Originally Posted: May 13th, 2016
Updated: January 26th, 2020
If you’ve ever been curious about contemporary poetry, Brenda Shaughnessy is a great author to start with.
It was fitting, to have discovered Shaughnessy’s poetry while I lived in Princeton. I was visiting my friend AL for a weekend and ended up staying in town for three months. I got a job working at the Princeton bookstore, Labyrinth. In my free time, I wandered around with my typewriter and gave away Free Poetry, made memories at the underground graduate student bar, met other artists, and even got the chance to type a poem for Gary Shteyngart.
I remember feeling strange, to be in the town but not of the town. I came across Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda while quietly stacking inventory for Princeton students in need of textbooks. She was a local poet, working with the Princeton MFA’s Emerging Writers series and teaching at Rutgers. Now, returning back to the east coast, to New Jersey, to Newark–it seemed like the perfect time to read Shaughnessy’s newest poetry book, So Much Synth, during the five hour flight from Los Angeles.
Though it only took me an hour to read (and re-read, thoroughly and thoughtfully), I came back to this book over and over again. With this collection, Shaughnessy is able to transcend nostalgia. She creates a frame of honest, unflinching reflections of her childhood, going through puberty, adolescence, and early adulthood. Simultaneously, she ventures into visceral abstractions like love, sexual identity, biracial realities, wounds and trauma, the body, death, and an affinity ever-expanding universe we call space.
“the past is so horribly fast”
Shaughnessy bursts out of the gates with a sharp poem, “I Have a Time Machine.” It’s a brilliant introduction into the rest of her work. Her comedic delay is my kind of humor: self-effacing, as if these realizations about the self were simply small, sudden, and inconsequential.
“vision’s a performance”
Her poems make me wonder: are reflections of the past beautiful in and of themselves, or is the beauty purely in the act of looking back? The answer shifts and depends on how I am feeling. And now, being guided by Shaughnessy’s tender remembrances and the desire for escape, I question why, in my own past, I never painted these traps (“There is no without.”) as gentle. They were always dizzying, off-kilter; I prefer Shaughnessy’s lightness. It’s soothing. A silent leap toward the deep.
“Life, this charade of not-death.”
It is shocking how bold these lines are, considering how gentle they feel. Everything eases onto the skin. No thrusts. Just soft remembrances, even of the painful things, which manage to avoid that dreaded place of over-sentimentality.
I think this is because of the way she plays with our expectations…another favorite humor, if you could even call it that. Sounds. Word play. The occasional delight in being jarred.
“But now we must remember
our way back to face-to-face,
to eye to eye and hand in hand,
and lock and step and key in hole.”
Turning inside-out her private symbolisms, effectively making them public. The meaning of her playful associations rest on the tip of your tongue. I imagine wandering into well-kept room that holds the essence of nostalgia in every object. All the while, there air is thick with the quiet knowing: we have to leave, soon, we cannot stay.
The second half of the book is an intimate and detailed ride into Shaughnessy’s past. It doesn’t reek of confessionalism because it is not a vulnerability that’s being needy. We go inward, exploring Shaughnessy’s adolescent life, her young adult years. Talk of being in and being out, of “that summer in the dyke loft,” of the paradoxical strangeness of same-sex relationship abuse: “I’d never / take that from a man. A man / would be a criminal / if he did what you did.”
“What did I know about what I wanted?”
What a staple culture is. It echoes in us, similar to how the breed influences a dog’s personality. I think of how similar my own youth was to Shaughnessy’s; her regret of unlearned Japanese lessons and piano, mine of Tagalog and piano.
Knowing that many of these poems are for her daughter, Simone, makes going through it all valuable. The invisibility, the forbidden shaving, the newness of menstrual cycles, the choice of giving “your virginity to the first person who seems to be / the kind of person who wouldn’t take it / in a mean way,” the music and especially the mix tapes–or mixed CDs, for us 90’s kids–remain, and in the remaining regain catharsis.
The wonderful thing about poetry is how perfect a collection can feel. The book itself becomes a poem, in the same way an album becomes a song. Shaughnessy’s So Much Synth is not a rebellion against the things that hurt us, nor an acceptance of it–her voice is informed by her being, her having been. It’s a valuable one. Something to not only reflect upon, but to continue, to persist, and to survive “into the future / at a rate of one second per second.”
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