Natalie Shapero’s second collection of poems, Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press), centers on a mother’s fear that history’s “verve and predation and oceanic rage,” as well as her own trauma, will manifest in the life of her child. Both this fear and the living, breathing child are the “hard child” of the title, and the collection is full of contingency plans against the “ongoing nature of history” on the child’s behalf. These contingency plans vacillate between public and private interpretations of harm, and seek to reconcile these interpretations. But the speaker in these poems also describes herself as a hard child, so the title has layers of meaning. The speaker believes herself superfluous—“one creature of more than the world requires,” complicit in the world’s cruelty, and this creates a significant tension in the book.
Part of the “ongoing nature of history” is its mash-up of the predictable and incomprehensible, and part of the genius of this collection is the way the incomprehensible is a built-in feature of the poems. Following their first lines and stanzas, many poems in Hard Child veer in unexpected directions—“obfuscation,” as the jacket text calls it—which provides a leitmotif for the poet’s reluctant chronicling. “I typically hate discussing the past,” the speaker admits in the title poem, “Hard Child,” then a few poems later, a little more defensively—“I swear to God I hardly think of the past.” In the speaker’s world, events in the past are real only insofar as they garb themselves in present anxieties. Again, from “Hard Child:”
I typically hate discussing the past
and treasure the option, rarer and rarer,
to turn from it as when K’s twins
were born and one of them
nearly died—I don’t remember which,
that’s how much they got better.
Shapero grapples with questions of determinism—are events portended and, if yes, by whom? The question provides a delicate framework upon which another question, fleshed out in the first part of this collection, emerges: how does one bring a child into such a world such as ours? The narrator has contingency plans: “I bought the bound ONE THOUSAND NAMES / FOR BABY, made two lists: one if she’s born breathing / one if not.”
In Part Two of this collection, a daughter (breathing) is brought into the world, and a mother contemplates various ways out of it. It is difficult to attach a label, even one so amorphous as “postpartum depression,” to the intensifying visions of harm the poems entertain in the latter half of Hard Child. The past that is “hardly thought of” is an ever-present taunt, and not even God is deemed capable of facilitating the exit. In “God Only,” Shapero compares God and an old love to adult cobras that ration their stores of venom, making them less deadly than young cobras that “give all they’ve got.” And so the narrator entertains various diversions—“It’s / awful to be a person. That’s why, from my lovers, I’ve always demanded / to know what kind of dog I would be, were I ever a dog.”—and compares this willingness to “change her given form” to the willingness of landowners to accept government buyouts as the Union Pacific Railway pushed through the breadbasket of the US.
When the Union Pacific came
Out to lay track, offering cash
And a ticket south, they waited
In line all night to be bought out.
In the speaker’s many fantasies and ruminations on death, her child is a fixed point. In “Winter Injury,” the speaker recalls that she was, “ever the hampered / child, doting on what could not feel, unwilling to walk / on stairs that creaked, for fear it hurt the house.” She knows her child can feel; there is a sense that she is reluctant to dote, though she will sing to the baby “breakup tunes of the 60’s and 70’s.” There is the added sense that her daughter will be afflicted by the speaker’s own self-loathing, as though by a footfall—pained, the way she once imagined the house was pained by her tromping on creaky stairs. The fact of the child suggests hope and despair both, often simultaneously:
Just once I want to hold my child
Without considering Europe at war’s end,
The women given armfuls of bluebells
To scatter form their windows, but five years
Beating carpets strengthened their arms too much
For the task, and the violet bundles sprayed
Down on the city like yet another attack.
Hard Child is about what humans make of a cruel world and what the world makes of us. Nobody escapes this earth alive, as the last poem in the collection wryly underscores: “I don’t fear dying— / look at the past. People have been dying forever.” But there is another common denominator, and that is complicity: “Of the cruelty ringing the earth, / I am a portion.” There is no reconciling this fact for the speaker in these poems, but there is the desire reconcile it, if for no other reason, than for the fact of her heaven, her hard child. In the poem “The Easy Part Was Hard,” the speaker says, finally, of death, that it “wouldn’t be worth the trial, living as I do, so close to heaven. I sleep / against it and wake with its imprint on me.”
Photograph of Natalie Shapero © Natalie Shapero. Book cover image © Nathan Ward, with book design by Phil Kovacevich.