By Emma Bogdonoff
Natalie Shapero, Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), 96 pp.
Natalie Shapero’s second collection, Hard Child, is a ferocious book. Darkly funny and incisive, it demands that the reader consider motherhood alongside tragedies both personal and public, alongside war and violence and suicide. In the first of the book’s two parts, the child is hypothetical—a list of names, a hope for a daughter rather than a son, a “blip in utero” who can suffer from the mother’s traumas. In the second part, the child is born, but still we see her only fleetingly, her existence often made most notable through her absence. To have a daughter, Hard Child suggests, is to live with the specter of her loss. To bring a child into this world requires a reckoning with its hardest realities.
Hard Child dives headfirst into the opening poem, where Shapero’s speaker rehearses baby names, saying she “made two lists: one if she’s born breathing, / one if not. The second list was longer.” The collection’s title poem, which immediately follows, talks back to the first:
So I had two lists of names for a girl, so
what. The president’s allowed to
have two speeches, in case the hostage
comes home in a bag.
There’s something defiant in this comparison, in its enjambed “so / what.” Why, Shapero seems to ask, is it macabre for a mother to consider a worst-case scenario but not for a president to do the same? The dialogue between the first two poems also sets a precedent: the poems are part of a larger whole even when they leap between seemingly unrelated topics, from the Challenger space shuttle disaster to Schindler’s List to x-ray vision to the nerve endings in a turtle’s shell.
This ability to find significance in the most minute of details is particu- larly manifest in “Not Horses”:
What I adore is not horses, with their modern
domestic life span of 25 years. What I adore
is a bug that lives only one day, especially if
it’s a terrible day, a day of train derailment or
chemical lake or cop admits to cover-up, a day
when no one thinks of anything else, least of all
Shapero possesses a comedian’s sense of timing and tension. The strangeness of the negation “not horses” gives way to the more commonplace phrasing of “what I adore is a bug.” But the oddity of this sentiment pushes back against any familiarity or comfort, keeping the reader perpetually off balance. The details of the poem are humorous in their hyper-specificity, but their humor has a sharp edge, perfectly capturing the way our culture fixates on the disaster of a given moment, whether “chemical lake” or “cop . . . cover-up,” before moving on to the next day’s disasters. The poem ends with Shapero’s speaker saying she wishes her dog “could have a single day of language, / so that I might reassure her don’t be afraid— / our whole world is dead and so can do you no harm.”
This preoccupation with our dead world and human harm pervades nearly every poem, although Shapero’s speaker repeatedly tries to deny her interest in the past, growing more insistent in every iteration. “I typically hate discussing the past,” she says, early on, which becomes “I hardly think of the past” a few pages later, and finally, “I swear to God I hardly think of the past.” But the past is indifferent to this insistence, finding a way into so many of Shapero’s poems. She touches on slavery, speaking of her fear of “burial / beside a hateful tree,” referring briefly to the history of lynching in the United States. She circles repeatedly around the Holocaust—“the great terror we’re ordered to remember”—finding it in the least expected places, so that we begin to feel the magnetism of this kind of horror, the way the mind can’t help but return and return to it. She touches on the Vietnam War, mass shootings, environmental destruction. “My greatest fear / is the ongoing nature of history,” Shapero’s speaker says, and though it is never explicitly stated, this fear comes to feel like a part of motherhood: what kind of a world is she bringing a child into?
The speaker’s denial of an undeniable fixation ties into the book’s larger themes of superstition or magical thinking around what one names or acknowledges. In “Monster,” the speaker says:
Eight women in this class, and me the lone
one refusing to say which name I’ve chosen.
Isn’t anyone else convinced of curses?
Through this lens, the double lists of the first poem read less like a stoic acknowledgement of the possibility of death and more like a talisman—as if recognizing the possibility of disaster can somehow avert it. This becomes particularly complicated and interesting as Shapero moves into the second part of the book, which begins “To my young daughter, I sing the songs / my mother sang to me.” When read in isolation, a number of poems throughout the latter half suggest an ambivalence toward the very idea of having a child. In “Survive Me,” Shapero’s speaker says: “It wasn’t for love of having / children that I had a child.” The mordantly funny “Ten What” recalls the earlier “Not Horses,” riffing:
And yes, I know by heart the list
of lifetimes. A worker bee will die before
a camel. A fox will die before a pilot whale.
A pocket watch will die before the clock inside
Against this backdrop of whimsical language and playful alliteration, the last line of the poem thuds into the reader like a blow: “Everyone says / the baby looks like me, but I can’t see it.” Is this almost-denial of motherhood a truth or an injunction against bad luck? Shapero insists on both possibilities existing simultaneously.
The reader senses that Shapero’s speakers have always had an uneasy relationship with the world, further complicating the question of denial. Perhaps having a daughter has intensified this uneasiness, but it has the feel of a lifelong struggle. Speaking of breastfeeding in “Outside Less,” she says:
But I don’t mean to say she
instills in my body an absence. What nothing
assembles within me was already there.
Shapero’s slippery syntax allows a shift in meaning depending on whether we read “nothing” as subject or object. The specter of suicide is a constant presence in the book. It is sometimes an empty threat from the men in the poems, as in “Screens and Storms”: “Of the two types of windows known, he threw / himself from neither, over and over.” But often it feels more personal, more of a longing than a threat. In “Form, Save for My Own,” the speaker says:
I revere all variants
of the human
form, save for my own.
My mind has made
an enemy of my body;
it’s all I can do
not to quote Kissinger
on the Iran-Iraq
War: A PITY THEY
BOTH CAN’T LOSE
This seems to me a perfect paradigm of a Shapero poem, with its off-the-cuff dismissal of the speaker’s self, made to seem small against the looming menace of war. The poem could almost make you laugh; it could almost make you cry.