Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Natalie Shapero’s poems “Man at His Bath,” “And Also with You,” and “Other Things, If Not More Urgent Things,” appear in the November 2018 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.

From an old list of notes for poems: Enough of believing only in Heaven. What about a system subscribing to the premise that the only available afterlife is Hell? Shouldn’t that be the ultimate inducement to do with this life something useful? The knowledge that, afterward, there’s no chance for anything but horror. No ascendancy, no return, no solace, no peace, not even no nothing. The understanding that if you ever want to see one shred of something you care about, you had better create it here and now.

The idea of a narrow window, an only chance—this is something that interests me not only in poems, but about them. How the poem, as a creature of concision, is always almost over. Its essence is a lack of time ahead. To that end, it can’t traffic too much in circumstance or context; it has little patience for the full range of individual expression and thought. The poem wants the poet to just get to it, and then it wants to half-listen as it half-minds the clock, and then it wants to move on.

Short on empathy and attention, then, and refusing to yield adequate time or space to say all that wants to be said, the poem offers the poet a hostile field onto which to map ideas. I try to honor this hostility by only writing a poem after I’ve previously tried to explain the concept to someone face-to-face and been met with distaste or rebuttal or blankness or fear. I sometimes try to invent a joke to tell my friends; if they like it, the task is over and done with, but if they don’t get it—if it doesn’t “land”—it needs somewhere else to go. 

It can be a useful practice to begin a poem from the premise that nobody wants to hear it. Things that are disfavored include: excessive exposition, duplicative impulse, prolonged consideration of emotion. The poem can’t be directed at anyone who cares what it has to say, out of recognition that such a person does not exist. Even the poem itself doesn’t care what it has to say. The poem greets any attempt at earnestness or unfettered self-expression with some canned sarcastic rejoinder like thanks for sharing or tell me how you really feel.

The relationship with the poem, then, is adversarial. The poem is always striving for economy, imposing limitations. The poem is a door that opens out onto a wall. The poem is always pressuring toward an ending. Often, the poem is trying to wrest from the poet the impulse to begin in the first place. Sometimes the poet might try, in response, to perform some degree of mildness, to put the poem at some kind of initial ease. It might make sense to wait for an opening, to sidle in first by navigating acceptable topics of conversation, then try to briefly shoehorn in the unacceptable yet urgent. And then be quiet. In this way, the poem is like a conversation, like just another one of the myriad quotidian exchanges of information that structure our days. It is not a creature of magic, not a creature of music. It is not a gorgeous, lithe, cosmopolitan sylph that flits before us in our most troubled hours, conjuring insight. It is more like an ordinary child, an unformed form that absorbs linguistic and social conventions from the life around it, then spits them back out. And the poet is defeated before it, reduced to opacities rather than straightforward speech, walking home down the dumpster-studded alleyway rather than the street.

I find myself put in mind of my old apartment, a second-floor spot where the window was level with the streetlight. I would often wake in the middle of the night to its beam, white and garish as the light I’ve heard I might see before I die. Then I would fall back asleep and wake the next morning, restored in my regular life. A near-death experience every night. The poem is never not flashing that light, eternally trying to put the poet in mind of stopping. But what’s on the other side isn’t Heaven. You know what it is.

Originally Published: November 12th, 2018

Natalie Shapero was born in Chester, Pennsylvania and earned a BA in Writing Seminars from the Johns Hopkins University, an MFA in Poetry from the Ohio State University, and a JD from the University of Chicago. For the 2011-2012 year, Shapero served as the Steven Gey Fellow with Americans United...