Triptych image: Robert Heinecken, from "Are You Rea," 1964-1968
FEW POETS SPRING into the world fully formed. A poet obsessed with surrealism, for example, might learn that the subject of ardor is best conjured in a sonnet; yet another poet will discover that conceptual constraints accommodate the love affair she keeps trying to write about. Other poets, like D.A. Powell and Harryette Mullen, begin their careers with such distinctive styles that their books feel like models of art movements from the future. Brenda Shaughnessy is such a poet. She writes poems in a baroque and fleshy Latinate style, and this unique lexicon and her original world-building is an important and vital contribution to the canon of contemporary poetry. Her most recent collection, Our Andromeda, is evidence of an evolving and deepening gift for employing dense and strange figurative rhetoric to faithfully reproduce the peculiarities of desire.
Shaughnessy is the author of three poetry collections. While Interior with Sudden Joy (1999) is a provocative gallery of erotic discourse — gorgeous, sexy, arresting — and Human Dark with Sugar (2008), is a primer on the uncomfortable reality of the beloved, the narrative occasion of Our Andromeda (2013) is the moving story of a child’s physical harm and its aftermath, which leads Shaughnessy to consider both the limit and boundlessness of devotion and audacity. Read sequentially, the books present a speaker, originally swathed in a cocoon of keen and incisive self-scrutiny occasionally venturing out for attempts at courtship, who will undergo a series of empowerments and connections that turn her into a ferocious source, a colossus — her old self-doubt kept in check with dry humor.
Her first collection, Interior with Sudden Joy introduced a decadent and explicit grammar to contemporary poetry. The book’s title is based on the erotic and uncanny Dorothea Tanning painting that serves as the book’s cover, an image of insouciant and otherworldly eros. Interior with Sudden Joy's speaker is queer, feminist, and experimental; she revels in lexical and syntactical excess and coyness. In the poem “Panopticon,” a roommate borrows the speaker’s vibrator, which prompts the speaker to spy on her. “She can feel it, my seeing even through a trance of fog./ I’ve lit her with it.” In that moment the speaker’s gaze becomes both an illumination and post-coital glow. The speaker is sexually brazen yet hidden behind a curtain, a surprisingly accurate portrayal of our contradictory sexual lives where we are both bold and voyeuristic in the imagined engagements with our beloved(s). The poem’s engagement with watching is deepened in the poem’s last moment, when the speaker is “watching whoever is watching me, watch me.” Like Gertrude Stein or Mina Loy, Shaughnessy disfigures and overruns the austere lyric space with an unruly female speaker who does soulful work for a fickle beloved. The book’s erotic terrain is as bizarre and anthropomorphic as Alice’s Wonderland or Breton’s L’Amour fou in its ribald and wildly-slanted confessional lyric.
In many of the poems, the speaker is a bit macabre, a bit snarky, but ultimately an ideal protagonist for a book about sexual love. For Shaughnessy, emotion and sensation are synonymous — the brain is cast as a sexual organ — and in many respects this book records that convergence. In the poem “You Love, You Wonder,” the speaker turns sexual jealousy into artifact:
You don’t want to lose anything, at all, ever. You want her sex
want everyone else not blind, but perhaps paralyzed, from the eyes
Her relentless self-scrutiny is one of thrilling vulnerability. Shaughnessy, a gifted sensualist, understands the rich and strange analogs available to define desire and she is unafraid to express even the most taboo thoughts of obsession and sexual power. Her first collection brings her carnality to life in a world where “a mirror erases [her].” This book revels in the profane. Occasionally the lexical decadence in Interior with Sudden Joy renders a poem impenetrable, as in the poem “Perfect Ending,” where she writes, “Be anti-grandmother in your little black box./The hinges must be real gold and wing-shaped …”. It’s an evocative image, to be sure, but also hermetic and private (what grandmother? what box?). But this is the risk of high lyricism.
The book’s universe of feminine ornament and sexuality also makes Shaughnessy an early practitioner of the “gurlesque” peekaboo punning and sexual coquetry. While she takes the reader into the nooks and crannies of the “slippery” female body, she also affirms the promiscuous mouth of feminine hegemony. Shaughnessy was a pioneer in an array of exciting poets problematizing the feminist lyric with third wave feminism as a backdrop — including poets like Cate Marvin, Chelsey Minnis, Catherine Wagner, and Arielle Greenberg.
