“like a toy turned real”: Humor and History in Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child

Noah Baldino

Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2017. 96 pages. $16.00.

Poems, like jokes, hit hardest when they amplify the tension between disparate and unsuspecting forces to reveal unprecedented emotional territory; Jennifer Michael Hecht calls both comedy and poetry “arts of sudden knowledge” which “happen when we can glimpse what we cannot know.” In refusing to treat humor and sadness as mutually exclusive, Natalie Shapero’s second collection, Hard Child, sees the wild ensemble of human emotion as acrobatically multifarious and unmistakably porous. With Hard Child, Shapero enters the tradition of sudden knowledge—but her historical sensibility and preoccupations add a wholly original complication to the conversation. For this collection’s speaker, sudden knowledge is not so much new as newly recognized: an inclusive and varied knowing so steeped and situated in the world, past and present, that its grave hilarity mostly stuns us by having not always been how we approach the world.

Among the first of the collection’s most overtly funny poems, “What Will She Go As?” catalogs the possibilities for a newborn’s Halloween costume. Moses, Jesus, and Baby Jessica contend as almosts, but the Lindbergh baby wins, a costume which “works the best if the baby / is nowhere to be found.” While the ending’s starkness draws attention to the theme of absence in the book, it acts, too, as a deft deflection from the poem’s equally central preoccupation: the costume. Putting on the poetic turn like a mask, a bit, Shapero’s speaker later says, “America: the old bureau / that fell on me when I opened too many drawers.” Where this scene again prompts harm, death, and overwhelmedness, the speaker nearly sneaks past the pure fact of the bureau: it’s a container, and it contains the clothes we step into and inhabit. Shapero’s just as much magician as comedian—think Houdini, who she worriedly compares to a soon-to-be-gone God—dazzling us with the rabbit in the hat in the hopes that we miss the trick’s architecture, the deft work of the hands. Although absence seems so often the punchline in Hard Child, it’s a resigned and then panicked insideness, withinness—inhabitance?— that pervades and prevails as chief agitator and disruptor of the collection.

Snow globes, X-ray vision, aquariums, “stores of poison” in snakes, crullers in a coat pocket, tradition “carried forward” as a child is carried within a body, within a city, within a history—whenever the collection reckons with a crisis of motherhood it also acknowledges an inherent crisis of proximity and positionality. Of what are we inside, “born as [we’ve] been / into these rotting times.” Beside the humorous or casual, the scary, complicated facts of the domestic, cultural, colonial, patriarchal, historical world always peek in darkly. In “The Easy Part Was Hard,” after contemplating the perks and pulls of heaven, the speaker admits, “When I was a child, I believed / if I lost my key, some evil person would find it / and venture inside” before dismissing, with some levity, the assailant’s hypothetical process, which “wouldn’t be worth the trial.” Don’t be fooled, reader—the hard child’s fear still lingers into adulthood, inheriting its selfsame predicaments “like a toy turned real” inherits old doubt. Shapero’s brilliance lies in her sly insistence that if we’re to speak of motherhood we never do so without forgetting what lurks there, as a child lives within a history it never asks for, all the contexts and subtexts of our world troubling “the dark in which the child formed.”

Somehow, between the heaves of humor, we consider accountability, which in this case looks something like, how can we bring children into a world like this? Take the turn of “The Obligatory Making of Amends”:

                                   But my primary fear
about dying is not missing heaven. It is burial
beside a hateful tree. They are out there, yes—
the high oaks whose limbs have offered
themselves for hangings, and I fear that my body
will slough itself down to feed one. This is how
I have spent my whole life.

Syntax revs up and loosens like an “oil-undone bird” as we move from staccato joke to staccato joke to a moment of vulnerable self-reflection just as acute despite, or because of, its twisted syntax. The next staccato sentence offers no comedic relief but rather an entire lifetime within a single simple sentence, the heart of the book: it may already be too late to undo harm, to be useful and responsible, to learn from history and human coldness, to prevent its passing to the child. The line break reinforces its effect, moving from humoring the precedent for comedy (“It is burial / beside a hateful tree”) to refusing its pull (“This is how / I have spent my whole life”). Early in the book, starkness disrupts image and joke (“I cannot say what everyone means”), another way Shapero seeks an entrance into the overwhelmedness of being both a sole adult person, a former child, and a parent. In Hard Child, responsible motherhood means foregoing singularity. It means making yourself an accomplice, in syntax, form, and content, even as and specifically because “history adores a lonesome / cabin.”

Shapero’s syntax, then, serves to highlight the work of the humor which is, although often deflection, decidedly not defense mechanism. Instead Hard Child reveals and revels in the ways a historically positioned, humor-inhabiting subject embeds themself within the anticipatory. As the speaker acknowledges the lurk of the world in the context of bearing and raising a child (“My greatest fear / is the ongoing nature of history”), the humor enacts that very state of anticipation. A statement like

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

resonates not because of any comedic relief but because of a mechanics of comedic complication. As the poem builds, we know the punchline is coming, and yet the first stanza’s sadness, wrenched and fleeting, turns quickly into the next stanza’s joke, which squirms in the throes of history. Which is to say: funny, but like “a joke that hits [you] later” with its stakes and cruel reality, in the end not fully funny-ha-ha.

Comedy teaches us the importance of pacing and timing; history, in its cycles and missteps and forgetting, does the same. In “No Radio,” a poem which encapsulates much of the collection’s predicaments and triumphs, the speaker’s self-deprecating smirk enters first:

O if you love me at all, God, mark
a sign like that on my own self, NOTHING
HERE OF WORTH—I’m tired of having it
come as a surprise.

The voice drives the poem while the image stews: imagine the body useless as a car, but finally marked so; no, imagine the body marking itself as unappraisable, but with its radio nevertheless intact; no, imagine the thief creeping through the dark with a crowbar only to be halted by the sign; no, imagine the windows shattering anyway. So steeped are we in those possibilities that the poem’s turn, entirely unexpected, wreaks full havoc:

Just once I want to hold my child
without considering Europe at war’s end,

the women given armfuls of bluebells
to scatter from their windows, but five years
beating carpets strengthened their arms too much

for the task, and the violet bundles sprayed
on the city like yet another attack.

There’s a sincerity to Hard Child’s revelations, deeply felt because the speaker feels the strains of the world so entirely. When the speaker claims “It’s / awful, to be a person,” or in the second half of the book when the speaker’s death becomes central, we can still discern Shapero’s nuance: it’s awful to be a party to pain, to host and inhabit, to know that it’s “just like death, to creep in.” Looking back at twinges in the units of line (“my own self, NOTHING” or “WORTH—I’m tired of having it”), the exhaustion of the domestic and of history was present all along, underneath the costume of humor and diction.

And yet, just as “The German word / for heaven’s the same / as the German word for sky” doesn’t say which inhabits which, the lurk and laugh never undermine each other. Often their collision results in downright tenderness, hope against hope, and truly sudden knowledge, as when, of an old dog, Shapero plainly writes, “I wish she could have a single day of language.” Turning quickly against this softness, the poem anticipates the life of a child, born too without language but soon to encounter it in all its harmfulness. Still, despite the facts of “our thwarting era,” and whether humor disrupts history or history unsettles humor, language (and laughter) are no less present than the harmfulness of the world; Shapero scampers in like a dog, “bearing in [her] mouth some little trauma like a pheasant,” watching us guess if she’ll bite down.

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