Poet's Sampler: Brenda Shaughnessy
Introduced by Richard Howard
Dec 1, 1998
5 Min read time
Twice, maybe three times, in the course of reading, editing, and teaching, I have come across, or rather been traversed by, new poems of such originality--such consequence of diction and innocence of attitude--that no response seems possible but gratitude. Oh yes, envy is in there as well, for Ms. Shaughnessy appears to have discovered most of the formulations one hankered for and missed in one's own expression: "once more, you lie with me, smelling / of almonds, as the poisoned do." Authority like this means merely-merely!-that we have come to terms with an author and that hers are the terms we have come to. The resonance of Shaughnessy's poems is that of someone speaking out of an ecstasy and into an ecstasy, momentarily pausing to let us in on the fun, the pain: "I'm gifted, I give in. I give you / all my old synesthetic fire." These spirits, then, are high, yet for all their hilarity they remain soul-traces, or as Catullus would say, animal. The temptation, certainly, in attempting to characterize all this juice and all this joy (Hopkins) is to keep on citing, for when anything is as fresh as this diction, as free as these associations, as fraught as these passions, it is not descriptions or definitions which are wanted but the thing itself, the new words in new places, the necessary instigations. It is with great excitement, and (for me) the oddest kind of humility that I propose to her new readers the art of Brenda Shaughnessy, for she makes me feel that I have been what we might call behindhand with my business as a reader, an editor, and a teacher. These are the poems which come before all conversance.
is the body's wiry edge singed & dried,
touched at last by the curious
gloves of the question guard.
Too much choreography.
Hamstrings, half edible & music,
stretched like catgut, the sad-animal pull.
Our knees two peculiar systems
of locking, of looking. Too little dance.
Compulsion is always narcissism:
I miss you, admit it.
I'm gifted, I give in. I give you
all my old synesthetic fire.
Loved-body smoke is terribly popular
in dry neighborhoods,
and our lungs are succulents. We share
this loss of breathing. Listen for it.
Luck today will be skill tomorrow. If only your fear
held now gorgeous in its white cotton frock
could become small and frayed in the next millennia.
Be brown and blowsy and on the ledge instead. Used
and fueling, a succubus cannot ruin what she pulls
on her tricky leash: dread's body, desire's body.
If terror bent double could thicken into a frenzy
for the last flushed basket of windfalls
that arms October, could you really wander
forever in that shelter? Are wondering and losing
the same? If you ply me now all pure-voiced,
with some sepia trinket from your big box of ducks,
could I sculpt this cold knowledge into the fresh
hot fruit swinging in next summer's
branches, slimsy in rain, saturated
in the pear-flustered color closed in your eyes?
This bleary, fragile calendar: Your disbelief,
your loveable haunting. How clever you are
tomorrow. The expert veils around your face, scarlet
fabric woven by apprentices whose fingers
are sad and large with the work of beginning.
In temple city, in this tight lighthouse of rare women,
my pale goggles stinging in the lemon juice
of all my watching, where even your synthetic
hairs are generous, yielding to a stiff ritual, perfect with your
gynecoid east village supersmirk. That smarts!
This perfomance of thighs blessed with an excruciating
unnatural talent for the part. For the parting.
And the pupils, we, and the lashes, all yours, observe
the rules of tragedy-in-sumptuous-fabrics, loving but strict,
in fact bullying, my god the backwatching and the switchblade!
And all imaginary: the spell a queen casts on her bee, a lover will
let herself be made up in orange for the beloved, but yours
is a sweeter excercise, twistier. Thank you, for shaking, for
who hasn't forgotten how to use her diva-noodle?
Can this be too much pleasure in one so smart, debauched
and thin? So far beyond wondering we have fallen
into quarreling, braided evening feelers in hand,
with this dark stallion blindness, too close to the fence to jump
it clean. You, both gate and barrier to the hearth and breast
of eve and adam's apple orchard. And I stumble over
strange broken pieces strewn everywhere, what's the damage?
Is it you sleeping in the grass, dear with a cheeky bliss,
pale and mournful? The delicious no-secret plain and defused,
genitalia quiet and ripe, the gorgon of your hair loved off
and lying guilty where you tossed it,
by the broken fence, firewood for a home too well built
for such arsonists of the flesh to resist.
Project for a Fainting
after a painting by Dorothea Tanning
Oh, yes, the rain is sorry. Unfemale, of course, the rain is
with her painted face still plain and with such pixel you'd never see
it in the pure freckling, the lacquer of her. The world
is lighter with her recklessness, a handkerchief so wet it is clear.
To you. My withered place, this frumpy home (nearer
to the body than to evening) miserable beloved. I lie tender
and devout with insomnia, perfect on the center pillow past
midnight, sick with the thought of another year
of waking, solved and happy, it has never been this way! Believe
strangers who say the end is close for what could be closer?
You are my stranger and see how we have closed. On both ends.
Night wets me all night, blind, carried.
And watermarks. The plough of the rough on the slick,
love, a tendency toward fever. To break. To soil.
Would I dance with you? Both forever and rather die.
It would be like dying, yes. Yes I would.
I have loved the slaking of your forgetters, your indifferent
hands on my loosening. Through a thousand panes of glass
not all transparent, and the temperature.
I felt that. What you say is not less than that.
While we have you...
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December 01, 1998
5 Min read time