Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Brenda Shaughnessy, _Our Andromeda_

As I was reading the first half of this, I kept thinking of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Shaughnessy certainly does not sound like Millay or share much with her thematically, so I was at a loss for why the connection kept suggesting itself, but eventually I came up with the hypothesis that like Millay, Shaughnessy has the knack of presenting her own experience on a frequency that many people of her roughly her age and roughly her educational background would find resonant. Without specifically intending to do so, she seems to be speaking of lots of people, as Millay did in the 1920s, or Joni Mitchell did in the 1970s, or Tori Amos in the 1990s.

My impression partly derives, I am guessing, from Shaughnessy's way of ending poems with an aphoristic snap, frequently a rhyming one.  "Miracles" ends this way:

fire out of water, blood out of stone.
We can read us.  We are not alone.

As does "Big Game":

O that roaring, not yet and yet
and not yet dead.

So many fires start in my head.

As does "All Possible Pain":

hanging like the sentenced
under one sky's roof.

But my feelings, well,
they had no such proof.

Do people still read Barbara Herrnstein-Smith on poetic closure?  Probably not. But Shaughnessy's closings convey authority without resorting to pronouncements.

So when, in the closing sections of the book, Shaghnessy marries that authority to close-to-the-bone candor, the blend is potent. The three poems to her younger selves should be mentioned in this regard, but it is above all in the closing title poem, twenty-two pages long and addressed to her son, who suffered a traumatic birth injury with serious and enduring consequences, that she seems to find a way to speak for a whole generation of women while writing about her own very specific and far from typical circumstances. Like Millay, in fact, even though it now takes a special imaginative effort to hear what the 1920s heard in Millay.

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