Natalie Shapero‘s second collection, Hard Child, opens with “Of surgeons putting their knives to erroneous // body parts, stories abound.” The collection closes with “God, of course they didn’t survive.” Her poems are distinct units with their own logic and tension but reference one another and borrow language (the last line of the book sounds like it could directly follow the first) in order to build on the book’s overall themes—or to land a joke, the way a comedian might in a standup set. These poems are taut and controlled, while appearing to make effortless leaps and connections.
Broadly speaking, Hard Child is about pregnancy and motherhood, confronting the way having a child changes one’s sense of memory and history. In two parts, more or less of equal length, the book’s arc follows the beginning of a pregnancy (“A blip in utero”) in the first, through the birth and early months of having a child (“To my young daughter, I sing…”) in the second. Throughout, Shapero’s poems try to reject history while embracing it: “I typically hate discussing the past,” the title poem claims; a few pages later, another says, “I swear to God I hardly think about the past.” And yet, throughout the book are references to historical events and people: Rasputin, the Iran–Iraq War, the Lindbergh Baby, the Kennedy assassination, and Elizabeth Bishop, among others.
This tension between denial and acceptance of history is deeply political, but Shapero remains present, always as culpable as the rest of us. In a poem called “Passing and Violence” she writes, “Watching football, I need / to see a man die.” But that’s hardly the most striking line of the book. One poem, “Monster,” begins in a birthing class before making a hard turn to genocide:
with ill feeling the curator, viewing a meager
tribute with disdain: CAN’T CALL YOURSELF A HOLOCAUST
MEMORIAL UNTIL YOU HAVE A TRAIN.
The internal rhyme of “disdain/train” twists the knife. There’s a joke there, but it’s caustic, like The Onion’s headlines about mass shootings. Shapero isn’t pointing a finger at anyone; she’s holding up a mirror.
The speaker’s memories also figure heavily, as in one of the standout poems of the collection, “Radio Science.” The poem opens with the speaker disbelieving a story on the radio—about babies in utero sensing the mother’s past trauma—until she is startled while out for a run. “[M]y blood arrested, foamed, / and troubled the dark in which the child formed.” As is typical in these poems, Shapero doesn’t confront the memory head on—“It isn’t right,” she writes. “I hardly / think of the past” (again, a denial of history)—choosing instead to tell us,
only the better times at that bar: recoil
of springs in the pinball corner,
pool table that accepted only quarters,
the floor too small and mobbed,
all of us always in range of getting jabbed
by a cue.
In describing the “better times,” she gives us an idea of what might have happened, the kind of man who would have been there, the way the speaker might recoil from him, the way the cue isn’t a cue at all. Throughout, the couplets are slant rhymed—like the speaker ducking the issue—until the very end when a repeated phrase and a full rhyme slam the poem home.
While history and memory are major motifs, the book is ultimately wrestling with the identity crisis that can happen when a person becomes a parent. Throughout, bodies change form or disappear in ways that are sometimes funny and sometimes unsettling, as in “Home Scale” in which parents are told to find their baby’s weight,
onto a home scale holding
the baby, then you just subtract
your body from the scene.
In some cases, the speaker actually desires this subtraction, as in “Form, Save 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.
In three consecutive poems Shapero writes about wanting “to know what kind of a dog I would be, were I ever a dog.” At first, it’s a demand; then “it’s ridiculous to opine on what kind / of a dog I would be”; then her lover asks her to stop talking about turning into a dog. As in “Radio Science,” this desire to transmute or vanish reads as a way to talk around an issue in the interest of trying to more accurately illuminate it. Is this postpartum depression? Does the speaker both want to be a parent and also desire a return to being childless? Perhaps. “It wasn’t for love of having / children that I had a child,” she writes. Shapero’s poems are rich, referential, and readable. That they remain indirect ultimately makes them more pointed.