Her second book, Human Dark with Sugar, chronicles a more complicated ambivalence towards erotic impulse. The relentless inward gaze of Interior with Sudden Joy is pushed outwards as the urgencies of devotion require less mooniness, more logic. The poems shift to a tidier, more inclusive, albeit cranky, rationalism. Where Interior with Sudden Joy showcases Shaughnessy’s linguistic virtuosity, Human Dark with Sugar employs more ethos than logos, poems with a more identifiable and accessible voice. One of the book’s primary worries is how love involves two sets of sharp elbows and needs. As she writes, “… that’s what breaking means./To be whole.” Many of the poems in the collection remind the reader that love is a drag. It is fraught, messy, idiosyncratic and — in Shaughnessy’s poems — populated with a private lexicon that bristles and pulses like a decadent city.
The speaker describes halving and halving again, rationalizing both intractability and complaisance as she comes to define the terms of monogamous romantic heterosexual love. Ambivalence is the book’s bread and butter, the dramatic tension that propels the reader forward. She tests and resists: “Hurting you,” she writes, “vaporizes me,/which is why I love others.” This is a dramatic shift of the slightly narcissistic eros of the first book. Many of the poems vacillate from near-acceptance to total mutiny.
From the very first poem, where she writes, “You have no begging cunt,” to the poem “Straight’s the New Gay,” the feminist speaker struggles with the discomfort of gender normativity. Shaughnessy frames heterosexual love as subversive, challenging “that deviant minority of women/claiming to be 110 percent heterosexual …” These poems speak towards the queer legacy of her previous work. “This Loved Body,” for example, is a painstaking exposition of a speaker exploring her Japanese male lover’s body, “[t]he curves so modest as/ to be mistaken for straight lines and the many straight lines, as if/ the body kept itself in line all its life.” The speaker catalogs the beloved’s body as a new terrain. Shaughnessy breaks down the barriers of gender and erotic attraction, a (polysexual) position rarely expressed in poetry. Eros saturates and transcends gender in a book that depicts many types of bodies.
“Parthogenesis” is about one of those bodies. The poem’s strategy, like “Straight’s the New Gay,” unfolds the logic of purportedly accepted norms about the body by using eating and not eating as ways of constructing the self. To eat is “… [t]o be double-me, half the trouble/but not lonely” whereas “there’s the crispness of not eating,/a pane of glass with a bloody-edged body …” Both bodies are abject, highlighting the terrible bind of being a woman, but Shaughnessy asserts the body of excess as normative, as a source of legitimacy. Human Dark Like Sugar introduces a more brutal level of self-interrogation into Shaughnessy’s poems. Rather than gild, Shaughnessy tests the presumed stability of the concrete world. There’s more alignment of head and body in this book, but also a world-weariness that she attenuates with the humor that will become a crucial element to her third book.
In Our Andromeda, the book’s world building is as funny and enchanting, as deeply vulnerable and lush, and as bold and affecting as Shaughnessy’s two previous collections. The book describes how the tidy version of maternal life she had anticipated is derailed when her son is disabled at birth, leaving her veering from what is to what could have been. “What can I possibly understand,” she asks, “holding on to the idea that he is mine?”
To liken this book to elegy is imprecise — although the book delves into grief, it is temporal, raw, and wild, a grief storm that changes the landscape. Many of the book’s poems are written as entreaties and demands for reprieve and solace, but Shaughnessy also includes poems that describe how art and invention offer escape. Our Andromeda depicts the aphasia of sorrow by quieting the ebullience but not the wry and honest self-awareness of her first two books.
The book moves from quotidian despair to a celestial utopia of avowal and solace. The first section shows a speaker cast adrift, stripped bare by the inevitable course of human life as in the first poem, “Artless,” which begins by depicting lack. The speaker is speechless, and even the lines in the poem are clipped short. Here is the whole poem:
is my heart. A stranger
berry there never was,
Gone sour in the sun,
in the sunroom or moonroof,
No poetry. Plain. No
fresh, special recipe
All I’ve ever made
with these hands
and life, less.
substance, more rind.
