Natalie Shapero, a professor at Tufts University, did not set out to publish a collection of poems about motherhood with her second book, Hard Child, so the result is surprising and new. Many of the pieces present a realistic look at parenting, especially single motherhood. There is no greeting card sentimentality. These are not love poems to a child. Instead, they read like explanations or apologies that hope to come from a place of love.
These poems use an unusual, almost archaic syntax; some read like Victorian literature, some like having a conversation with your crazy aunt. It’s not until days later that you realize how much sense they make. On first reading, the opening poem, “My Hand and Cold,” seems like a list of random things: a neighbor reluctantly going in for surgery; a pub quiz question; baby names; several countries. Considering this a poem about motherhood made me understand the author’s intent. Like her neighbor, Shapero is reluctant; her medical procedure is giving birth. She’s afraid to put too many names on the “if she’s born breathing” list because the thought of losing her child is terrifying. Those countries that “are entirely inside of other countries” evoke the image of a child in the womb. They suggest that to be surrounded either provides protection from or vulnerability to an attack.
The tone of Hard Child is subdued, yet the poems still evoke excitement, wonder, or speculation. “Mostly I Don’t Want to Have a Son” expresses at its heart the various anxieties that accompany parenting. Shapero’s list seems illogical, but the narrative pace compels the reader on. Instead of relying on the actual fear—”What if he…is damaged?”—the author uses irrational worries to propel the poem into a collection of such specific images that the reader believes the subject of the poem, a son, exists. Shapero’s words express the onerous set of expectations we put on our sons, or that are put upon them by society, and the judgement that comes when those expectations are not met—and sometimes when they are.
I found the poems about how tough it is to be a mother particularly honest and incredibly validating. “Teacup This” starts off in a way that puts the reader on familiar footing: “To my young daughter, I sing the songs / my mother sang to me.” If you think you know where the poem is going, you’re wrong. I certainly was, and isn’t that an analogy for parenthood itself? Later in the poem, after lamenting the constant and stressful reminders to always lay her baby on her back, Shapero, in a moment most mothers can relate to, declares “It’s awful, to be a person.” These poems prepare the reader for the anxieties that develop when a new parent first realizes how little control they have over life.
“Survive Me” challenges what is okay and not okay to say about motherhood or children in a more relatable way than similar poems I have read. The author recognizes her own selfishness in wanting to have a child. She wants to pass on her unique knowledge to someone, but acknowledges that she didn’t consider the “thwarting era” into which she would be bringing a child. It’s one of the shorter pieces in the collection, but the final words will leave you breathless.
Hard Child allows us to see the world through a different lens. It made me think of my response to “Metaphors” from Sylvia Plath’s collection, The Crossing. That poem is full of beautiful language and imagery and contains two of my favorite lines in all of poetry: “I’ve eaten a bag of green apples, / Boarded the train there’s no getting off.” But when I realized after a couple of readings that Plath’s poem was about motherhood, specifically about being pregnant, I felt unsettled. The last thing most mothers need is a glimpse of how challenging motherhood can be. There’s no similar aftertaste with Shapero’s poems, though they are thought provoking.
There are poems in this collection that, on the surface, have nothing to do with motherhood, but beneath lurks a presence, almost a shadow, that suggests the author is thinking as a mother might, and that her future will not be spent alone. “Not Horses” was selected for publication in The New York Times Magazine by Terrance Hayes, so is arguably the most widely read poem in the book. In this piece the author distances herself from others: contemporary poets; women; people who can’t see that “the world is dead.” But even with a line like that, the message is not hopeless. “The ending is heartbreaking, weird and resilient,” Hayes says of “Not Horses.” That is also an accurate description of the book as a whole.
The last line of the final poem in Hard Child reads, “God, of course they didn’t survive,” which acts as an answer to “Survive Me.” Shapero has made her confession, but there’s no salvation in it, for even love can offer none. None of us will survive even if we pass on our knowledge (or our books). Parenthood can’t save us. In trying to assuage one fear, the author discovers others.
This collection is a metaphor for parenting. You love but you’re not sure why. You laugh, yet are sad at the same time. You feel and think about things you never considered before. Hard Child does not advertise itself to mothers, but it speaks a difficult truth about motherhood that usually goes unsaid. The author admits she was a hard child. It shouldn’t be surprising that her book is, too.