A Joke That Hits You Later: A Review of Natalie Shapero’s “Hard Child”

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When I was about eight years old I thought the word “doubt” meant “to be certain,” and I recall arguing this point with a slightly older kid in the backseat of a car. At one point I said “I doubt it” with a note of triumph, intending to say I had proved myself correct. I’ve never trusted language since then, and I’ve been carrying this early irony around all my life, unsure of what to do with it, and whether it means anything.

Luckily, Natalie Shapero’s poetry arrives as vindication for those of us who have picked up too much and don’t know where to put it down. Shapero, poetry professor at Tufts University and editor-at-large of The Kenyon Review, established her talent with her first book, No Object, in 2013. In this second collection, Hard Child, out from Copper Canyon Press, her poems punch with even greater finesse, mobilizing the detritus of society and memory to wrangle with God, death, and motherhood.

In this book again comes Shapero’s casual, often sardonic voice, along with some particular elements carried over from her first book, including animal facts, exes, rug burns, Helen of Troy, pianos, clocks, astronauts, and God. This eclecticism is typical of her work, although along with tidbits of trivia this book insists on a darker, more personal undercurrent. As in her first book, Shapero puzzles over slices of language: “I cannot say what everyone means / when they emphasize that the faulty ring / on the Challenger cost nine hundred dollars only.” If these poems believe themselves in danger of drowning — in society’s detritus, in the poet’s memories — Shapero’s ability to shape her material is salvation, and she leaps to and from ideas, sparking scintillating connections.

Photo by Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

If you haven’t seen Shapero read her work aloud, you must. It’s hilarious and charming, and also key to understanding her poetics. It’s clear she doesn’t take herself too seriously, and therein lies the appeal of her work for those of us oversaturated by much poetry’s gravitas. Sure, the book is rife with self-deprecation and death: “I needed my obtuseness to survive me.” But I believe it would be a mistake to read this as totally earnest (and indeed, if you do, the collection as a whole becomes something of a downer). While colloquial, this collection never feels like confession. Think of Shapero instead as a kind of poetic Louis C.K. — the misery is part of the act. Yes, you’re supposed to laugh: “All I have coming in this / world is a joke that hits me later.” And like the best stand-up comedy routines, her poems have solid opening hooks, a finely wrought structure, and a resonance, a truth, beyond what is directly expressed.

Shapero’s way of entering poems is irresistible: “Museums of war, they bore me.” They are a comedian’s hook, already prodding the audience to anticipatory laughter. In the body of the poems she deploys what I’d call one-liners, even if they aren’t: “A bird screams out my window like an alarm I have / set to notify me when a bird is there.” Most of the poems have at least an aside, if not a punchline: “Might as well just turn into a tree while you’re living.” Often such a line is the connective tissue that subtly connects disparate sections of the poem, while sometimes the hinge is little more than a turn of phrase: “that’s why.” At times a glimmer of abstraction or philosophy works to associate seemingly-unrelated pieces of information — “It’s awful, to be a person” — or else the reader just has to just jump along, figuring out the logic later. But it would kill the joke to explain it, and thankfully she refuses. The endings are sometimes punchlines — “I knew there was a reason I hate New York” — or often her signature small-caps quotes, like quiet screams, with their inexplicable resonance: “WHO / IS THE PRESIDENT?” Indeed, there is often an emotional wrench to the endings, which go on simmering: “If you don’t break / anything you’re doing it wrong.” If there is a distinct formula to these poems, the range of material ensures they never grow stale. They quip but linger, leaving the reader above all perturbed, in the best way.

This collection of poems is united not only by mode and voice, but also by its particular obsessions, including the surrealism of motherhood, a dubious God, and that “worst / sort of lurker,” death. Among these themes is the idea of absence, which underlies much of the book and provides one frame through which to examine how Shapero weaves together the high and low, the serious and wry, the cynical and personal: “Absence, that which never/ stops appearing.” Often this absence is a self-deprecating lack within the self, an ambiguous gap in the fabric of reality, a failure of communication, or some almost unmentionable larger loss, as of God or life itself.

At times the lack is lighthearted, irreverent to the world: “there isn’t one / human tradition I would choose to carry / forward.” Yet she includes pieces of the world, including lost keys, soap-opera amnesia, and the stolen Mona Lisa. Lindbergh’s missing baby makes an appearance, so to speak. In “No Radio” she jokes that, like a taxicab, she has within her “NOTHING / HERE OF WORTH.” Other times the lack is more emphatically poignant: “if I did / wish to dispense of my given form, would that be so strange?” The tender piece “Survive Me” uses lines from obituaries for children. In “Home Scale” the way she describes weighing a baby, saying you must “subtract your body from the scene,” perhaps evokes the sacrificial undercurrent of motherhood. She describes breastfeeding similarly: “I don’t mean to say she / instills in my body an absence. What nothing / assembles within me was already there.” The larger lack of God she presents through a typical revision of received language: “I love that joke involving the Jewish biddies / (THE FOOD IS LOUSY HERE, AND SUCH / SMALL PORTIONS), but I make it instead about God: God is abusive toward all His children, / and also He hardly ever comes around!”

If I had to place Shapero’s work in conversation with other poets, I might consider Dean Young, who makes leaps of association with similar material — “No getting / within a hundred feet of Stonehenge because / everyone wants to hack off a souvenir” — although his voice feels goofier, looser. I am to some extent reminded of Albert Goldbarth, who also seems to like finding the poetic resonance in useless information, and actually, to my surprise, has won the Mark Twain Award for Humorous Poetry. But Shapero’s work is more sharply witty, whittled down to just what is necessary, standing back to let a few precise elements do their work, more similar to Dickinson than the Whitmanesque impulses in Goldbarth.

Indeed, Shapero’s language is precise and almost plain — though pointedly never cliché  — as it aims at clarity rather than superfluous floweriness or complexity. There is an overall sense of restraint in the composition that comes, perhaps, from an awareness of meter, and the related compulsion to compress thought. But the pacing and beats work also to compel the reader forward, and make some lines downright catchy: “The death of me: I’m never half so bold. You will / feel, the doctor said, my hand and cold.” As shown here, Shapero also sometimes uses a judicious dash of rhyme, especially as a clincher at the end of poems. These remnants of her earlier, more formal work, create a consistently sturdy and never self-indulgent structure for her poems. Unlike many poets, she leaves the audience wanting more.

And if her poems linger, so does her presence. I actually went through the same undergraduate writing program as Shapero, although she graduated before I arrived. I recall that a poetry professor several times compared my own poems, rather unfavorably, to Shapero’s, essentially wondering: Why can’t you be more like her? I’ve been asking myself the same thing.

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