Passing and Violence

by Natalie Shapero

What pride I feel in America stems from our anthem
being the toughest one to sing. The high segment
with the red burn of the rocket: only a few
can reach. Watching a stranger parallel park, I pray
she abrades her neighbor. Watching football, I need
to see a man die. I need to see the intractable passing

and violence. Of the cruelty ringing the Earth,
I am a portion. I never said he was a bad man, only
a larger portion. He wreaked harm on us for years
and then one day he began to die. I watched as science
shattered his body to wrest the disease out, stopping
just short of his failure. Failure, the word
he favored over death. Me, I favored nothing over
death. I held him like a brother. I knew him as an error
of God, dropped at the doorstep of our age, and what
could we do but save him? I began to suspect so many
of machinations. How my parents had summoned me
into this world, but then when I arrived,

they were not here. My whole being was a set-up.
They called me over to sit alone with the weather
and soot, unfettered. They said I had differences to be
resolved. After attempting the anthem, upwards of fifty
percent remark, I should have started lower or I should
have chosen something else instead
. Uneasy lies the head.

Notes on the Poem

Not only have we learned and felt much through Natalie Shapero's direct words in selections (such as this poem and this poem) from her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Hard Child, but we can also learn and feel through what she withholds in a piece. As the 2018 judges astuted observed:
"[Shapero] teaches us how to retain the self without disappearing into the object we behold. She holds herself at various distances from the thing considered. She drives us toward a view and back again. This is how to write a lyric poem.”
Griffin Poetry Prize winner Dionne Brand has given considerable thought to the concept of withholding in one's work. (Her Ossuaries won the prize in 2011, and her latest collection The Blue Clerk was shortlisted in 2019.) She reflects on the concept in a recent interview, and offers some perspectives couched relative to the form of The Blue Clerk, where two key figures collaborate and at times conflict to produce work: "the clerk is the part of you that attends to your surroundings, and makes note of it. The author is the one, or the part of you, that makes the decisions of what to do with that." The results for Brand were: "a process of attending very, very carefully, and hopefully with a kind of honesty, to what was left out, to what was withheld, and to the reasons that they were withheld." In "Passing and Violence", Shapero clearly attends to details, many of them disturbing ... "Watching football, I need to see a man die. I need to see the intractable passing and violence." if at times obscure ... "They called me over to sit alone with the weather and soot, unfettered." She is definitely withholding something in all she has itemized and, at times bluntly and viciously, revealed. Her revelatory process is also framed by ruminations on people attempting to sing the challenging US national anthem. What does that represent? At any rate, what we imagine has been withheld invests what has been presented - troubling and mysterious - with perhaps even more power. As she considers people tackling the daunting anthem - often spectacularly unsuccessfully - then circling back to the regret attending those attempts, Shapero does "drive us toward a view and back again." It leaves us wondering if that regret refers to other much more devastating things than a song sung poorly. "Uneasy lies the head" ... indeed.

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