Natalie Shapero's "Long Wedding"

Thoughts on the loneliness of what is beneath the surface.

Long Wedding

Through it all—the usher’s nod, the Pachelbel,
the thousand psalms, the joke-misplacing
of the rings—I waited for the pause
to acknowledge the few scattered uncles
and friends too ill to attend. I waited for the silence
And keep them in my thoughts I did—I thought
of them so much that I missed all the dancing, all
the sling-back twirls, the forced displays
of riotousness, the cake. I missed all the children
being instructed not to touch the begonias,
and the paper lanterns almost catching fire.
I missed the plastic chimney glasses, emptied
of their cocktails, being set on a table and swept
down into a bag. I missed the part where they
honeymooned in Lisbon. I missed it
when they bought the house with the mudroom
and the mansard roof. I missed it when they retired
somewhere placid. I missed their birthdays, every
year, and then I missed it when they died
and were buried in the dirt with their jewelry on.
I was still sitting there at the rented table,
in front of a single charred onion on a skewer,
thinking of all the guests who had to decline,
thinking of them in hospitals, attended to by loved
ones who had little to say aside from
I HATE HOSPITALS, but whose tenderness
still carried through. I was thinking of the times
I have attempted to exit my body. I was thinking
of how I’d had nowhere to go. I was wishing
for a smaller body hidden within the body,
a purer place to which we might retreat.
I was wishing for a canny escape not only
from what is around us, but also from what
is pitiless and ambulant and tacky and can lodge
one layer beneath the surface layer of our very
skin. Only under that is where we are.

from Popular Longing (Copper Canyon, 2021)

If you haven’t read Natalie Shapero’s Popular Longing, you should. It’s an absurd, critical, funny, sometimes misanthropic book that throws many knives at society, and is tinged not just with humor, but with moments of humanness that come in the form of desolation, sorrow, and various forms of abandon. To be honest, it’s not the kind of voice I often find myself drawn to, which is to say it’s not often very plaintive, or wonderstruck. But that would be ungenerous of me — to deny a book (or poem’s) potential for delight, or joy, or sorrow, or more, simply because it doesn’t seem, at first, like what I love. And I love this book. Which I guess means I shouldn’t say I am someone who loves particularly plaintive or wonderstruck work alone.

That being said, I found myself struck by this poem the first time I read Shapero’s book. And I found myself struck by it because it’s the first poem in a long time that quite literally made me almost — very nearly — cry. And, reading it again, and then again, I found myself struck by the craft of it — the way in which Shapero seems to leverage the speaker’s isolation and humor and wryness and turn it toward not just critique, but also a little bit of grace, the loneliness of longing.

Something I say to my students that I hope makes them think of a text not as something to mine for one singular meaning, but rather to investigate and enjoy as a series of attempted meanings, is that any thing we read — whether a poem or a story or one of those test-aligned passages ripped from an old Joyce story — is a compendium of choices made on the part of a person. Sometimes certain choices — I stress certain because not every use of, say, and is contributing to momentum or accumulation, but rather is simply the necessary word — are not really choices, just the going-through-the-motion’s of language. But some choices — say, the way a poem lingers at a wedding, or the image of a lone “charred onion” — are choices. They could have been something else. They were decided for, not against, and, as such, they reveal the human at the helm of something. Why is almost always a great thing to ask. How, too, is also wonderful.

And when I think of those choices at the heart of today’s poem, I find myself loving them. What better place to situate a poem that has so much to say about death, about mundanity, about excess, about the sometimes shallowness of life than at a wedding? What better way to communicate the letdown of life than a "charred onion” sitting there, forever uneaten? And maybe this is a stretch, but who better to remind us of tenderness than the speaker of this poem, who seems critical, and wry, and sad, and maybe a little misanthropic, and sensitive, and longing for something else or more?

And I do love the misanthropy that accumulates at the beginning of this poem. It’s the voice of a critic who seems hellbent on capturing moments in need of criticizing and making a bit of a joke of them. It reminds me of that meme with the drawings of the people at the party, except for the fact that that meme can be so sad. You know the one? I’ll make one related to today’s poem and put it below. Here you go: 

There’s a part of me at the onset of today’s poem that wants to say: Why can’t you just have fun? Why do you have to single out that one line? But I realize that reaction as the symptom of my personhood that is fearful of being critically aware because I am fearful of being judged a cynic, or a misanthrope. In other words, I’m fearful of the truth, sometimes, because of the loneliness on truth’s other side.

It’s hard to read this poem and not think of a passage from a novel I recently finished: Johannes Lichtman’s Such Good Work. In it, he writes:

Once, we were sitting at Cafe Ariman, a student hangout near the cathedral, Bengt with a beer and me with a coffee, talking about a recent American movie. Bengt had no thoughts to offer about the film, except to go and on about the clumsy product placement, as if the ability to spot the product placement were a sign of intelligence — a sign that you weren’t being fooled. Whatever the filmmaker was trying to do wasn’t as important as Bengt’s observations. I saw this approach to criticism among a lot of my classmates: show how smart you are by finding the one problem. It bugged me. But I also admired the Swedish ability to ask the piercing question of art: Is what you’re doing worthwhile? I didn’t see this question as much in American criticism. The question in American reviews was more how well you did what you were doing.

