Night of the Republic
Alan Shapiro
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $21 (cloth)

In the Gnostic and mystic traditions, the term “apophatic” was used to describe an awareness of the divine cultivated through absence. For these thinkers, God—or whatever higher power one might channel—could be known only through what he or she was not. In a broader cultural sense, the apophatic allows us to inhabit places buried in history’s wake, or to envision the shape of a future that does not yet exist: the hollow spaces—black-tiled, filled with water—that mark the spot where the Twin Towers stood; air rising above the mirrored panels of a new Park Avenue building that will one day house businesses, restaurants, and homes. This kind of thinking inevitably leads to a paradox—how can one know objects by their absence, or spaces through their vanishing?—that Alan Shapiro explores with alert enthusiasm in Night of the Republic.

Shapiro’s eleventh book of poems takes as its focus places of public life that have been abandoned at night. An empty car dealership, public swimming pool, park bench, playground—in these stilled, silent places normally filled with activity, Shapiro constructs “a paradise of absence” in which he imagines a nighttime world “where the improbable / is law, and logic / a penumbral state.” In “Hospital Examination Room,” we find the intercom “flashing only the red light of a dream / of no one entering / to check on no one waiting.” In “Race Track,” the only traces of life are “betting windows / like a row of eyes / shut tight and / dreaming of the / urgent little bills / no hands shove / under the glass.” These are places devoid of the human activity they were constructed to contain, transformed by an imagination that is able to locate the presence of what is absent, to communicate, as Wallace Stevens wrote, “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Shapiro, however, delivers these acts of negative description with a ludic vitality. Though often bleak and rarely romanticized, these are not, on the whole, dour or doomsday depictions. In “Shoe Store,” “leather infants of Sarguntum” are found “climbing undiscourageably up / to the boxes they get no closer to / stacked high above them.” In “Courtroom,” Shapiro pokes fun at the North Carolina state emblem “in which ‘tar heels’ / from Ohio could be ‘first in flight’ / above a beach named after a bird / named after a cat.”

Shapiro has always had an ear sharply attuned to wordplay and sound, two elements that lighten and enliven the elegantly compressed texture of these poems. Sometimes this approaches the level of a joke, as in “Museum,” where “the very halls / that lead from room / to room are rooms / themselves that make room / in little dim-lit alcoves / all along them for what / there wasn’t room for / in the other rooms.” Other times, the ecstatic rush of syntax threatens to overflow the frame of lines that, pleasingly, barely manages to contain it: “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.”

At their best, these poems, which comprise sharply enjambed lines cascading down the page, pursue a mirroring of seemingly contrary images. Consistently managing to evade reduction, they resonate with meaning. Take, for example, “Stone Church”:

A space to rise in,
made from what falls,
from the very mass
it’s cleared from,
cut, carved, chiseled,
fluted or curved
into a space
there is no end to
at night when
the stained glass
behind the altar
could be stone too,
obsidian, or basalt,
for all the light there is.

Shapiro extends this sense of contrary motion to a series of human subjects in a section titled “Galaxy Formation,” which divides two sections also called, like the title of the book, “Night of the Republic.” In “Forgiveness,” the small motions of a woman drinking tea illustrate the deceptive differences between what is said and what is meant, as a Nazi official’s aging wife unapologetically retells the story of how her wedding was ruined by the massacre of millions of Jews. The poem begins:

If not for her, then no one,
in the high-collared dress
with the bone-white buttons,
white as the serviette beside her,
as the teacup before her
on the dark mirror of the mahogany table
in which a shriveled
phantom of herself she isn’t looking at
is floating, the hand and teacup
on the surface sinking
as she lifts the teacup to her mouth.

The story is a harrowing enough subject for an engrossing poem, but the imagery of reflections allows Shapiro to build a nuanced portrait of his character—her actions speak for themselves all the more pointedly because Shapiro presents them without any overt prodding. The last sentence is telling without the reader having to be told: “She dabs her eyes, her cheeks, / and then leaning forward, looks for a moment / into the phantom face / she puts her two hands on and pushes up against, / pushing it down / away from her / to get up from the table.”

The fourth and final section of Night of the Republic, “At the Corner of Coolidge and Clarence,” shifts to a series of blank-verse poems, seven tercets each, that chronicle twenty different moments from Shapiro’s childhood. Historical occurrences such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy alternate with tense memories of family feuds, as well as episodes of childhood discovery so strange they cannot help but feel authentic: clothes in a dryer tumbling into a map of geological history, a cat rushing out of a darkened shed triggering revelations about the nature of the cosmos. At their heart, these are tender recollections, bent on what the speaker knows is a vain attempt to reclaim the past—a tension often conveyed through minute moments of memory, as exemplified in the poem “Faucet”:

The faucet dripped one slow drip from its lip,
A slight convexity at first of metal
Distilled from metal to a silvery blur, . . .
Stretched by its own weight to a rounder shape
That grew less round the heavier it grew,
A tiny sack of water filled by water, . . .
I told myself if I could just remember
The way the trembling surface tension full
Of surface tension hung there till it didn’t,
Till it did again, somehow the house,
And everything and everyone within it,
The very moment of that day and year,
All of it, every bit would return to me

Shapiro’s attention to detail is immaculate. What makes these poems of place and memory so forceful is the rigor of thought that gives rise to their utterance: the complicating tension between presence and absence. What in other hands might become merely conventional or, at worst, pat and clichéd, here takes on substance through form: at a technical level, through Shapiro’s deft handling of lineation, and at a thematic level, where what remains cannot help but echo what once was.

No wonder Night of the Republic was nominated for a National Book Award. Shapiro’s studies feel like a new form: limber in the interplay of line and syntax, alert to idiomatic diction and supple in their shifts in tone, they are a testament to the power of description and storytelling, two modes that often receive short shrift these days. They are also a testament to what Shapiro has called “the primal fundamental urge to sing . . . the sheer gaiety . . . of projecting our voices out into the ambient air.” They are an imaginative re-awakening to the possibilities of language and a lesson in how to be present in a world that will eventually proceed without us.

Photograph: flickr / R. Nial Bradshaw