Natalie Shapero’s a sensitive guide to the subject-object duality that suffuses most debates about representation. She’s a Virgil with pluck. She’s a real coup for contemporary poetry: a melancholic soul with cutting wit. She’s compared her book to a stage knife, but I think she undersells her sharpness. These are poems that get under your brain’s skin, in the most disturbing marriage of muck and intellect I’ve read since Michael Robbins.
The title clues you in: No Object’s a romp through multiple registers. The manifold riffs signal Shapero’s knack for crafting open phrases that seem (but only seem) to ramify into Barthesian black holes. One: money’s no object. This hints at her obsession with the metrical measure of America, attested both in interviews and the recurrent images of temperature and scalability. Money’s the great unspoken metric, similarly left ghostly in No Object. Two: postmodern discourses privilege the expansive subject. Notwithstanding the recent attempts by philosophers to de-center the human, the current crop of college graduates has learned to wallow in their own subjectivities. Three: the poet celebrating “the unluck of me” gives up before she starts. Where, oh where, the objects of desire? Images of passivity recur, such as the sheep who “are easiest to clone // because they are natural // followers.”
All of these registers matter for Shapero’s poetics, which has real-world import for the way we use language to talk about messy things. Consider the locus of religion, imagination, and childhood trauma in “I Don’t Sleep in White.” A moving meditation on Jewishness and dislocation, the poem turns on subtle slant rhymes:
“I never prayed to God, but begged the clouds
to meet my needs: not rain, form scenes
from favored books. I was put into acting as a child,
carried by other children over the lake
of fire we were instructed to imagine. Student of ash,
I grew up fleck-complected, short of breath…”
These phonetic figures, murmuring insistently, impel me. They lull my skepticism, to the point that “fleck-complected” rings true in the half-nostalgic diction of a world knocked (gently) askew.
And so Shapero images the fuzziness of subject and object that her title foregrounds. In “Bad Key,” she writes “copy of a copy, see the rut? // Nothing’s born that way.” A nice pun on sex but, more importantly, a pun that signals that her semiotic play’s no mise en abyme. Rather, she highlights the way poetry’s acrobatics can be put to service in what theorists have called “new objectism.” Not to be confused with objectivism, objectism posits that working both in and on the world reconfigures our affective access to the very possibility of difference. Like Paul McCarthy, who constantly reasserted the distinction between ketchup and blood, Shapero nuances all manner of subjects by way of stuff’s uncanny slippage.
Occasionally, the caliber slips. The imagery can seem ham-fisted, the wordplay trite, like Gift of Gab rehashing backpack rap sixteen years after 3 Feet High and Rising. Something like “I am, as Icarus / unveiled at the wax museum, highly / lifelike…” rehearses tired myth to set a scene we’ve seen before. She can, and does, do better. I might have pruned this manuscript by about five poems. Do we really need the riffs on “but/her/face”?
In spite of these quibbles, I can’t recommend No Object highly enough. I’ve barely scratched the surface of a collection that needs scratching hard. Someone should write a dissertation on the way her line breaks point up the messiness of sex and their attendant critique of our linguistic framing of consent. Shapero achieves a rare brilliance. Don’t muff it.
Luke A. Fidler is an art historian based in Chicago, IL. He regularly reviews books for The Economy, and his writing has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, postmedieval, Softblow, and TriQuarterly. He is the co-editor of TAG