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Natalie Shapero, Hard Child.

Natalie Shapero, Hard Child. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2017. 96pp. $16

If you named Natalie Shapero the funniest newish poet in America, you might not be wrong, but you would be doing her a disservice. Humor is only one of her tools, but it happens to be her most versatile--a fifty-function Swiss Army knife supplying her with tweezers, toothpicks, corkscrews, necessities for survival. The funny poets before her would recognize her non sequiturs, mishearings, toppling-over lists, the sort of brusque Plath-grade oversharing that elicits nervous, what-was-that laughter. They might appreciate the peanut gallery of interlocutors that pipe up throughout her poetry, descendants of George Herbert's God and James Merrill's Ouija board pen pals, their speech-balloon interjections rendered in SMALL CAPS: God, who built Shapero "for endings," "never says anything but YOU HAD ONE JOB"; wondering what kind of dog she'd be, Shapero, or her id, blurts: "I WOULD BE A DEAD DOG, THAT'S WHAT KIND."

Elsewhere, Shapero sounds like the closest American poetry has come in decades to stand-up, though what kind of comedian is she--a whittler of one-liners?
                                  I'm in my thirties
   and so already know every form of human
   repugnance--only a child has anything there
   to learn.

An observational comic, handing over anthropological jottings on our own baffling behavior?
    After a bath or escape, the dog
   stands newly without his collar
   and everyone coos ohh aww he's
, as though he weren't
   on full display before.

An absurdist who treats whimsy with a logician's rigor?
    Charged with attention always, who could not drift
   to, say, how untried cowboys may find kissing
   unduly burdensome, due to the hats?

Keeping all this together depends on a honed sense of comic timing and a sustained performance, sentence by sentence, of raising one expectation while unsettling two more. A typical Shapero poem, a ten-to-thirty-line routine, starts with a title that dices standard English into a riddling snippet ("Absence, That Which Never"; "Not Horses"; "Teacup This"), sets up one tone or tactic in her first sentence, and lands punch lines in every sentence that follows. "Outside Less"--another huh? of a title--is half conversational coasting, half hairpin turns:
I have been outside less
, I have taken to saying,
   in the days since my daughter was born
   passive, as though it were somebody
   else who bore her. And bore her
, I also have
   taken to saying, as though she were a hole.

Taken a sentence at a time, a Shapero poem seems just arrived at, an on-the-fly sequence linked by free association, false equivalency, and mock clarification: the unquenchable "hole" of her infant reminds Shapero of "a woodpecker" forcing "a gape in my neighbor's / barn side," which in turn elucidates Shapero's infant daughter, that something made from nothing, as she "knocks, woodpecker-like, her searching mouth / into my breast." Taken as a whole, however, the same poem seems precisely plotted, its parallels and reversals coming into focus--the "passive" birth matching the forcible boring-inward, the mother going "outside less" while feeling peculiarly inside-less, bored-into and boring, before and after her daughter's birth. The poem never drops its chatty, swaggering composure, even when Shapero talks her way into dead ends: "But I don't mean to say she / instills in my body an absence," Shapero reassures us: "What nothing // assembles within me was already there."

Shapero's comedic chops were already sharpened in her 2013 debut No Object, a collection anxious with the influence of equally anxious comedians: one poem doubles down on Henny Youngman's number-one one-liner ("just take / my wife seriously / take her"); another quotes verbatim all the smuggest dirty lines from Woody Allen's Manhattan. In her new collection, Hard Child (which alludes to Annie Hall's opening), the humor is less for our entertainment than for Shapero's cold comfort, understanding everything too late: "All I have coming in this / world is a joke that hits me later." Shapero's topics are the same that agonize Allen, oldie-but-goodies for comedy and poetry alike: death, sex, war, Hitler, JFK's assassination, the apocalypse, pretty much anything insurmountable and verboten from polite conversation. Like Allen, Shapero reserves her best smack talk for the God she half-believes in, spreading bad rumors in the hopes he'll show up, fuming. Maybe he, she muses, is "like Houdini: / rumored withstanding of any assault, but / in fact it takes only a few well-delivered // blows and a week and He's gone." Rarely, reticently, Shapero subjects herself to the same scrutiny--her title poem admits, halfway through, "I was a hard child, by which /I mean I was callous from the start"--but she would rather tilt the surgical lighthead onto others. "I typically hate discussing the past," that poem concludes, "and treasure the option, rarer and rarer, / to turn from it, as when K.'s twins / were born and one of them / nearly died--I don't even remember which, / that's how much they got better."

