The Pleasure of the Introduction
February 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I was first introduced to Brenda Shaughnessy’s work in a high school poetry workshop, when my teacher brought in her much beloved poem “I’m Over the Moon” for our class to discuss. As teenage students of poetry are wont to do, my classmates and I were more concerned with articulating our feelings than anything else, and I think our instructor hoped the poem—the first from her James Laughlin Award-winning second book, Human Dark with Sugar—might get us thinking more critically about the role of music and metaphor in articulating our precious feelings. To call the moment a pivotal one for me is vast understatement: my understanding of the possibility of poetry was forever broadened, and “I’m Over the Moon” remains one of my favorite poems.
But I tell you this now not to stress her great personal influence on me, but because it highlights what makes Shaughnessy’s work so important in the landscape of contemporary poetry—to put it plainly, that she is so good at so many things. A wickedly funny poet, to be sure, she can also write into and out of profound sadness without hiding behind the curtain of irony; likewise, she’s a gifted linguist, producing some of the finest wordplay in poetry today—but without ever compromising clarity or emotional resonance.
In the enthusiastically positive reviews of her most recent book, Our Andromeda, much has been made of the candor and personal nature of the poems. And rightfully so—the poems are fearless, unapologetic and complicated. I’m confident the title poem, chronicling the birth of her son, will join the canon of great long poems about parenthood, alongside W.D. Snodgrass’s “Heart’s Needle” and Anne Sexton’s “The Double Image.” But the bravery of her self-exposure should not distract from the true triumph of this poem and this book—that she has taken the joys, sorrows and trials of human experience and, through an inventive mastery of language and a wild act of imagination, transmogrified them into great art. The “Andromeda” she dreams up, a distant galaxy that is a double of our own (but better), is a deeply complex conceptual device that manifests throughout the book. In poem after poem she concerns herself with doubles, duality, and the parallel realities arising out of the twists of chance and fate.