“Shapero is a master of her craft and the poems within Hard Child are a worthy read.”
Natalie Shapero refuses to hold any punches in her new book, Hard Child, using a take-no-captives approach to her craft, leaving out prelude and gentle ramping up, instead pounding the reader with left-right combos like a champion MMA prizefighter in the world of poetry. And her words land on the money, again and again, beginning with the stark reality of the book’s opening poem, “My Hand and Cold.” The first lines of the poem cue the reader that senses will be assailed:
Of surgeons putting their knives to erroneous
body parts, stories abound. So can you really blame
my neighbor for how, heading into the operation,
he wrote across his good knee NOT THIS KNEE?
A reader will instantly identify with the narrator’s view. The potency of the result comes from an almost one-two combination and an uppercut, right out of the challenger’s corner in the first seconds of the first round. At that moment, any reader will see where the poem is going, but the poet’s skill is shown as she continues in a bait-and-switch kind of play of the next two lines:
The death of me. I’ve never been half so bold. You will
feel, the doctor said, my hand and cold—
The strength that Shapero brings is laid out neatly within this poem, a reading of the remainder will show off the introduction of pivots in the poem that transpose the moment into reflection, then twist it to allow delving into the truth of the poem’s cryptic phrase, “my hand and cold”:
and I thought of the pub quiz question: which three
countries are entirely inside of other countries?
I bought the bound ONE THOUSAND NAMES
FOR BABY, made two lists: one if she’s born breathing,
one if not. The second list was longer. So much
that I might call her, if she were never to bear
the name, never turn to it, suffer shaming, mull its
ange and implications, blame it, change it, move
away to San Marino, Vatican City, Lesotho.
Ultimately, Shapero leaves the poem in a place that has the reader realizing the narrator’s conundrum, the pain of the process presenting as more than just physical pain. It feels like the poet has scored a knockout with her last lines, leaving the reader in perhaps the same unsettled state as the narrator. And that is the coup Shapero has accomplished. In just a few lines, a truly powerful expression of what poetry can become, a force to move its readers to a headier sense of contemplation in this case, but in other of her poems, a force that seems to have no limit to its powerful impact on society.
Divided into two parts, Hard Child exposes 49 of Shapero’s poems. None of the poems in this work ease along as if on a casual walk in the cool of the day before the heat comes on. Nope. Every poem of this collection, every poem, takes a hard stance, looks at its topic in a way that is all-in, that makes every drop of sweat equity count, that holds back no punches, not even one. Look at the first two stanzas of, “Were You Lying Then or Are You Lying Now”:
To be, he said, an American, is to find you have lived
your whole small life on the back of some
starving and saber-toothed creature that has,
all the while, been killing and killing and killing.
No wonder we do so much drinking.
And now look at how the poem is painstakingly wrapped-up in its last seven lines:
know how to say sick or sit down, so I just said
everyone died. That’s just like death, to creep in
wherever it can, to huddle in wait
in the dooryard of every story. Death is the best
of the lurkers. Death is the worst
sort of lurker, the best sort of soldier of fortune.
It hardly ever refuses anyone’s offer.
That Shapero’s words hold back nothing is evident in her beat-the-opponent-to-a-pulp energy that attacks such topics head-on from the first word that makes the page. That she is able to pull results from such a movement based approach pays tribute to the poet that she is.
Shapero’s voice comes from a place of experience, and that voice is everywhere evident in the poems of Hard Child. The list of the poet’s publications reads something like a who’s who of literary journals: Gulf Coast, The Hopkins Review, New Republic, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry, The Progressive . . . the alphabet of impressive venues continues. And for good reason: Shapero has a well-honed voice and she knows exactly how to apply it to each poem, eliciting results that speak for themselves.
Maybe Natalie Shapero is the MMA fighter of poets. Maybe Hard Child is five rounds that will have crowds of readers screaming at her punches and witnessing the teetering of topics through her form and carry-through. One thing is certain, Shapero is a master of her craft and the poems within Hard Child are a worthy read because any reader will find the depth of movement contained within this body of work to be truly entrancing.