Arthur McMaster, PQ Contributing Editor
Copper Canyon Press
Paper, 131 pages, $16
Is the human heart artless? Surely some must be. Well, not mine or yours, of course, given that you are reading this review. And yet it seems a worthy question. Poets have always fretted about the heart, which in turn has ceaselessly carried the burden of many, if not most journals, songs, and, since Ovid at last, a significant percentage of poems.
But what if the those four chambers, and all their messy, requisite plumbing, operated more in the Platonic form, more pure? And maybe in another dimension? Hearts might be strange and "tart," as Brenda Shaughnessy declares them to be: "Gone sour in the sun,/ in the sunroom or moonroof, / roofless." Well, "tart" offers a nice play on words, and the poet is gifted with knowing just how much innuendo will suffice. Russian writer and playwright Ivan Turgenev, author of Fathers and Sons, famously wrote, " Attentive to Our Andromeda, perhaps we would all reach just so.
This is not an simple volume to review. Shaughnessy's third volume of poetry refuses to conform, insistently staking out fresh territory—thematically and structurally. I do not know of another recent book of poems that uses the Tarot deck so well. These twelve poems command their own form, some sharp and accusatory, some jokey, the best of them infusing some fine, subtle rhyme. All in some sense are instructive. But of course it IS our vicarious journey to the stars that delights and vexes us at the same time. Let's consider one. Here is Card 14: Temperance
The everyday truth
of the night's delectations
appears for us in our dream.
We all ate the same food
and made the same love
so we dream the same dream,
which was: the infinite wine
was rank, undrinkable, lost
to a rot somehow familiar,
a delusion or virus, perhaps
from childhood, parents
deep in their cups.
It could have been worse.
Upon waking , we might not
have had or needed the wine.
Well, who among us hasn't enjoyed a good delusion now and again? Maybe there is a chance to get it all right the next time. And yet, we still need the wine, or the love, of the night's delectations. So where does that leave us? Let's look in on one more poem that I will fess up to being one of my favorites: "Why Should Only Cheaters and Liars Get Double Lives?" Getting set to read it closely, let's first bring to mind the implication of a double life. Here we go . . .
That is, why should they get two stabs at it while the virtuous
trudge along at half-speed, half-mast, halfhearted?
If an ordinary heart can pull the fattest cashwad
out of the slimmest slit
and the fullest pudding out of the skimmest milk,
then it might be possible
to insert a meager life in Andromeda
into, at the very least, our wide pot of sleep.
And here's where the belt of Orion cinches. Recall that Andromeda was a virgin princess who, having been chained naked to a rock, was rescued from a sea monster by Perseus. Her mother's fault. Oh those Greeks and their idée fixe! So, we are talking about a second chance, right? Sure, but not only that. Scientists tell us that we are on course to merge with our twin galaxy in a few billion years. What then? Let's go back to the lady's poem:
Duplicity, after all, takes many, not just two, forms,
and the very idea
of doubleness, twinniness, or even simple, simpering
regret, or nostalgia, implies
a kind of Andromeda,
a secret world, the hidden draft, the tumor-sibling,
the "there are no accidents" plane so we could learn to fly. . . .
Will we learn to fly, or will we stay stuck? Haven't we agreed that there is always yet another chance? One more particularly delightful series of poems by this talented writer pose questions. Tough ones. The first is "To My Twenty-Three-Year-Old Self." This essential, though arguably arbitrary leap is followed up the with the persona at ages Twenty-Four, Twenty-Five, and Thirty-Eight. Here, the poem's speaker takes a walk: "You'd pass me on the street / As well, a 'normal,' Someone who traded / In her essentials for / A look of haunted / Responsibility." // Someone who was maybe / Once a girl you'd know." By the end of the poem she will remind us that she is not a dream.
One year later, the narrator at twenty-five, we have a wonderful coming of age poem starring hard at the attraction of one writer, one lover, and to another. We begin, suitably it seems to me, with a kind of intellectual and emotional infatuation with one of America's most popular poets. Let's listen in:
Billy Collins, have you any
Idea how important
You were to my twenty-five year
Old self? You weren't
Poet laureate yet, you
Were just a teacher I had
In Ireland. You were
Expansive and you
Believed in me...
What Brenda comes to, by poem's end, is an understanding of the power of her calling, the woof and warp of her art. She heralds the small and smaller things one finds to love, with or without someone else. "This is love the way poets know it." Yes it is.
In her eponymous, long poem "Our Andromeda," she speaks to her child, "[a] child born to a liar who is learning / to change. . . " Here, she finds that we may live "with Andromeda inside us." All may yet come well. This is powerful stuff. This is also a richly smart and signally important book of poems from a poet still discovering how strong her observational powers truly are.