No Object, by Natalie Shapero. Ardmore, Pennsylvania: Saturnalia Books. 80 pages. $15.00, paper.
“It is unbefitting to believe in ghosts, to believe what one reads,
what one writes.” —“Arranged Hours,” Natalie Shapero
I have been in possession of Natalie Shapero’s No Object for a long time—about seven weeks. I should have turned in this review a while ago. The thing is, it caught me. Have you ever found a book that started a kind of running dialogue that you didn’t want to let go of? I went places and took the book with me. When the book was not physically with me, I was thinking of it. I read it a few times through and thought that I knew it. I read it again and found my assumptions lost.
The source of my initial resistance? I haven’t yet read a book that read me back with such precision. Of course, this is attributing agency to the object—one of the uncanny reversals these poems address. I mean, what is an object that is subject? Oh, now we’re in a seminar? No. Read this, from “Invocation: The Third and Fourth Generation of Them That Hate Me”:
All you need for a piano is a tree
and an elephant. I sit up sick and humming
K381, which means I like Mozart,
having heard the music once and now
it is in me.
This is not to say the book avoids the philosophical investigations suggested by the title—far from it. Look at the way the subject is reflected back on itself in the first few lines, divided and defined by an engagement with the object. I could go back again and again to these poems solely on the basis of the theoretical questions they raise (I mean, what is the status of “no object” anyway? What is not an object, the subject? Yeah, I think so. But this is also complicated in the course of reading.) No, larger theoretical concerns are not the only source of the strength of these poems.
I’ll be blunt. This book disarmed me. Over the course of several readings, any assumptions or expectations I brought to it dissolved. There were moments of lingering painful self-reflection. (An aside: this is not a standard I hold for all poetry I read. Good lord, not every book has to be Kafka’s ax.) I’m left wondering how No Object manages to affect me so thoroughly. I’m struck first by the tone shared by many of the poems. I want to call it conversational but I’m afraid that would give the wrong impression. This isn’t the kind of conversational tone that seeks to give impression of having a telephone conversation (though there’s nothing wrong with that!). Here’s an example, from “Though in Zero Gravity”:
He bought me a drink. I said THIS PEN CAN WRITE IN SPACE, meaning this pen
explodes on planes. A child traveling alone
was sitting between us solving a What is Wrong.
Goldfish bowl on hot stove, kid, get
This is the tone of the weary stranger at your local dive bar who deigns to speak to you as a temporary reprieve from some silent suffering. But, and here’s the kicker, look what Shapero does with the rest of that last line: “Oh I am a wholly worthless person.” Suddenly a trapdoor opens in the center of the poem. How many poems could actually get away with this line? And by “get away with” I mean allow the reader, no, maybe not allow, but invite the reader to feel this? I suspect it’s not an uncommon thought. Yet, to have this line internalized and connected with takes an incredible amount of technical skill.
No, these poems are not constructed from the language of theory. They don’t root themselves in abstractions. No Object is an exploration of the objectification of the subject, but most importantly, the objectification of women. Early on in “Stars” we get the lines “and I don’t want to live so fully, aging actress who must embody herself dying again and again of unspecified illness, there are few good parts for women, count your blessings.” There is no simple dichotomy here of perpetrator and victim, though that relationship is not ignored. Instead we get a sense that the treatment of women as objects is the template by which all living things are objectified.
The real genius of this collection lies not just in the display of technical skill and unflinching exploration of subject matter. What makes this book unique, what makes it stand out among so much of what is written is its sense of humor. When I mention “humor” I should make it clear that I mean dark humor. Very dark. Shapero is not only a master of the one-liner but of comedic timing in general. Not only do we get lines like “I thought execution-style was a sex position” but lines like these, from “Little Winter”:
I never said, like, baby, I don’t need you
to make me hate myself—I get enough
of that at home.
I live alone.
Okay, maybe “humor” isn’t even the right word. It’s as if we have the formal elements of a joke without the usual function of the humorous. Instead of acting as a relief from the tensions of the text, the real suffering the language points to, we are brought closer to it.
Above all else, this is a book you should buy both for those who consider themselves avid readers/writers of contemporary poetry and (probably especially) those who never read poetry. Remind the former of what they have to aspire to. Introduce the latter to the possibilities of the word.
You can find some of Nathan Moore‘s work at Heavy Feather Review, Pudding Magazine, Everyday Genius, Menacing Hedge, and Fleeting Magazine. He posts paintings and other things at disorder1313.wordpress.com.