Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro
Alan Shapiro has published ten books of poetry, most recently Old War, which won the 2009 Ambassador Book Award. His new book of poems, Night of the Republic, will appear in fall of 2011 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His first novel, Broadway Baby, will also appear in fall of 2011 from Algonquin Books. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Shapiro is William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill."

Light Switch

The bad news was the sun was mortal too.
One day it would just burn out. The good news was
We'd all be long gone by the time it happened.

The good news was there wasn't any place
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.

The good news was the light switch in my room,
The way I'd flick it on and off so quickly
That when the room went black an after room

Lit by a spectral light would drift on the blackness,
The bed, the desk, the streetlamp in the window,
Drifting before me till the black seeped through.

I watched it till it wasn't anymore
To feel as if I understood. That was
The good news. The bad news was it did no good.


They said the boy who lived here in my room
Before I did came home one day from school
And hanged himself from a hook in the cellar wall.

They said he left no note. They said he showed no signs
Of being blue—that's what they called it then—
They said the day was just another day

In just another week on a quiet street
Where nothing ever happened, until this did
And the family sold the house and moved away.

They never said the cellar was to blame,
The metal door slanted against the house
That led by steep steps down into the black

Of it that slowly as your eyes adjusted
Became a pit of dark and darker shadows
The darkest of which was the dead furnace

In a far corner, a dank cold smell of ash
Surrounding it as if to warn you off,
And there beside the furnace a chainless bike

With fat flat tires, and above the bike
The hook below a narrow window that
The cut grass grew against and covered up.

White Gloves

Nothing as soft as the silk lined leather gloves
Kept in the top drawer of her dresser, the black ones
And the cream ones, the slip-on's or the buttoned,

Laced up or ruched, the flared, the elbow length,
the heavy stifling odor of lilac and something
talcum-like that rose from the open drawer,

lustre of the red Dents, flat sheen of the Pittards,
day in day out, for high and low occasions,
until the last occasion, whatever it was

when none of them were ever worn again,
not even the white ones, the most expensive,
the ones she buried at the bottom of the drawer

that I would now and then dig out and look at,
as if by looking at the pattern of
the stitching or the textures of the grain,

I'd understand the meaning of the pictures
of the president suddenly reaching for his throat,
and the first lady turning to look at him,

turning to see what's wrong when the head explodes,
and she's crawling out across the back of the car
in a pink dress suit, pink hat and bright white gloves.


A cat jumped out of the shed when I opened it,
And from far away inside a startled room
Inside me that I didn't know was there,

Somebody screamed, and it was only then
I understood exactly what it meant,
The science book that told me I was made

Of cells, and the cells were made of molecules
Made of atoms made of mostly space,
And how within what wasn't space within them

There were other spaces, smaller and vaster spaces,
And somewhere within them all there was this room,
And somebody inside the room was screaming.

He screamed so far away across the outer
Reaches of all that inner space, light years
Of emptiness between himself and me,

That the scream itself was like the light
Of stars that had vanished long before the light
Had ever reached my eyes. So while the boy

Screamed, and would not stop screaming, how could I tell him
That it was just a cat that had jumped out
From the shed, a cat, and now the cat was gone?


You could stand in the hallway between rooms,
Between belonging anywhere, and feel
As if you were the wind harp of the house

That the voices played, trembling inside you,
If you were quiet enough, unseen enough,
Your nerve ends, tuned to their very tips

To every spoken and unspoken mood,
Discordant mutterings and "the random gales"
Of love cries, curses you could always feel,

If not quite hear, above the laugh track or
The gun fire or the talking talk show host
They turned up high to hide themselves behind.

You were the wind harp of the listening house;
You were the open instrument the voices
Swept across, not knowing that they did,

The taut strings of your attention trembling
Long into what has long since disappeared
From the dark hallway that is nowhere now

But here in these lines where you feel the air
Of every lost voice quickening again
Across the mute harp they never knew was there.