Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2012. 96 pages. $16.00.
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“[H]ow anyone becomes herself / is a mystery. A miracle. A myth.” So declares the speaker in Brenda Shaughnessy’s “Vanity,” a poem that rests at the fulcrum of scathing self-evaluation in Shaughnessy’s most recent collection, Our Andromeda. Anyone who has followed Shaughnessy’s work since her ambitious arrival in 1999 with Interior with Sudden Joy knows that she is liable to make grand claims. She is also a practitioner of feints, contradictions, recriminations, apologies, and apparently sincere entreaties. None of this is to diminish her development as an artist; rather, it is to acknowledge, somewhat incredulously, that her instincts are almost always right, and certainly more impressively, fallibly, honestly human than those of many of her fellow practitioners in poetry.
Shaughnessy’s two preceding collections (Interior with Sudden Joy and the 2008 Human Dark with Sugar) are alive to the possibilities of elision and indeterminacy. In this new collection, however, Shaughnessy favors cogent, full-sentence declarations about life. In Our Andromeda’s “To My Twenty-Three-Year-Old Self,” she mocks her own earlier efforts:
[I]n the end, I’m glad
You spent your energies
Writing love poems and
Trying to transform your love
Into art. It worked out
For you. FSG will buy it
Even though it’s juvenile.
You’d believe that before
You’d believe she’ll leave you.
Our Andromeda is occasioned by tragedy—the affliction of a newborn son with severe birth defects for which the mother blames a midwife, doctors, hospitals, insurance providers, nurses, God, and, finally and most crucially, herself. By comparison, matters such as poetic aesthetic can feel largely inconsequential. But it seems like folly for one—particularly the artist herself—to pass judgment on one’s younger self for inauthenticity—for somehow failing to write with a full comprehension of the tragedies that wait for us around the corner.
These new poems value focus over periphery, looking over seeing. At issue is not mere youthful abandon, but rather an important formal distinction. By contrast, Interior with Sudden Joy introduces us to a mercurial speaker who, in “Still Life with Gloxinia,” describes a lover as “my alabaster scourge” and a “fat bad fricassee, cough of a candle.” The speaker of those earlier poems is besotted with the unchecked power of metaphor which continually and thrillingly threatens to escape one’s control. The speaker underscores the tenuousness of impressions, and one thing might easily become another, as in “Lure, Lapse”:
Your garland, my shaky lamb,
we are close in this
slow evening gown,
we are all going down,
our winter-slung bodies fooled
and necklaced with furious morning
This is a gorgeous aubade, and one that posits the sorrowful inability to retain fleeting impressions via its changeling metaphors. Elsewhere, the mad-libbish interchangeability of the adjectives recalls the self-defeating divorce of words from their meanings in language poetry. But here, the goal is a passing disruption meant to shift the reader’s focus. The animating concept seems to be one of peripheral vision, a relaxing of intention that allows for operations like synesthesia. Concretely, peripheral vision is potentially life-saving: it informs us of covert approaches and allows us to gauge speed, direction, and maintain balance. It is also the mechanism that allows for night vision, which is instantly ruined by direct focus. These literal possibilities suggest the many figurative applications of peripheral vision: in poetry, we may look the problem out of the corner of the eye, so as to apply a sort of animal, intuitive knowledge to the difficulties of love. The poetic speaker admits to something like this in “Starting Here and Going Back,” when she cops to having been “feral, / all my life […] Quick night reverses / nothing but slow / brings light. By accident.”
Shaughnessy begins her shift in approach from periphery to focus in her second collection, Human Dark with Sugar. In “Magic Turns to Math and Back,” we have
When I came, I was half-coming
You left, half-leaving. A formula.
It’s so even-steven, yet so fractal
and Möbius. Yet hagborn. Yet digital.
Calculation is such subtraction
The need to consider all possibilities (see) competes with the need to posit a bounded theory of attraction (look). If Interior operates via periphery, Human Dark describes those possibilities as though they were certainties; hence the narrative elaborations, the conventional syntax, the sense of focus. Concurrently, the poet’s work narrows in scope and turns inward from the lover to the self. “Why Is the Color of Snow” gives us, “snow […] is a blanket used for […] not seeing the naked, flawed body. / Concealing it from the lover curious, ever curious! // Who won’t stop looking.” The lover is no longer the central concern; he or she has been thrown over for selfhood, conditioned and bounded by a necessary defensiveness. Human Dark offers tidier lessons, cleaner arrivals. In “Parthenogenesis,” the speaker eventually realizes she has
Nothing to say. I’ll be a whole new person.
I’ll make her myself. Then we’ll walk away.
We’ll say to each other how she’s changed.
