Review by New York Times Review
WHEN Brenda Shaughnessy's first collection of poems, "Interior With Sudden Joy" was published in 1999, I was among the many readers dazzled by Shaughnessy's snazzy syntax and inaugurating mind. Here was a book that was funny, smart, playful, the feminine present and unapologetically intellectual and erotic. But, finally, impressive as it was, that first collection didn't do for me what Dickinson claimed great poetry should - make me feel that the top of my head was taken off. In bold and moving contrast, Shaughnessy's emotionally charged and gorgeously composed third volume of poems, "Our Andromeda," moves me line by line and poem by poem so that by the book's final, monumental title poem, I am top-of-the-head-blown-off undone. In "Our Andromeda" Shaughnessy has brought to bear her inevitable syntactic and sonic hula-hooping, her playful and ironic uses of form, her vivid mind on poems that absolutely matter. Many of the poems in this collection seek to understand the unthinkable - a baby injured at childbirth - by means of language; they are driven by the ferocious, essential force of mother love. It is not at all accidental that by the end of this powerful collection, when the stakes are highest, the poet throws off any show-offy poetic accouterments and dazzles with one of the bravest, most plain-spoken poems you're likely to read about parenting. When my sons were young we invented a goofy make-believe we called "In Arizona." Arizona, across the country from our New York home, was for my boys a mythical land where the rules of law and nature were reversed, so that one boy might say, looking at a plate of spinach, "In Arizona kids are forced to eat two scoops of ice cream for breakfast." We couldn't get over how crazy it was in that parallel world. "In Arizona," the other boy might say, genuinely surprised, "the dentist is better than a trip to Six Flags." Forget a mere continent's expanse - for Shaughnessy the northern constellation Andromeda, gateway to the Andromeda Galaxy, is the chosen double world. And far better than two scoops of Rocky Road, the Andromeda that Shaughnessy offers her son is a corrective world to our flawed, cruel earth. There, he will "get the chance to walk / without pain, as if such a thing / were a matter of choosing a song / over a book." In this other, better world there is still illness (the risk of death remains), but it is sickness without medical posturing and heartlessness, where "the patient's ills course / through the doctor's body as information, / reliable at last." In "Our Andromeda" the invention, even when playful, is dire: We will find our kind in Andromeda, we will become our true selves. I will be the mother who never hurt you, and you will have your childhood back in full blossom, whole hog. We might not know who we are at first, there, without our terrible pain. This 22-page poem not only attempts a big story - a new galaxy mythology capable of healing a child and a parent's anguish - it dares to look at the failures by doctors, midwives, God, friends, family and most excruciatingly the mother who confesses: "It was my job to get you into this world safely. And I failed." "Artless / is my heart," Shaughnessy declares, a bit slyly, in the book's first sentence. Just imagine flipping the phrase - heartless is my art - to understand what is at stake. And despite an early assertion of "No poetry. Plain," this book addresses urgent questions both directly and indirectly. There is no shortage of invention here. It is not only in the better realm of Andromeda that there is an imagined parallel world; within the poems Shaughnessy conjures other selves, better selves, lovers, kinder gods, sisters. This doubling sometimes doubles again and then again so that the world expands. But if it feels that Shaughnessy depends on her dexterous wit to manage her grief, one quickly recognizes a writer who knows just when to deploy her arsenal of poetic pyrotechnics and when to drop back. The form is always in the service of content. In "Streetlamps" Shaughnessy prepares a hip, ironic metaphysics: And here we are again: no cake without breaking eggs, unless it's a vegan cake in which there are never any eggs only the issue, the question, the primacy of eggs, which remains even in animal-free foods, eaten by animal-free humans in an inhumane world. But by the next poem, "Liquid Flesh" - it's one of my favorites - eggs are no longer a choice, they are the inevitable: "Mother. Baby. / Chicken and egg. . . . I was an egg / who had an egg." This poem is a game-changer. Where the poet was once someone who was "ontologically / greedy," now "there's no 'its own' while the baby cries. / Oh, the baby cries." Forget politically correct eating: what new mother hasn't felt the private, singular desperation of that "Oh"? Honesty and the unflinching gaze are finally at the core of "Our Andromeda." A number of merciless self-portraits abound. Take the penultimate stanza of a poem aptly titled "Vanity": "In spite of the spot-checking, / the self-seeking, the meticulous soul-smithing, / I am still me, lacking." Or in "To My Twenty-Four-Year-Old Self," one of four wonderful poems that address younger and older selves: You'd pass me on the street As well, a "normal," Someone who traded In her essentials for A look of haunted Responsibility. The younger self in its inevitable arrogance is judgmental and clueless, but also prescient of the burden of responsibility. Of the mother