How often has a book of poetry scared you? Natalie Shapero’s third collection, Popular Longing (Copper Canyon, £12.99), with its barbs and quips and dry double meanings, suggests that life, at least in Western civilisation, is not worth living. In ‘And Stay Out’, the idea that ‘slaughter has coarsened the population’ becomes all too plausible:
the only ones who
managed to stay hale or half-well
in atrocious times were the ones
who wouldn’t share,
who would tear from smaller
arms damp rations and standard-
issue disaster blankets – part
wool, part synthetic, resistant
to flame. Stop knowing that these
were the only people who lived
long enough to pass
themselves on. To breed.
Stop being absurd. And stop
saying breed. Dead
people don’t need that word.
In another poem, the speaker who is ‘trying to live/as though dead’ complains of ‘being instructed it is an honour to exist on/this earth for the story of somebody else’. This maternal ambivalence recalls Shapero’s second collection, Hard Child (2017), which dealt with the frustrations, ironies and daily indignities of motherhood. Popular Longing pans out from the earlier book to ask what sort of world we give our children, and whether or not they should reject that gift.
But the disorienting sarcasm – far more than irony – in the new book looks beyond the inequities of parenthood. Shapero moves her focus back and forth between the parlous state of the globe and the parlous state of her life and brain. The shifts in mood and tone occur not just among the poems but within them, so that readers share her disorientation:
So sorry about the war – we just kind of
wanted to learn how to swear
in another language, and everyone knows
the top method is simply to open
fire and listen to what people yell.
(Imagine breaking a line about carnage on ‘kind of’.) After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Randall Jarrell wrote that he wished he could become ‘a naturalised dog or cat’ – anything to get away from human beings. Something of the same exasperation animates Shapero’s attitude towards 21st-century public life:
Wars are like children –
you create one, offer scant
effort, then call it botched as the years
accrue, go off and make
a new one with somebody else.
A chance to finally get it right.
Not even puppies escape her suspicion: ‘those rubber chew/toys … are made to make/the noise of someone getting killed.’
These poems feel chatty, associative, almost tossed off despite their sonic tightness, carefully arranged to sound improvised. Shapero aspires to replace the obvious architectonics of other poetry with her own appalled, off-the-cuff humour, the tapestry of everyday experience with a series of sharp blades. That means the cuts are the tapestry; as Larkin said in one of his clumsiest, most revealing poems, ‘beneath it all, the desire of oblivion runs.’ But Shapero is always snappy, even when she’s also repeating herself:
retirement plan is arabesque, then leap
and smash on the seawall. We made
a promise not to catch each other.
In another poem, which imagines the death of the speaker’s enemy, violin strings remind the poet of hair-pulling, and then (or therefore) ‘of torture’:
I wanted you to die also, and to be fêted
with a lengthy, organza-filled funeral,
so that I could make a big show
of blowing it off.
‘Blowing it off’: Shapero seems more open, more colloquial, than most other poets who write in standard English. She no longer cares enough to clean up.
Popular Longing points not only to the millennia-old tradition of poems that question whether life is worth living – Swift, Juvenal, Ecclesiastes – but also to a contemporary argument about, and against, rape culture. ‘California’ considers the fact that ‘the man who attacked me’, despite his deeds, might die and go to heaven, where the unchanging weather resembles that of the Golden State. Raised in Ohio, Shapero now teaches at the University of California-Irvine, which lends a mordant note to the follow-up poem, ‘A Space to Train and Exit’:
Maybe California’s just plain easier,
with the commonness
of outbuildings. Raw-looking cedar or sheet
metal walls and a runnel
of sun getting in through the roof seams.
Position the heavy bag, tighten the eyebolt,
twenty-five right hooks. Or pull up
a chair and compose your suicide note.
The chilling quality in Popular Longing is often tempered by Shapero’s wit. (She hates the beach, but appreciates that it’s one of the few spots left ‘where it’s permissible/behaviour to splay facedown/and speak to no one’.) When the clouds part and Shapero abandons humour, we get a startlingly naked admission of loneliness:
All I want is for someone
to understand me, but it seems my keenest friends
and I – we’ve scattered. We’ve struggled for peace,
or permanence, and somehow in that struggle,
we’ve ventured far from each other.