Mostly rim and trim,
but making such smoke
in the old smokehouse,
Fatted from the day,
overripe and even
toxic at eve. Nonetheless,
in the end, if you must
know, if I must bend,
to that excrutiation.
No marvel, harvest
left me speechless,
yet I find myself
somehow with heart,
fighting fire with fire,
That loud hub of us,
meat stub of us, beating us
Spectacular in its way,
its way of not seeing,
but in everydayness.
In that hopeful haunting
way of saying
in darkness) there is
for that pressing question.
Heart, what art you?
War, star, part? Or less:
playing a part, staying apart
from the one who loves,
The poem defines through negation, brims with emptiness, and illustrates a rupture the book will later attempt to negotiate — the chasm between the imaginary life one constructs with the self as the hero and the life that actually unfolds, often with the self as anti-hero. Again, we see Shaughnessy redirecting the existential questions posited in her two previous collections outward. In Our Andromeda, Shaughnessy renounces the version of her self that can’t be sustained in a world where she and her son “… split/a self in such a way that there isn’t/enough for either of us.” To make room for all the transformation her life requires, she grounds her images in the mundane, the familiar, but at the same time continues to draw from her idiosyncratic universe to best coalesce the divergent contexts of her life.
The book’s backdrop is the Greek mythological figure of Andromeda. After slaying Medusa, the hero Perseus encounters Andromeda, who is chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster after her mother vaunts her daughter’s unparalleled beauty. . Perseus rescues her and returns with Andromeda to his mother Danae. Andromeda goes on to mother seven children before being turned into a constellation. In the book’s many references to a parallel universe, as in the section called “Double Life” or in the section addressed to past selves, Andromeda offers a potent allegory: for the possibility of a different life’s course, for material hubris, and for the ferocity of care for her family.
Although Shaughnessy doesn’t make much explicit use of mythology, the poignancy of impossible quest, hubris, and the cycle of femininity are powerful echoes that not only infuse this book, but also her work as a whole. The book’s title evokes how Shaughnessy is a world-creator, one who is able to make a lore, a beautiful and private universe for her family to inhabit and move beyond the body, an abstruse move for such a mortal poet. Shaughnessy writes the corporeal with a strange and even paradoxical exactitude. Even her headiest moment is grounded by a concupiscent physicality. Her poems are thick with the high and low, the dark and the light. In all three of her collections, the image-worlds she creates are original and decisive, but Our Andromeda is the collection that forces her gaze outwards. There is more yielding in the book, both in the language and in the subjectivity.
The book’s triumph is the its title poem, “Our Andromeda,” which is addressed to her son and tells the story of his brain injury. She writes, “… I can blame just about anyone for what/ happened to you, but ultimately it was my job/ to get you into this world safely …” The speaker is not only reckoning with her circumstances in this poem, she is also taking on that part of her self that gets caught up in performativity, making this poem an aesthetic manifesto as well.
In the poem’s admission, she also attempts reconciliation: “… I was wrong to mourn so … you are better./ Better than any lesser truth I could invent.” Shaughnessy wants to tell a complete story that includes pride and whim, as well as an idea of self that doesn’t coincide with reality. The poem also depicts a universe where her son doesn’t have a brain injury and where she isn’t left with questions about her own complicity in his injury, and this parallel universe — much like the rich and strange worlds of her two previous collections — allows her to speak frankly about the nature of her loss. The poem describes her reluctant acceptance that we are all only actors in a world ruled by caprice and hubris. In embracing the we (the speaker and her son, Cal), she is also opening up what she could be in a poem:
I can feel it living in us like we
are its home. Like it remembers us
from its own childhood.
Oh, maybe, Cal, we are home,
if God will let us live here,
with Andromeda inside us,
doesn’t it seem we belong?
Now and then, will you help me belong
here, in this place where you became
my child, and I your mother
out of some instant of mystery
of crash and matter
scattered through the cosmos,
God-scooped and poured toward
our bodies. With so much love,
somehow. I am so tired
I cannot bear to hear my own heart anymore.
Cal, shall we stay? Oh let’s stay.
We’ve only just arrived here,
rightly, whirling and weeping,
freely, breathing, brightly born.