That question — is what you’re doing worthwhile — feels like it sits at the heart of today’s poem, and feels, too, like it’s lodged deep within the speaker’s mind. But it’s not framed in the usual ways: austere cynicism, feigned lackadaisicalness. Instead, Shapero’s speaker feels, as John Wall Barger writes in The Kenyon Review, like "someone brilliant we just met at a party whispering in our ears.” The speaker is witty and funny, wildly observant:

I waited for the silence
And keep them in my thoughts I did—I thought
of them so much that I missed all the dancing, all
the sling-back twirls, the forced displays
of riotousness, the cake.

The joke here is centered on a kind of absurd literality, like when a kid says ask me if I am a dog, and then you say are you a dog, and then they say no. That’s a terrible example, but you know what I mean. But that choice — to frame the poem around that moment of literality — also gives the speaker a sense of real care. She’s asked to keep people in her thoughts, and she does. So it’s less that the speaker is misanthropic or cynical or endowed with any label of negativity that might be placed on her. Instead, even though she is extending a joke past its punchline, she seems to be the only one invested in the act of trying to remember, which is also the act of missing. She spends the whole poem missing. 

Throughout Popular Longing, Shapero dwells in that liminal space between life and death. In the poem “Have at It,” she writes:

We would like to 

confirm that everyone is recognized in death.

Unseen as we are in this life, it’s all we have.

That poem sits a few pages before today’s poem in Shapero’s book, and you feel the lines of both echoing together and singing the same sad song. In fact, the speaker of today’s poem enacts these very lines. She tries to recognize the dead, and in that process, she remains unseen. When all of life has passed her by, and the wedding is over, and along with it, the dancing, the drinking, the joy, we find her:

still sitting there at the rented table,
in front of a single charred onion on a skewer

In her attempt to do something of worth — to simply keep the dead in her thoughts, to exist beneath the surface of this life — she is glossed over. You can imagine the caterers cleaning and packing up every table save for the one where she is sitting. It reveals a hard truth: to see things as they are is, often, to also feel lonely. And by see things as they are, I don’t necessarily mean to know things. I mean, rather, to see that there is, as Shapero writes, a “surface layer of our very / skin,” which means that there must be a place beneath the surface, and a place, even deeper, beneath that. It’s one of the great pains of this life that so much of what brings joy can also bring great loneliness. To question can be a lonely thing. To wonder, too. I don’t know what to make of that. I think of it all the time.

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes that we never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. I guess, if you are always wondering about who or what you have lost, and if you are always thinking about what is beneath the surface, then the relationship that defines your looking is a relationship of longing, a relationship of missing. Sometimes life is this forever-kind of looking, and the loneliness that ensues. And what does it mean to be lonely? It means, sometimes, to long for something more. It means, too, to think of life as loss. It means to think, so often, about what is unanswerable. Which is another way of saying that you can’t stop thinking about it. Sometimes, to live in this world feels like having the whole world live inside you. It sounds full, but it’s not. Because that means your body is just in space, full of everything that is no longer there. Who do you spend that fullness with?

The moment when today’s poem becomes something magical to me is when it turns not just toward, but into that loneliness:

I was thinking of the times
I have attempted to exit my body. I was thinking
of how I’d had nowhere to go. I was wishing
for a smaller body hidden within the body,
a purer place to which we might retreat.

That turn into loneliness is present throughout Popular Longing. In “Some Toxin,” she writes:

All I want is for someone

to understand me, but it seems my keenest friends

and I — we’ve scattered. We’ve struggled for peace,

for permanence, and somehow in that struggle,

we’ve ventured far from each other.

In both poems, but particularly today’s, these moments come after long moments of wryness, wit, and sharp, observant humor. Today’s poem is a remarkable display of craft in that regard. The lines prior to the the lines above are lines that insist on extending a joke and taking it too far by virtue of accumulation and repetition. And as the joke — the absurd literal nature of keep them in your thoughts — accumulates, it seems to at once criticize society while also distancing the speaker from it. And, at the same time, it’s a joke that isn’t really a joke. It seems, too, to be an attempt to remember. But it also is a joke. And it’s a joke that, when it runs out, leaves the speaker blown over, left aside, fully alone. And only the self beneath the surface of the joke remains. And it is a self of such deep, utter sorrow, a self that has longed for a smaller body hidden within the body, a self that has tried to burrow further into itself. 

And it was that moment that made me feel like crying. It was the way the poem enacted the many movements of a self in a world where, as Sarah Jaffe writes — summarizing Mark Fisher — it feels “impossible to imagine any other way that the world could be organized,” and yet you still try to imagine that different world, only to find that you feel like the only one trying to imagine that. Like when you excuse yourself from the party for reasons you don’t want to admit to your friends because you don’t think they’d understand. Like when you find yourself being the only person who asks don’t you ever or do you ever think or do you ever feel, and the answer is always no. Like when you don’t want to be so sad but you are so sad. And you think maybe blueberries will make this better, maybe a walk. And they do. They do make it better. But they make it worse sometimes, too, those few moments of simple joy. They make you wonder why you can’t always live in that “purer place to which we might retreat.”