Can wit, and introspection, and a willingness to make explicit the feelings that most of us suppress, and a patter of pithy understatements, take the place of the vivid sensory images another poet might highlight? They can, though ‘not long enough to prevent anything’ – that is, to prevent harm. (In which case, poetry isn’t what’s needed.)
Shapero has the best line breaks in the business right now – not that line breaks help when your brain does the sort of thing the poems explore. If Shapero flaunts the unsayable, she also flouts the discipline that some of us expect from ‘survivors’, people who have supposedly Lived through Trauma and Learned Life Lessons. Shapero will not tell us that she’s OK: not OK with her body, not OK with patriarchal violence, not OK with the news. Instead, there is helplessness:
The river is heavy with phosphorus and scum.
It causes liver damage if ingested.
I don’t know exactly whose runoff it is, but so long
as they’re taking press photos with prizewinning
children and donating sizeable
sums to the ballet, I take no issue. River’s yours.
Is this stanza (from ‘Flowers Would Have Killed You’) entirely sarcastic? After all, the corporate donor really does behave as if the river belongs to them. They can do what they want with it, and they choose to kill it. Humanity makes bad choices, or elevates false choices: between work and fun, between nothing and something, between numbness and repeated lies.
Shapero rejects false choices, not least the choice between slogans: ‘LESS IS MORE against MORE IS MORE?/Or IT COULD HAPPEN ANYTIME against IT HAPPENS/ALL THE TIME?’ (Notice the line break here, too: ‘it happens.’ No one does ‘it’, or permits ‘it’; it just happens.) These choices crop up everywhere – even in a coffee shop with two tip jars marked TEA and COFFEE, say, or MARVEL and DC, or
How about THIS VIOLENCE
FOREVER UNDOES A PERSON
against THAT CONVENTION CAN ONLY
BE ROOTED IN THE RETROGRADE
VIEW THAT A WOMAN IS EITHER INTACT OR SHE’S
NOT? I always thought I’d made
peace with THIS PLANET, and yet here I am
shoving all my cash in the jar
marked ANYPLACE ELSE. There isn’t
enough money in the world.
Shapero can’t make peace with hypocrisy, or with money. She’s haunted by the idea that the only real value is exchange value, in which case – if life is just cashing in tokens for other kinds of token – why bother? If life is a market, or a workplace, then love is at best an employment benefit, the kind no employer or union will guarantee: ‘When you work here for ten years, you get/a blanket. The blanket has their name on it,/not yours.’ Work is appalling enough, but at least it’s numbing, and permits some biting asides: ‘Some people despise doing laundry, but I don’t/mind it, and I think we can all agree it feels good/to engage in something you don’t/mind.’
What about art? For Shapero, it’s one more float in the whole disillusioning parade, even if it’s the float on which she rides. She pursues this disillusion with making through a series of fourteen sonnets about an art gallery, with glances at the anti-capitalist, anti-hierarchical, anti-elite institutional critique of late 20th-century artists. She addresses desecration, vandalism, self-harm:
Mocking the prospect
of a museumgoer scarring the art helps me forget
about all the times it has of course happened:
acid splatter across the Dutch nude, hammer to the arm
of the PIETÀ. Or the pipe bomb placed beside
the high relief. Or the man who drew his gun
and shot up a wall of old masters and then himself.
What are paintings for? What are humans for, and why do we need one another? What if we seek, not support, but merely power? What if we are, Shapero asks,
Like the new-to-market
robot that’s ostensibly for cleaning, but everyone knows
its primary function is dipping its optimised
head in a show of deference. Can’t keep it in stock.
Even institutional critique, even ‘protest art’ (a term Shapero takes up), even the most personal cri de coeur of confessional practice becomes part of the game when we see it in terms of a competition for intellectual dominance, or relevance, or market value: ‘You’re nothing in this town if you can’t/monetise your sins.’ As for artists who aspire to comfort others, they are boosting their reputations too, like the bystander at a subway stop ‘praying for you to shuffle to the edge of the platform/and teeter over, so that he might intervene and be seen/as a saviour’. These poems offer no solutions. And Shapero is anything but a saviour. She wouldn’t choose to live her life over again, nor can she take heart from what might come next. ‘For what I was made, no one has said, but my own/arc doesn’t seem to be the answer.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.