Paul David Atkins
Mommy Fearest: Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child and the Anxiety of Motherhood in the 21st Century
(Copper Canyon Press; 96 pages; 978-1556595097 ©2017)
In a nation convulsing with fear, Natalie Shapero’s second full-length poetry volume Hard Child resonates with the sobriety of Biblical prophet Ezekiel. However, unlike with Ezekiel’s vision, Shapero’s speaker does not instill hope at the close; rather, a hopeless sense of self-loathing and fatalism fill the book. But the writing is so beautiful and clear, so empathic and universal, reading Hard Child is akin to holding a stranger’s hand while viewing the approach of an extinguishing meteor: instinctual, a touch of the human at doom’s precipice.
The collection opens with the speaker discussing surgery, a radical attempt to correct a health problem. Immediately, however, internal issues surface: not physical, but psychological, born of uncertainty and fear. She writes, “Of surgeons putting their knives to erroneous / / body parts, stories abound” (5). Thus, things go awry from the start, and Hard Child recognizes this error as early as the next poem, where the expectant mother compiles two lists of names: one for a child who is breathing at birth, and one for a child who is blue from lack of oxygen (6). In this
collection, to hold this disparate worldview is both exasperating and entirely natural. How can one plan for disaster if she cannot envision it? In “You Look Like I Feel,” the speaker observes, “Dirt on my chin, and I wonder: Am I already / in the ground?” (12)
The curse of naming also stitches the collection. The speaker refuses to reveal the
forename of her in-utero child. In “Monster,” she explains, “Eight women in the class, and me the lone / / one refusing to say which name I’ve chosen. / Isn’t anyone else convinced of curses?” (14). She lays out her anxiety for her child even more fully in “Survive Me:” “But I never accounted for our thwarting era. / Every day the paper / / runs a resemblance / of a child, the notice struggling to sing the few / / years lived” (41).
Shapero’s speaker constantly, simultaneously, seeks and recoils from connection. She both desires a link with her newborn and yet views the birth process as distant, disembodied.
I have been outside less, I have taken to saying
in the days since my daughter was born—
passive, as though it were somebody
else who bore her. And bore her, I also have
taken to saying, as though she were a hole. (54)
Similarly, she is taken and repulsed with the idea of death, both accepting and rejecting it, sometimes within the confines of the same poem. In the brilliant piece “Home Scale,” exploring postpartum depression, the speaker discusses the hospital’s instructions to the new mother in relation to monitoring the infant’s weight: “. . . also remember it’s normal / for the baby to lose weight / / in the first days, then regain it, you can check it by stepping / / onto a home scale holding / the baby, then you just subtract / your body from the scene” (40).
Shapero’s peer Katie Ford wrote of issues with the premature birth of a daughter, and chronicled those struggles in her 2014 poetry collection Blood Lyrics. Similarly to Hard Child, Ford’s speaker desired both erasure and peace. In “Snow at Night,” she wrote, “I will change your life, it says, / to which I say please” (18). However, as Blood Lyrics advanced, Ford’s speaker expanded her view of struggle beyond the personal to combat our cultural acceptance of war. Hard Child, instead, maintains a primarily, bitterly, inward focus as it approaches the close.
As the reader examines Shapero’s final few pieces, he senses the speaker intensifies her self-loathing. In “Form, Save for My Own,” she explains,
I revere all variants
of the human
form, save for my own.
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. (58)
She discusses the ease into which she expects she will enter death in the poem “Mostly Rasputin,” comparing the difficulties assassins faced, trying to murder the Russian holy man, while musing on how uncomplicated it will be for her to die (59). In “Low Blow,” intensification continues when the speaker states, “Death like a word I heard once and then / everywhere” (60).
In the penultimate piece “Ten What,” the speaker examines the fact that she wants no more of anything. She even expresses ambivalence regarding a resemblance to her daughter. The closing work, “The Sky,” however, sums up the entire collection, mocking our desire to live, our prayers for hope and solace, as a stranger at a party blurts his prophecy regarding the future of mankind: “God, of course they didn’t survive” (62).
Hard Child is not an exercise in nihilism. The speaker understands the importance of
people, of self. The problem lies in her inability to cope with everyday stressors. Even the news that a turtle has nerve endings within its shell unsettles her (56). The overwhelming components of modern life negate the speaker’s ability to fully connect with her own child, much less with other people, or even a Divine Being. As the speaker pronounces with finality in “Was This the Face,”
God is abusive to all His children,
and also He hardly ever comes around! If this—
then that. If no news is good news,
then it seems there is no
no news. (43)
Ford, Katie. Blood Lyrics. Graywolf Press: Minneapolis, MN. 2015. Print.
Shapero, Natalie. Hard Child. Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, WA. 2017. Print.