The collection's titular child could be Shapero herself, reluctantly compelled to look hard at a past that's like one long, difficult childhood: suffering passively, inflicted-upon, irredeemably past but continuous with the present's troubles. It's also Shapero's own child, whose birth gives Hard Child a structure (its two parts, unnamed, document two eras, Before Child and After Delivery) and a new theme that fits her style as snugly as a BabyBjorn. Parenting and its cultish entourage give Shapero--a poet nauseated by dogma, officialese, conventional wisdom--a gallery full of targets. Shapero does not wait longer than the opening poem to report: "I bought the bound ONE THOUSAND NAMES / FOR BABY, made two lists: one if she's born breathing, // one if not. The second list was longer." In Hard Child's first part, the yet-to-be newborn strikes Shapero as yet another worthless fiction to riff on--she imagines dressing the baby, "due to be / born near Halloween," as the Lindbergh Baby: "This costume / works the best if the baby / is nowhere to be found." Hilariously, in the second half of the book, the baby stays just as unreal in life as she was before birth, becoming a novel prop in Shapero's one-woman show. The hospital is complicit, "packing the baby into your arms, / saying avoid the dismal," only to prescribe Shapero's specialty, self-subtraction:
    remember it's normal
   for the baby to lose weight
   in the first days, then regain it, you can check by stepping
   onto a home scale holding
   the baby, then you just subtract
   your body from the scene.

Mother, it turns out, is as much of a prop as her child, dependent on propping up and changing, treacherously ticking with life: "each of us // is a clock, all hammers and counting down."

Intolerance for even trace amounts of sanctimony distinguishes Hard Child from the past decade's outstanding collections of poetry on motherhood. Shapero is closer to the loopy Plath of "Metaphors," one-upping her own caricatures of the pregnant or maternal body: Shapero, learning about an agglomeration of "a thousand small // fish, stuck together and sucking," confesses that she too is "composed in haste and subject to uncoupling." A list of Shapero's ancestors would also include Emily Dickinson, going toe-to-toe with the universe, and John Berryman, with his volatile, meiotic Henry. The living poet whom Shapero recalls most often is Louise Gluck, another poet of self-cancellation, formal constriction, and a deadpan that's practically flatlining. Both poets write from within passivity and powerlessness, prey to everyone, even themselves. ("The great thing / is not having / a mind," Gluck once wrote, "Feelings: / oh, I have those; they / govern me.") And in Gluck, Shapero may have found a model for her disjointed free-verse line, with its unapologetic asymmetries and snapped-off enjambments. "Even a baby stares / longer at symmetrical / faces," she acknowledges, "suggesting a preference / for pattern, a want // inborn." But Shapero recognizes how formal perfection can gloss over: "what / if the baby is staring / instead in horror?"

The chief danger of Gluck's scraped-out style is portentousness, clanging hollowly; Shapero, so similar in technique and so opposed in temperament, risks swerving entirely into goofiness with no grit, punch lines that deliver quick laughs with easy ironies. A dozen poems in Hard Child end on a sentence with some form of the words "die," "kill," "pain," or "take my life" (I counted); her least satisfying poem about death finishes with proverbs only a few cheesy degrees from slasher-film taglines: "Death is the worst // sort of lurker, the best sort of soldier of fortune. / It hardly ever refuses anyone's offer." In Shapero's most memorable endings, her music gets impeccable--syntax winding up, meter evening out, perfect rhymes clicking into place--exactly when life starts to seem unfathomable. "Form, Save for My Own," the poem with the horror-stricken babies, starts to funnel all that horror inward: "I revere all variants / of the human / form, save for my own." It's a quintessential Shapero predicament, one woman's standstill against herself, and no one cuts anyone a break:
    My mind has made
   an enemy of my body;
   it's all I can do
   not to quote Kissinger
   on the Iran-Iraq

A poet who ends by rhyming "all I can do" with "LOSE" knows there's no way to win. Up on the scaffolding of her crystallized forms, keeping a wary comic distance, there may be a way out.
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Author:Spaide, Christopher
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2017
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