self, she says she is "a total disaster, this sack of liquid / flesh which yowls and leaks." In "Miracles" - a beautiful sonnet about a day spent "crying and writing, until / they became the same" - the poet's cry becomes a "signal / flare behind me for another to find," so that eventually singular experience expands and "We can read us. We are not alone." Shaughnessy pushes forward and back in time and out to her Andromedan self, speaking to all the inventions and limitations of self and creating a richly complex portrait of mother and artist. Love is the fierce engine of this beautiful and necessary book of poems. Love is the high stakes, the whip of its power and grief and possibility for repair. Brenda Shaughnessy has brought her full self to bear in "Our Andromeda," and the result is a book that should be read now because it is a collection whose song will endure. Victoria Redel's latest poetry collection is "Woman Without Umbrella." Her story collection "Make Me Do Things" will be published in the fall.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [February 3, 2013]
Review by Booklist Review
In a stormy third collection, Shaughnessy attempts to escape the anguish of earth-shattering pain by imagining life in the galaxy of Andromeda. As she faces impenetrable questions ( What if all possible / pain was only the grief of truth? ), she scrambles to comprehend a dark and callous world. In the self-punishing Liquid Flesh, the poet struggles with guilt over her feelings about a lost self as the distinguishing line blurs between mother and baby ( I make more and more of myself / in order to make more and more of the baby ). An imaginary getaway occurs in It Never Happened as the pristine glass of reality is shattered to make way for a magical night for two lovers. Shaughnessy's collection burns like hunger until it explodes in a fiery burst and rains down grief as she imagines a parallel universe equipped with capable doctors, orderly hospitals, and a second chance for a baby boy. Shaughnessy crafts an artificially perfect dimension amid a heartbreaking reality in these deeply resonant and feverishly unsettling poems.--McCormick, Annie Copyright 2010 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
This third collection from Shaughnessy (Human Dark with Sugar) is a fierce, angry, and at times wrathful book, full of anguished suffering in media res. The profound difficulties of dealing with a disabled child are not so much reflected upon by a parent as lived and registered in a poet's language. Indeed, the torment strains against the conventions of line and stanza, brusquely resisting music and pretensions to sincerity ("I'm such a fraud/ I can't even convince you/ of my fraudulence"). In her work, Shaughnessy has often punished herself for selfishness and even ambition, but here, life has dealt her a brutal hand, and in this ultimately brave record the poet emerges with a surprising gift. Like war poetry, this volume is about survival. Part 1, Liquid Flesh, works familiar Shaughnessy terrain-tough lyrics about self. Double Life, part 2, finds the poet in a relative and nearly banal peacetime, venting at such things as Fox News and duplicity in relationships; a sequence called Arcana follows, poems based on the Tarot ("The Hanged Man," "The Fool," etc.), in which the poet barely controls an anger that is beginning to rage; part 4, Family Trip, distracts with memories of the bitter struggles for identity within family ("I wish I had more sisters,/ enough to fight with."); all of which culminates in the explosive title sequence, Our Andromeda, which settles scores, lays waste to early selves-not to mention medical practitioners and the birthing mother herself-and, in the long closing poem, by turns harrowing, mean, and fatalistic-is, suddenly, transformative. In these last pages, against all expectations, the poet has conjured an alternate galaxy in which doctors are competent, insurance companies humane, God exists ("a God for me after all"), and the boy Cal has an "even fight"-and a mother's love. Another Brooklyn poet, Marianne Moore, defined poetry as "imaginary gardens, with real toads in them." In Our Andromeda, Shaughnessy has imagined a universe, and in it, real love moves, quick with life. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
Until recently, Shaughnessy seemed to appear every few years and sing something really wonderful, only to vanish without warning. Following the 1999 release of her critically acclaimed Interior with Sudden Joy, Shaughnessy didn't release a second volume until 2008 (Human Dark with Sugar, a James Laughlin Award winner). The wait for a third volume was blessedly shorter. This newest collection focuses largely upon the complications that accompanied the birth of her son, to whom this book is dedicated. The narrator's tone is decidedly conversational as she addresses an older version of her son, giving the book a message-in-a-bottle quality. While complex, this book is at times a bit uneven. But just as you're about to write her off, Shaughnessy feeds you a poem that redeems the shortcomings of the others, and the strong title piece, which closes the book, is the poem Shaughnessy should someday read to her son. VERDICT This book will appeal to readers interested in themes of trauma and childbirth and would be a worthwhile addition to most library collections.-Chris Pusateri, Jefferson Cty. P.L., Lakewood, CO (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.