During August of last summer, I watched a robustly pregnant Natalie Shapero read from her first book, No Object (Saturnalia Books, 2013), under strands of Christmas-tree lights hung off the fire escape of poet/artists Mel and Pete Burkeet’s apartment. Though I know it’s not true, I remember Shapero dressed in a kind of Hugh Hefnerish get up, but with perfectly circular glasses instead of 80’s Ray-Bans. In particular, I remember her wearing a white captain’s hat with a black plastic brim. I’ve added this detail in hindsight, most likely as a result of having read No Object so many times, a book where Shapero captains more than writes her poems.
In No Object “common sense,” one liners, advice, aphorisms, literature, memory, history, hearsay, puns, slang, and imagination all collapse into each other forming a kind of sea of language for Shapero to navigate. Take “Kidding, Kidding” for example:
Three coin-ops and no more.
Is this my fault? I’ve taken things too far.
Hard to believe I’ve been described as a nun
On her day off.
Listen to me.
You simply cannot change
the entire country to the metric system
by calling up a frog jump in La Jolla
they see to print
the win in centimeters.
The frog ramp was absurdly cantilevered.
No kind of peep show parlor can survive
on fewer than
With all the kinds of screens,
hard to believe they okayed the astronaut
who asked the tester DON’T YOU HAVE THAT INKBLOT
UPSIDE DOWN. (6-7)
Perhaps an ever better metaphor than calling Shapero a captain would be to compare her to a drunk driver, careening across a dozen lanes of epistemology yet never getting injured in the accidents she causes.
The real estate these poems traverse is immense. In them, thought moves below language like in some diagram by Saussure. The two may intersect at moments but always stay separate. For instance, in one section of her long poem “HOT (NORMAL)” she writes:
I haven’t been a child in a long time.
At most, I’ve been a cat. The world has left
something on for me while it’s at work.
Cats can’t see TV. Or is it mirrors? I’ve seen a lot
of both. I’ve tacked toward shame.
I’ve read the sham obscenity
trial of Howl, publishers in holding cells,
something in the food so they couldn’t get hard.
We’re lucky, our freedom. Recall
when the condom tore. I accused you
of wishing it, trying to make me settle down.
You responded SETTLE DOWN. (54)
Reading these poems is like trailing a string through a labyrinth with no entrances or exists, like channel surfing on a TV on which each day of your life is broadcast as a separate station, like putting the newspaper through a shredder and trying to read it.
And this is what I saw the message of No Object to be. The spaces between fragments is where “we” are. Our selves are located not in language, but in its interstices. And yet, the only way to bring out those gaps is to speak. In “Implausible Travel Plans” she writes:
He said, the water down there, it’s so clear
you can’t see jellyfish. That indicates
nothing, I said, and he said, I don’t care
is the hardest line to deliver in all of acting,
as though he knew of an acting laboratory
where researchers developed hardness scales
and spattered across them devastating fragments.
SHOW ME THE STEEP AND THORNY WAY TO HEAVEN.
I liked to rehearse my Ophelia during blackouts,
the traditional time to make the worst mistakes
and, later, soften the story. Nothing working
but the gas stove. God, I felt so bad
that time we used the crock instead of the kettle
and watched it smoke and shatter. I was the one.
I was the one who wanted stupid tea. (18)
What I see as the driving idea behind No Object is the notion that every means of reaching the self are the very same things which prevent one from doing so. What we are left with, then, is language, a body with no object.
If this sounds fatalistic, I don’t mean it to and neither does Shapero. Even if the self is unknowable, Shapero reminds us that the only thing worth kneeling for is what we don’t know. In “Stars” she writes:
[…] I didn’t know anything better, I thought execution-style was a sex position, I thought the love line was the biggest organ in the body, I though you said cock
for one you wanted to see and dick for one you didn’t, as in he had a dick like a bad word I learned early, didn’t comprehend the meaning, 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, count the while like stars now shooting
through my friend’s black hair, she says not that’s blonde, I’m a little bit blonde, souvenir from the Hun invasion if you get my drift, yes where were the stars while our elders were raping each other, they failed as watchmen and now they’ve gone, thanks a lot, Swan, thanks a lot, Southern Cross, I don’t know why it happens, but the body is a holy
war, can’t reason our way out of it, best now just to kneel. (4)
Shapero’s poems circle around an absent self. And though there is no object at the center, there is the purest kind of sublimity is walking as close to the void as you can.