Reading Brenda Shaughnessy’s poetry aloud is a delicious process of tasting alliteration, savoring rhyme, swallowing the beat, feeling your pulse find the poem’s time and your breath naturally catch in all of the right places, until you know in your bones: this is a poem. Try reading aloud the first half of the poem “Why Should Only Cheaters and Liars Get Double Lives?” from Shaughnessy’s third and most recent book of poetry, Our Andromeda:
“That is, why should they get two stabs at it while the virtuous
trudge along at half-speed, half-mast, half-hearted?
If an ordinary human can pull the fattest cashwad
out of the slimmest slit,
and the fullest pudding out of the skimmest milk,
then it might be possible
to insert a meager life in Andromeda
into, at the very least, our wide pit of sleep.
Duplicity after all takes many, not merely two, forms,
and just the very idea
of doubleness, twinniness, or even simple, simpering
regret, or nostalgia, implies
a kind of Andromeda,
a secret world, the hidden draft, the tumor-sibling,
the ‘there-are-no-accidents’ plane we could learn to fly.
There’s always that irreducible ‘something extra’
to life on Earth…”
A first reading of Shaughnessy’s poems musically stokes the senses; re-readings propel the reader into deep psychological and philosophical questions posed with humor, irreverence, and wit. Shaughnessy keeps us on our toes, often pulling the rug out from under the meaning of a line right at its break, through the use of innuendos and an uncanny ability to create, then upset the readers’ expectations.
This unsettling quality to the experience of reading her poems underscores Shaughnessy’s focus on the sheer strangeness of this world and our existence in it. Her poems record moments of awe and exasperation with the complexities and confusions inherent in our humanity. Shaughnessy takes subjects like motherhood, for example, and peels them apart to show layer after layer of conflicting, yet simultaneous truths. Shaughnessy expresses not only deep love for her infant son Cal and a fierce desire to protect him, but also a sense of disturbance and division from him. In “Liquid Flesh,” she offers a glimpse at the darker underbelly of motherhood:
“For we are a we, aren’t we? We split
a self in such a way that there isn’t
enough for either of us.”
And yet these moments of doubt do not detract from, but rather seem to deepen the love Shaughnessy expresses for her son throughout Our Andromeda. The poignant center of the book lies in Shaughnessy’s chronicling Cal’s life-threatening and life-altering illness. True to her typical treatment of reality as un-fixed and fluid, Shaughnessy shapes an alternate reality in Andromeda, a galaxy 2.5 million light-years from Earth, where Cal is healthy and happy, and where, for instance,
“The doctors are whole-organism empaths,
a little like Troi on The Next Generation
but with gifts in all areas of the sensate self.
Not just mental or emotional empathy
but physiological. The doctors know how
you feel. They put their hands on you
and their own spleen aches…”
This last, long poem, entitled “Our Andromeda,” carries the weight of many emotions associated with her son’s illness: resentment, blame, jealousy, guilt, and fear burst forth from the page, threatening to engulf the tender, shaky, breathless love strung between mother and son like one ray of light shining through the darkness of their suffering. But following poem after poem that either refutes God’s existence or condemns his apparent cruelty, Shaughnessy finally writes:
“God must exist, a God for me after all,
and he must be good, everlastingly so,
to have given you me.”
This declaration does not seem so much a real profession of faith in God, or a sudden religious conversion, as a profession of faith in her son and the love that has been created not despite, but because of the suffering they have endured together. “I don’t need anymore proof than this,” Shaughnessy writes of holding her son in her arms, catching and releasing back to the reader a glimpse of divinity.
We encourage you to use the “Comments” box below to share other resources you may have found for this poet. In this way, we can build together a mini-wiki-encyclopedia on the 2014 Festival Poets.
For more information on the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival and Program,
visit our website dodgepoetry.org