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Alan Shapiro’s “Night of the Republic”

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Night of the Republic

In Night of the Republic: Poems, poet Alan Shapiro loads his minds-eye camera with film (or, these days, a disk) and takes a series of detailed, rather stark photographs. His subjects are the common, everyday things we notice only when we need them but generally ignore: a car dealership, a gas station restroom, a park bench, a dry cleaner, a swimming pool, a museum, a doorbell, a funeral home.

Shapiro’s poetic photographs are sharp and clear; we’re not left guessing the subject. But they often lead in an unexpected direction, as common, everyday things can do. Consider “Barbershop,” which becomes a meditation on eternity:

Eternity is the spiral up the poles
spiraling to its endless end.
Time is the vitrine
of antiquated gels,
conditioners, restoratives,
stray sections from yesterday’s Today
all over the table
in the waiting area where
Eternity is waiting…

These are poems to be read two and three times, and then two or three times more, like photographs that need to be reexamined to see how new angles or shades or colors can change the created whole. In “Stone Church,” for example, the emphasis on the stone construction gives way to what happens inside:

…At night, high
over the tiny
galaxy of candles
guttering down
in dark chapels
all along the nave,
there’s greater
gravity inside
the grace that’s risen
highest into rib
vaults and flying
buttresses, where
each stone is another
stone’s resistance to
the heaven far
beneath it…

These photograph-like poems, or poetic photographs, are filled with quiet wonder. And like fine photographs, their meanings can keep changing. Night of the Republic is a stellar collection of poetry.

Shapiro, who has won several poetry awards, is a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is also publishing his first novel, Broadway Baby, in January.

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