for, down
in the very soul
of earth where it's said
that stone is forever
falling into light
that burns as it rises,
cooling, into stone.
"Playground" queries the prerogative of Adam, which is not only to confer a name, but to confer the right name. Saussure added to Adam's burden in showing us how really arbitrary the act of naming was, and yet, no poet can pass by Saussure without adjusting her Ray-Bans, for without a sense of the rightness, even within the confines of contingency, even in the jaws of chance itself, the mot justecarries the last quiddity of meaning, if only because it got there with its own self-sustaining belief intact, fighting off competing interpretations.
out in the street
under the street light
the inside of a ripped-open
half of a tennis ball
(hit or hurled?)
is blacker than the blacktop
it is tipped toward
somewhere in which
the other half is surely lying,
tipped toward the street.
Tipped, you could say, like an ear.
You could say the silence
is the sound of one ear
listening for the other
from the bottom of an
You could say sand dunes.
Aphasic metal. The breaking
chain links of a wave. At night,
in the playground,
you could say anything.
The stone arises to evoke spirit, and poetic speech retains its taste in the cacophony of a playground. In "Gym," we see another instance of such paradoxical comparison:
The room is a downward
exhalation, the very iron breathing
into itself and through itself
to exhalations under it,
and under that,
yielding the way everything with breath yields
finally when it's breathing out.
From the siege of contraries, Shapiro enacts an ancient struggle, a fact of which he is perfectly aware. Hints line the poems of something mythic, as if the True Names of Things weren't vision enough:
The circulating disinfectants
make it an unearthly blue
or earth's blue seen from space,
or what pooled from the steaming
of the planet's first condensing.
On the way to these enactments he also becomes aware of the hopelessness of it all: the impossibility of poetry, an idea that raises its knobby head from time to time, even as the accumulation of work belies the unsettling sense that it could be otherwise:
All night, off and on,
cool air is hurried
through the floor and ceiling vents
to keep the temperature from spiking,
and while it does
until it doesn't
fresh paper, innocent of flesh,
on the examination table
rustles a little
under a phantom restlessness.
These lines appear, tellingly, in a poem called "Hospital Examination Room." If there were ever a call for poetry to renew its claim to being therapeutic, it would be now in the light of ancient claims that are called upon by reasonable skeptics to justify themselves. Why should poetry tolerate, let alone fetishize paradox? What meaning can be derived of language situated on the arbitrariness of its very means? What can be made of the fact that these means situate themselves in a world of fact, only to take leave of that world by theory, dream, and/or flight of fancy? Shapiro is not going to furnish the reader with an answer to any of these questions, as they are not at the epicenter of his discourse as a poet. But it doesn't take a theorist trained in the speculation of whimsy, to see how the questions emerge and start growing out from his very premises. Indeed, just as with Ponge, Shapiro gets an ethical universal framework for his pains, and it is one built in the light of our own struggles, not one superimposed on chaos for us to deal with, training our little lights on the big (and suddenly bigger for the thinking) mysteries. There is a rightness to these poems that proceeds from the poet's sense of beautiful placement, derived from the interpenetration of absence (few people appear in the book) and presence, substance and dearth, time and the instant. Shapiro is the descendant of Hopkins and Stevens, both believers in meaning's quantum shifts, in his understanding of what I have elsewhere referred to as "ambivalence," but might just as well be named the Here-There school of Beauty and the Good:
The unseen of seeing all at once and too
Continuously for the eye to see
The trackless path it traces to the eye:
The finch's yellow now-there-not-there flashing
Among the leaves, and the leaves too, their green
Degrees, gradations, shifting moods, a green
Or yellow fire unfixed and alive
And flaring out indifferent to the sight
It woos and enters, indifferent to the bird,
The leaf, the very air it all at once
Continuously dwells in and deserts,
Awake and wakeless, light-borne, born of light?
When I got to the end of Night in the Republic—and it is somewhat longer than the conventional single volume, I realized that I didn't want it to end. Time and again he nailed something I had myself thought but not seen how to make manifest in a poem. I even thought that this coming upon the verity of the Here-There was his actual subject, and today I find myself thinking that again. Who knows about tomorrow? All we know is that, as Wittgenstein said about death, it is something about which we can have no knowledge, and yet we feel impelled to say a great deal. In Shapiro's parlance, deriving from life in suburban America, our republic (moreover at night), it's the on-and-off of the TV that that says this moment is unlike any other, just as it says all our moments are indistinguishable in time's continuum:
Inside the house I couldn't find extinctions
To study and by studying prepare
Myself for what I wouldn't live to see:
The way the angry little ball of fire
From a struck match would vanish when I shook it
Into a loosening skeleton of smoke;
Or how the world that watched me from the TV screen
Swallowed itself the moment I turned it off.