KR Reviews

On Popular Longing by Natalie Shapero

Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2021. 80 pages. $17.00.

In Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 film Taste of Cherry, a middle-aged man named Badii drives the dusty hills of Tehran in a Range Rover, looking to hire someone to shovel earth on his body after he kills himself. Badii meets a soldier and a seminarian who both refuse. Finally, he meets an old taxidermist who, in need of money, agrees. But as Badii drives, the taxidermist—vivacious, funny, a twinkle in his eye—tries to talk him out of it. He once wanted to hang himself on a mulberry tree, he explains, but reconsidered when he tasted the delicious mulberries. He jokes with Badii, sings to him, calls Badii his friend many times, begs him not to do it. “The world isn’t the way you see it,” he says. “The people on the other side would like to take a look here and you want to rush over there! Don’t you ever want to drink water from a spring again? Or wash your face in that water?”

While first reading Natalie Shapero’s Popular Longing, I thought the voice—constantly ruminating on suicide, death, and war—is like that of Badii.

Rough days I’m trying to live as though dead, to satisfy
or at least dampen the inclination
to actually die. I’m holding
mainly still.

But reading the book again, I realized it also contains another voice, more akin to the taxidermist: full of songs, curiosity, and humor. Popular Longing, with its playfulness and sadness and boundless energy, contains both Badii and the taxidermist. A conversation, of sorts, between death-wish and life force.

Popular Longing is made up of free verse lyric poems and a sonnet sequence. Shapero’s lyric poems uniquely refuse the confessional. Despite a strong “I” voice, Shapero makes it difficult to pin down who’s speaking. The speaker doesn’t ever quite say whom she’s talking about or where she is. Just when we situate ourselves in a poem, it pivots, with a sharp volta, changing its mind and erasing its tracks. One poem ends: “You can almost imagine / the whole thing was somebody else.” Even when the speaker refers to personal suffering, we cannot discern whether Shapero is confessing her own life. “California,” after a few lines on the virtues of burial following death, turns to a traumatic episode:

For years I would wonder whether
the man who attacked me—
in his memory, did the event of it
persist as a dull sort of flash? Then
he died and became himself
just a flash in the mind of the world.
Now I wonder—is he anywhere?

The poem doesn’t process trauma in the expected ways. It feints, swivels, turning toward curiosity rather than seeking catharsis or claiming victimhood.

Shapero’s speakers and characters have no names: “him,” “you,” “L,” and “B.” But vague pronouns and distance, which might be a weakness in a lesser poet, are a strength in Shapero. Shapero’s “I” voice is so sharp and personable that it establishes intimacy despite the distance, like someone brilliant we just met at a party whispering in our ears. The lack of confession allows the poems to become parables of sorts. Poems with too much narrative can have leaden feet, tied to the timeline, like prose. Shapero’s poems, by contrast, have liftoff. Without being attached to specific people, they’re free to twist and turn with Shapero’s blazing mind.

Popular Longing begins with an epigraph by Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte: “I do not like money, neither for itself nor for what it can buy, as I want nothing we know about.” Many voices in Shapero’s book, including her speakers, are narcissistic, obsessed with surfaces. One sonnet begins, “THEY SPEND MORE ON THE OUTSIDE THAN ON / THE INSIDE, I overheard someone say . . . / . . . to which her friend / responded LOOK WHO’S TALKING.” Under the surfaces are the effects of capitalism: garbage. Refuse and trash of all types accumulate on Shapero’s pages, just as they do on the streets of our American cities.

Unusual rain of late, and a new weed
that resemble concertina wire
is threading itself through the dirt.

Seeing it makes me think of never seeing it again,

how I will miss this upstart greenness
after I lose it all and am thrown
from this home, which will be soon.

It’ll be someone else living here then, hiding

an emergency key in a bucket,
up late snaking the bath drain or early
doing sit-ups on the painted floor.

It’ll be someone else walking a mile and a half

to the store called Magpie, buying
a gift for whichever friend’s baby, rattle
or small shirt with transit map.

The name is meant to conjure up a gorgeous, inky

creature culling treasures to bring
back, but if you really get close
to a magpie’s nest, you see it’s all trash.

Here the speaker equates things we find dear—body, nature, culture—with trash. Where we’ve historically expected to find glory—the infant, or the “gorgeous, inky” magpie—we find trash. “What are our choices,” a speaker asks, “and might I suggest / LESS IS MORE AGAINST MORE IS MORE?”

Shapero’s meditations on death and the body echo John Donne, the metaphysical poet and priest who sometimes slept in his coffin to remind himself of impermanence. Donne, too, had paradoxical thoughts about death. In “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,” he writes, “I am every dead thing,” as if eager for death or at peace with it. But in “Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud,” he rejects death: “Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.” Like Donne, Shapero wonders what lies under material surfaces.

                         I was thinking of the times
I have attempted to exit my body. I was thinking
of how I’d had nowhere to go. I was wishing
for a smaller body hidden within my body,
a smaller site to which I might retreat.
I was wishing for a canny escape not only
from what is around us, but also from what
is pitiless and ambulant and tacky and can lodge
one layer beneath the surface layer of our very
skin. Only under that is where we are. (“Long Wedding”)

Under capitalism is garbage, and under garbage is something else. This last line, telling us that under the skin “is where we are,” invites us to interpret Magritte’s epigraph as more than simple anti-materialism. “I want nothing we know about” doesn’t necessarily mean that Magritte wants nothing, but that he wants what is beneath the surface or unknown.

As in Taste of Cherry, Popular Longing features moments where Shapero’s darkness feels overwhelming. But like the taxidermist who jokes and sings to lift the spirits of Badii, Shapero undercuts her bleakness with surprising turns, irony, wit, and hilarity:

Don’t worry. Wars are like children—
you create one, offer scant
effort, then call it botched as the years
accrue, go off and make
a new one with somebody else.
A chance to finally get it right.

In the end, she strikes a balance between the depressing and the humorous, triviality and wisdom, a rare feat in American poetry. Shapero’s poetics, marrying such extreme polarities, reminds me of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, who is also a destroyer of evil forces, champion of the life force: portrayed with skulls around her neck, dancing, laughing, waving a bloody sword.