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'Popular Longing' Digs Into Everything We'd Rather Leave Unsaid

Copper Canyon Press

One thing most poets are not afraid of is saying what cannot be said.

Oftentimes, those unsayables involve uncomfortable truths about our capitalist society. And in her new book, Popular Longing, poet Natalie Shapero takes a blunt, funny look at the things we'd prefer to avoid.

"A lot of what I try to do in my work is write poems that are in conversation with the ways in which we don't talk about things in a straightforward way," Shapero says. "The way in which we talk around difficult subjects or taboo subjects."

Using her sharp wit, Shapero looks at how we often use our own wit, joking about things that are too uncomfortable for regular conversation.

"The strategy of the poems is to sort of use irony to hit things from the side and use jokes in ways that make the poems potentially sadder than they would be if they didn't have humor in them," she says.

So if the poems in Popular Longing make you feel bad, Shapero says that's the point.

"I want [the book] to try on different unhelpful ways of looking at the world as a way of making explicit different postures that we're invited to assume and different assumptions that we're invited to make," she says.

Consider this excerpt from her poem "Five by Seven":

... From the recent restaurant

boom, infer a citywide uptick in rage-ravaged homes.

People want new spots to fight, to squall

and snipe, lose their appetites, be brought

the chalkboard special, not touch it,

see it whisked to the kitchen and scraped

out back for a dog to eat, but that's cool — dogs

have to eat too —

Here, with a layer of humor enhancing the performativity of human nature, Shapero exposes common selfishness.

"It is a task of living in our world to be cognizant of the ways in which we're invited, again and again to feel like the real work of our lives is to take care of ourselves rather than to look outward," she says.

This exists, also, in the way most of us romanticise the past and pathologize the aging body.

In her long poem, "Don't Spend It All in One Place", she writes:

... Look at songbirds, how they're only

around or dead might appear to us as them

and thereby avoid the shame of recurring as objects.

Or the ninety-year-old sea turtle in the aquarium's

briny dim, who allows onlookers to pride themselves

on not yet having grown old, on being comparatively

lithe and hot. This wish to feel young — recalling

my own past, I can't imagine desiring to go backward,

but of course I am aware it's a popular longing.

What are we nostalgic for? Shapero implies that it is the idea of ourselves we love the most — the notion that we are masterpieces, and that our lives are important.

And for her it's important to look at how, on both personal and societal levels, the past can actually be a place of great discomfort. "I want to think about the reasons why there's no need to return there and where we should be looking — is forward," she says.

This longing for our past, or the idea of ourselves, doesn't make us bad people, though. Instead, it's capitalism that is bad, in how it makes us perform our lives to its benefit.

"And that is at the root of the unpleasantness that takes hold in these poems and won't let go," she says.

By exposing our performative urges as something to be wary of, Shapero invites us to consider the privilege of our circumstances and the capitalist root of our desires. Perhaps what we should long for, then, is the ability to see our lives for what they really are.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.