Ten What

by Natalie Shapero

copyright ©2017 by Natalie Shapero

The camera adds ten what, I can’t remember.
But the threat’s enough to make me stay

away. I don’t want any more of what I have.
I don’t want another spider plant. I don’t

want another lover. Especially I don’t want
another clock, except insofar as each of us

is a clock, all hammers and counting
down. And yes, I know by heart the list

of lifetimes. A worker bee will die before
a camel. A fox will die before a pilot whale.

A pocket watch will die before the clock inside
the crocodile—I think of this often, but never

tell my lover, as I do not tell him that,
upstairs, a moth is pinned by the window

sash. I make no plans to free it. Everyone says
the baby looks like me, but I can’t see it.

Notes on the Poem

Natalie Shapero certainly has a way with opening lines. We observed that previously with "My Hand and Cold", from her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Hard Child ... and she left us feeling off kilter and apprehensive for the rest of the poem. She does it again in "Ten What" to somewhat different but equally unsettling effect. "The camera adds ten what, I can't remember." One sentence in and we're already forming an impression of this narrator, aren't we? That this person is concerned about being captured on camera and possibly vain sets up an unpleasant air of nervous egotism. Using "what" vaguely and abruptly as a noun (repeated in the poem's title) sets a blunt tone. There are only so many things there could be ten of in this context: pounds (or some measure of weight) and years, likely. The narrator can't remember that? Really? Do you believe him/her/them? After enumerating that "I don't want any more of what I have", do you get a tiny bit concerned about the narrator's honesty and fidelity that not wanting another lover is on their list? Why would that come to mind as an example - along with spider plants and clocks - unless maybe the opposite was true? After enumerating an apparently memorized and rather unusual "list of lifetimes", the narrator mentions some things they are withholding from their lover, including some rather perverse insect torture. Finally, doesn't ... "Everyone says the baby looks like me, but I can’t see it." sound kind of furtive? While it's an intriguing approach to storytelling found in novels, film and television, the device of the "unreliable narrator" is arguably not as often or as pointedly employed in poetry. Or could it be argued that, while Shapero's narrator is more noticeably suspicious, a lot of narrators in poetry are at least a little bit unreliable, and that is another strange allure of the form? As this poetry exercise offered by The Poetry Society's Young Poets Network contends, "In fact, lying in poetry is often necessary for the sake of the poem and the poet."

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