We All Have a Little Death Wish
By Natalie Shapero
69 pages. Copper Canyon Press.
It doesn’t seem that there’s much remarkable about longing anymore, does there? Some desire that’s never satisfied, no matter how immediate the superficial gratification. It’s fundamental to being alive, so much so that it’s commonplace. But the poems in Natalie Shapero’s third collection, Popular Longing, are anything but ordinary. They dig beneath the definition of “longing” itself, to the coal-powered engine inside it. Although they tackle conscious, consumerist desires, these poems hitch themselves to the subliminal—the kind of longing that is less about want and indulgence than it is about a need to know where this train ends up and how to get there fast. It is not a longing for death, so much as a relentless looking forward. An unstoppable acceleration towards one end or another and a one-way ticket to wherever that is.
In her sonnet sequence, “Don’t Spend It All in One Place,” Shapero says:
I am losing track of time. I can’t
even view a painting anymore without picturing
its future: knife-marks, singes, punctures in the canvas,
patches of varnish half-eaten by splatters of lye.
(p. 54, ll. 172-175)
In its charming matter-of-factness and its gravitational pull toward the deep blue offing, the voice here (and throughout the collection) grieves what it still has before it’s gone—grieves our lives and their temporariness before they are over. Here, Shapero becomes that archetype of the psychic medium whose curse is that she only sees how and when each thing dies. She touches a stranger’s palm and fast-forwards to the end of the cassette. But the point here isn’t ever reduced to some eye-rolling adage to live in the present or seize the day. Rather, it’s the inevitability of it all—how we are careening faster and faster toward our expiration dates, “how the largest possible quantity / of anything is a lifetime” (“Other Things, If Not More Urgent Things,” p. 57, ll. 3-4).
But in this collection, Shapero also vivisects the big death wish at the crux of our capitalist culture and its indifference to the environmental consequences. These wryly observant and introspective poems peel back the skin of overabundance and find waste just beneath it. They cut open the heart of treasure and find trash clogging the drain of the aorta. Her poem “Tomatoes Ten Ways” is a pre-apocalyptic fable that warns that even the Earth is a temporary thing that will eventually give way, just like our own human bodies—that the ground will bury itself.
. . . Children,
today was sent here by the future
to beg you to think of this place
like a body—it might be yours
for now, but it is only a matter of time
before it buckles and kicks and ousts
and sinks, like the very
body it is, right back to the ground.
(p. 17, ll. 16-23)
And it’s this interminable commodification and monetization of things that speeds it all up. But even here, Shapero doesn’t miss a beat. With a comic’s sense for the painfully ironic, she tells us we’re even running out of room to bury the dead, that “there’s scarcely / a spare acre left in the ground” (“California,” p. 11, ll. 5-6). But maybe that’s because so many are trying to pack a bag to take down with them, so they don’t get too lonely there. In “My Hair Is My Thing,” the dead are entombed like pharaohs with their favorite possessions:
pearl-trimmed gun, gold watch,
whatever you’ve got. . . .
. . . These contused little
objects of wealth.
(p. 7, ll. 16-19)
In these incisive and agile poems, one man’s mountain of gold is another man’s landfill. Are we truly burying these things or being buried by them? In her poem “Magpie,” this hoarding of stuff simply moves from grave bed to bird’s nest:
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.
(p. 14, ll. 16-19)
Throughout Popular Longing, Natalie Shapero’s deadpan humor and striking lyricism are the spoonful of sugar that helps you to swallow a mouthful of glass. These poems have hard, sharp edges but you don’t even notice until you’ve gulped a whole delicious one down and feel the bloody catch in your throat. And then, of course, there’s no turning back. For the speaker in these poems, every point in time and space is a point of no return. In another sonnet section in “Don’t Spend It All in One Place,” she says: “This wish to feel young—recalling / my own past, I can’t imagine desiring to go backward, / but of course I am aware it’s a popular longing” (p. 46, ll. 68-70). This dream of an unpolluted past is just too far behind for us to reach anymore. And do any of us truly have the stomach for time travel? The only way to move is inevitably forward.
Lindsay Lusby is the author of the poetry collection Catechesis: a postpastoral (The University of Utah Press, 2019), winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize, judged by Kimiko Hahn. She is also the author of two chapbooks, Blackbird Whitetail Redhand (Porkbelly Press, 2018) and Imago (dancing girl press, 2014), and the winner of the 2015 Fairy Tale Review Poetry Contest. Her poems have appeared most recently in New South, Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, Passages North, and Plume. She is a Senior Poetry Reader for Cherry Tree and she edits poems at Tell Tell Poetry.