These last few stanzas evoke Coleridge’s ecstatic address to his son in the poem “Frost at Midnight” to remind us that, complications aside, human connection is the engine for both life and poetry. Our Andromeda is a book of humility, devotion, and defiance. The book’s bold reckoning reminds us that art serves as catharsis, which might be why the poem “Miracles,” could serve as the book’s coda. The poem is about the affect of revelation in which she writes, “I spent the whole day/ crying and writing, until/ they became the same …”
The speaker in Our Andromeda wants clarity, but doesn’t know where it might come from; this is one of the many powerful minor strokes that make this book so heartrending by mirroring the intractability of the book’s autobiographical and deeply emotional backdrop. In the poem “I Wish I Had a Sister," Shaughnessy writes, “My sisters will seem like a bunch/of alternate me, all the ways/I could have gone …”. The speaker casts herself scattershot against the blackness, where time, the book’s antagonist, is made immaterial. The best miracle that the speaker can hope for, that the speaker continually reaches for, is fortitude, which the book bravely admits is fleeting and difficult to sustain. The poem “It Never Happened,” describes the bargains she makes in exchange for refuge with the same nagging question. She writes,
I wanted to imagine that your eyes flickered
and shivered and you said you couldn’t
control yourself, couldn’t take your eyes
off me, that I smelled like beautiful wine,
like elderflower, like pussy willow,
that you called me lamb and kissed me,
knowing that this very last part is the story’s
only true part …
Written as one long sentence, the poem reflects the gnarl and depth of causality, but since the collection’s backbone is her defiant confrontation with injury. The sensual imaginary Shaughnessy invents to assuage her bewilderment reminds her reader that comfort is possible. She expertly chronicles the world turned sideways, and paints the complication with the dense and surprising language that has distinguished her work since Interior with Sudden Joy.
Another signature stroke is the poem “Liquid Flesh,” which displays a Shaughnessian linguistic ebullience. She writes, “… I used/ to be this way, so ontologically/ greedy, wanting to be it all…” The self-awareness expressed in this line is both a personal one and an aesthetic one because it reminds us that, unlike her previous two books, this collection pares down the poems to the fundamental: short sentences, lines, couplets and a restrained syntax that are meant to call attention to the speaker’s urgent subject.
Several of the poems in this collection delve into her interpretation of the tarot’s major arcana and provides the reader with important emotional exposition through the tarot’s tradition of telling a person’s past, present, and future. “I learned the tarot,” she tells us, “in one sitting — arcana slipping /into my mind like a beloved /hand under a pillow.” The section is a respite, a bit of succor with echoes of Human Dark with Sugar and its raw wanting, and it’s also an allusion to the types of mythologies cultures use to make sense of life’s fickleness.
Occasionally, some poems in the collection depart from the book’s primary emotional tension, perhaps meant to provide respite. The poem “The Seven Deadly Sins of (and Necessary Steps Toward) Making Art,” for example, is a poem that describes the world of writing itself. The writing, as cathartic and private as it may be, still functions under external and artificial constraints like deadlines and self-absorption, “This inner spinning, that petty city/the mind built …” Poems like this remind us of the meta-confessional condition that’s always been a signature in her work, an interrogation into the difference between poetry as art and poetry as an industry. The poem “Why Should Only Cheaters and Liars Get Double Lives,” renounces a kind of subjectivity, the kind found in the books on her bookshelves that “are touching themselves/like virgins. But I’ve had them.” She imagines a world in which “an ordinary human can pull the fattest cashwad/out of the slimmest slit,/and the fullest pudding out of the skimmest milk …”
Perhaps this latest collection also signals a more political and critical engagement with the world in her poetry, a use of her power as a poet, as a radical, as someone who, as she writes in the poem “At the Book Shrink” “… need[s] help getting to the next part./When I open my mouth,/liquid rushes in, endrunkening./When I close it,/dark, secret-looking drops spill/crimson on the page.” She writes as if there is still more to say, more to uncover, and although at the heart of all of her work is love (romantic, erotic, maternal, familiar), Shaughnessy’s poems also invent frameworks for these loves to flourish in. Like Alice Notley or Alicia Ostricker, Shaughnessy is a feminist fabulist, a poet whose intensities continue to deepen as her collections become more personal, more open, more aware of how the implications of choice, volition, and desire have deep consequences for the lives of others.