How we wouldn’t have recognized us.
That one is irrevocably altered—even fragmented—by love is legitimate, even moving, grounds for a poem, but this discursive method of address lacks the energy of being overcome which characterizes the majority of poems in Interior—and is even less present in Our Andromeda.
Our Andromeda pins its hopes on a series of possible outcomes that Shaughnessy by this point in her life is too realistic to expect and yet too hopeful to dismiss. The writing is at its best when the speaker experiences, rather than instructs; sifting the material of the self rather than searching for answers outside of the self. In “This Person-Sized Sky with Bruise,” the speaker notes,
When it’s finally dark
outside, it’s finally
loose inside and the doubleness
of things seems too true to be good:
my way and the highway.
Shaughnessy notes the inability of entirely throwing off the haunted lens of her perception. Conventional means of perception (clichés) are debunked, and the speaker is both the arbiter and the victim of her own judgments. The strangeness keeps the discourse vital.
There are other poems in Our Andromeda that maintain a delightful sense of a speaker overtaken by existence—recalling the best of her earlier work—and most often these moments are associated with eros. True to much of what constitutes erotic literature, turn-ons necessitate both a repeated vocabulary of stimulation and some element of novelty, as in the final lines of “Why Should Only Cheaters and Liars Get Double Lives,” when the speaker relates, “The books on the bookshelves are touching themselves / like virgins. But I’ve had them.” This short, dense image contains multitudes, with the repetitions of “book” and “them,” and the two-word compounds introducing erotic repetition. “Selves” ghosts “shelves” in a way that bespeaks iteration, the minor yet sustaining novelty of new conquest. The notion of virginity evoked by a read or unread page, it turns out, is only a surface-level reading, an introduction to the complexity of remembered eros. But grief of experience taints contemporary eros in “Liquid Flesh”:
But what about me? I whisper
secretly and to think
around these parts used to be
the joyful place of sex
what is now this
intimate terror and squalor.
These six lines, in their discursive dialogic, present a convincing argument, but they also represent a devaluation of the exploratory possibilities of poetry. Overly familiar notions like “Where can we / go if not to each other, / resenting every step?” (“Family Trip”) reinforce the sense that many of the poems in Our Andromeda are more concerned with arrival, and as such, end up feeling packaged or programmatic.
Our Andromeda is powered by Shaughnessy’s compulsion to work through a specific tragedy, and in that sense, the poems leading up to the epic final poem of the same title can seem like window dressing. “Our Andromeda” is a crie de coeur, and the personal mythology of Andromeda has evolved: whereas in Interior with Sudden Joy Andromeda symbolizes sexual weariness (“Electric to perishing, your more auxiliary lovers […] cannot touch you […] Your shaggy, skeptical // quasar has died the way Andromeda dies: / so very late at night,” from “Jouissance”), now it has been cleansed and repurposed. It is a sister galaxy, a place of possibility that has delivered to the speaker a child who—though damaged in terms of the ways of the Milky Way—is a perfect Andromedan, improving the mother. In this doubleness, though, the speaker recognizes that her belief in this proto-saintliness is a delusion meant to get her through the difficulties of living with crippling guilt and grief. Addressing her child, she maintains,
I do believe in Andromeda.
You don’t have to. I’ll believe hard enough
for the both of us.
Because it’s all my fault, you see.
Doubtless the direct narrative of “Our Andromeda” will appeal to some readers, and it will be especially welcome to those for whom the tragic contents are all too familiar. However, it would be a disservice to the rest of the collection to allow this poem and its originating impulse to eclipse the surrounding work. To do so would be to replicate Shaughnessy’s speaker’s rejection of her pre-tragic self, to privilege looking over seeing. Shaughnessy seems to acknowledge that she is herself torn between these two impulses, most arrestingly in “Cover the Lamp with Its Own Light”: “I am not more than I hoped / to be in my prayers // in my girlhood, in my bonfire.” Is it possible, she seems to ask, to both burn and keep the flame?
Shaughnessy’s work is still very much in progress, and her approach has changed appreciably over the course of these three collections. Indeed, it would have been unreasonable to assume that a poet meeting with such early success would have arrived already at a stable artistic vision. Her recent personal trials are part of that vision, but so are motherhood, playfulness, rage, joy, and grandeur. The declarative tendency of Our Andromeda may simply be an expression of Shaughnessy’s accumulated life experience, and often enough, those statements may ring true. But this reader, for one, is more apt to connect with a speaker in the throes of experience, rather than a sage dispensing wisdom after the fact. Shaughnessy is a poet capable of virtuosic displays, and when she allows herself to see free of intentionality, her future work may well continue to startle us, as glimpses out of the corner of the eye.