Brenda Shaughnessy’s fourth collection of poetry is her most mature work to date, deeply concerned with aging and mortality, where the poet has been and where she will end up. The opening poem boasts the title “I Have a Time Machine,” followed by the begrudging admission that “it can only travel into the future / at a rate of one second per second.” The inverse of the time machine’s function is a panoramic view of the past with its endless regrets and psychic wounds to be picked at, ranging from the innocuous, “Myself age eight, whole head burnt with embarrassment / at having lost a library book,” to the oppressive, “The great fruits of my failure: / silk milk pills with little bitter pits.” She resists the temptation to assign meaning or come to conclusions about these lingering aches, choosing instead to pick them up and put them aside again as each poem calls for—“And just like that, I stopped thinking about it.”
Within this existential framework, So Much Synth depicts a poet increasingly in contradiction with herself, managing the wildly different identities that come together and shift over time to form the semblance of a person. The speaker is concerned at once with staking out a claim in the artistic world, managing the obligations of family, and surviving the daily joys and barbarities of being a woman. She is pained and exuberant. She is queer, mixed-race, maternal, insecure, and breathlessly erotic at once. In Shaughnessy’s third collection, Our Andromeda, the title poem is an aching account of a mother struggling between grief and hope for her child. In the linchpin poem of her latest, she grieves for (and celebrates) her own adolescent self with a mix of ’80s song lyrics, diary quotations, and tender recollections that culminates in a diatribe against rape culture.
Shaughnessy’s willingness to boldly engage with the grim realities of her past opens up generally unbroached topics. “Why I Stayed, 1997-2001” is a window into an abusive relationship between two women, the tortured logic of victimhood and the perceived invisibility of having those around you know the truth and do nothing. “I’d never / take that from a man,” she writes, “A man / would be a criminal / if he did what you did.” Meanwhile a lighter take on the same time period is addressed “To My Twenty-Six-Year-Old Self” and begins sardonically, “You really are being such a poet, / aren’t you?”
This is what makes Shaughnessy a dynamic poet, the ability to swerve from the darkness into joy, be it an erotic charge, the awe of new motherhood, or the miracle of artistic expression. The latter is represented in So Much Synth’s odes to the art of crafting the adolescent mix tape, complete with hilariously tortured instructions: “Not Top 40, stylish, with a sly angle, / ’70s funk, some Stevie Wonder, like you’ve / got background you don’t really have.” The past has its charms.
Then there is the sheer pleasure of encountering the poet’s inimitable wordplay, most evident in the brain-twisting “Never Ever”:
“Late is a synonym for dead, which is a euphemism
for ever. Ever is a double-edged word,
at once itself and its own opposite: always
and always some other time.
In the category of cleave, then. To cut and to cling to,
The mix tape poems build toward the book’s crescendo, a sprawling epic of awkward adolescence titled “Is There Something I Should Know.” It is a vivid portrait and passionate protest of the shame, lust, paradoxes, yearning, and minor cruelties of becoming a woman. With eviscerating wit and clarity, she recalls a teenage economy where body hair, menstruation, and gym shorts size are the locus of value judgments: “And why was there no such size as Extra Medium?” To be ordinary is terrible but to stand out is worse. The body is in revolt, “shifting from Anne of Green Gables / to Samantha Fox in 700 days.” The additional layer of a blossoming queer sexual identity finds the poet harboring “unwholesome” feelings for the fictional Maggie Adams while also “languid and a little tearful thinking / about my erotic awakening in the bungalow / by really any of Duran Duran except Andy.” Lyrics from Duran Duran and Erasure punctuate the poem with a pleading chorus of desperation.
Of course, insult to injury, the body at the center of so much conflict becomes an object of the male gaze and its deluge of indignities—catcalling and rating of “fuckability,” the fear of abduction and rape and all of the attendant helplessness. “If you told your mom, you wouldn’t / be able to go anywhere or wear anything halfway cool.” From here the poem opens up to pose a vital question: What do we sacrifice in our girls and women by the proliferation of rape culture? What is the cost and what could we have otherwise? “What might have blossomed there in a world where men / did not throw cruel, vicious ‘compliments’ at young girls.” What is blotted out by the scars of these horrors writ across every woman’s psyche? Shaughnessy boldly asserts the reality that:
“When you learned that you are supposed
to feel lucky and happy because you weren’t raped and killed,
you are already, in this, being truly brutally hurt
in a central, deep, and formative place. This is never admitted.
This is never permitted acknowledgment.
If you say this, someone will refute it. So I will say it here.”
The charming and relatable personal details of the poem are a Trojan horse for this powerful political message. This is one woman’s tale of survival but it is one that every woman knows, every woman lives, to a greater or lesser extent. It never ends and it marks us in ways that are not even fully knowable. The message is implicit: This is how it was, this is how it still is, and there has to be a better way, a future of girls growing into women unmarked by these injuries.
Shaughnessy is a natural at making poetry do what it does best—illuminate and translate the inscrutable language of our feelings and experiences back to us with perfect expression. If we don’t like what we hear, the sharing makes it at once less painful and more real. This is particularly true of the shared histories of discrimination and sexual violence that every woman faces. Shaughnessy holds a mirror up to our own messes. When we empathize with her speaker and her past pain and confusion, we are feeling for our own broken and contradictory selves in a way that can be difficult and frightening to do alone. The past is a dangerous destination, but we are woven from its very fabric: “What is / truly midmost me / is injury, an old one, / decrepit unreal thread opening / new self-holes.”
Lisa Butts is a poet, critic, and editor currently based in Cincinnati. Her work has also been featured in The Iowa Review, Pleiades, Publishers Weekly, and at BookBrowse.com.