I’ve been reading my friend and Kenyon Review colleague Natalie Shapero’s poems for eight or nine years now, since she first started publishing them. Her poems are beyond her years, always have been. How can someone so young understand so much? I suspect many of her poetic insights are arrived at via the writing process itself, the working out of language problems. By that, I don’t mean, not entirely, that she lucks into her insights. I mean more that she experiments into them. By working and reworking sounds and senses, over and over, in combination after combination, she arrives at the right words in the right order, broken in the right places. Natalie’s great gift, I think, is that she knows when she gets it right—when sense follows form, as it were, so that the emotion is organic, generated by the interplay of the poem’s constituent parts. A gift like that is probably dependent in part on studying the greats but it also depends on trusting one’s own sense and one’s own ear and, in Natalie’s case, anyway, a wild, unkempt honesty that often arrives unexpectedly. The suddenness of its entrance, in fact, can make its truths seem hardly bearable, decidedly inappropriate. Her speakers, like every person you’ve ever known well, subvert your expectations; they are rarely at the end what they seem at the beginning. And just when you think you’ve got them pinned down, they slip just out of reach. She writes the funniest, saddest poems on the planet.
On page 66 of this week’s New Yorker, you can see what I mean. Right there, set amidst yet another essay chronicling yet another epic failure to our children is Natalie’s poem, “Survive Me.” The title is demand, plea, a kind-of self-deprecating challenge, all at once, as well as, orally, a command to the self—maybe even the command that instigated the poem. For what is art if not a way to continue one’s line, one’s “obtuseness,” as her poem says, the species entirely? “Survive Me” is a marvel, playing off its title’s themes and showing off Natalie’s poetic gifts so well I’m tempted to type the whole thing out right here. But it’s her first New Yorker poem; you should read it in The New Yorker. When I opened my copy and saw Natalie’s name in the table of contents and then on the contributors’ page and then, on page 66, beneath the poem itself, I felt elated. Survival, indeed.