Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda had positive buzz in the literary community before it was even released by Cooper Canyon Press late last year, and the glowing reviews and accolades from publications like The New Yorker, the New York Times, Bookforum, and Publisher’s Weekly just keep pouring in.
And rightly so.
Not since Sylvia Plath has a poet written so vividly about the challenge of being a mother, wife, and artist. Personally, I’d take Shaughnessy’s brave, heartbreaking poems over Plath’s any day of the week.
Throughout Our Andromeda, Shaughnessy ponders the unimaginable: how to cope, love, and live after her child is injured at childbirth. In the poem “Miracles,” she writes:
I spent the whole day
crying and writing, until
they became the same,
as when the planet covers the sun
with all its might and still
I can see it, or when one dead
body gives its heart
to a name on a list.
This is a collection best read in one sitting (or as in my case, read and re-read), for the trail of clues artfully dropped in the book’s early poems climax and become shockingly real in the masterful, final poem, “Our Andromeda.” As Monica Ferrell writes in Bookforum:
Shaughnessy uses the concept of Andromeda in two ways. On the one hand, the name conjures up a figure from Greek mythology, a child punished for a mother’s hubris through divine retribution (and indeed certain poems feature a mother threatening and remonstrating with a God who has injured her child). On the other hand, what’s meant is the Andromeda galaxy that doubles the Milky Way and is hurtling toward us: “another world bisecting ours,” “a secret world…the tumor-sibling.” While elements of a recognizable reality—Brooklyn’s Court Street, the publisher FSG, a neighbor’s plaster statue of the Virgin Mary—make appearances in these pages, they are constantly being displaced, obscured, or clouded by leakage from somewhere else. More often than it terrifies, however, this nebulous elsewhere offers the hope of a haven or promised land. The poem “Why Should Only Cheaters and Liars Get Double Lives?” provides a glimmer of a sort of escape hatch.
“Poetry is where I write my wishes and fears and alternate existences,” Shaughnessy says in an essay for Poets & Writers, and these poems are brimming with double-lives and “what-ifs.”
Here is Shaughnessy in Poets & Writers:
I gave myself permission to fantasize about a parallel world in which my son was not injured at birth, a world in which he’d been allowed to live in his own body without the pain and restriction of cerebral palsy. In the safe space of Yaddo, I let myself give into yearning for his would-be path. I let my imagination get deep into the bargaining and begging every mother does for the safety of her child. I was beseeching the only gods I know how to talk to, the gods of poetry, to give Cal back his body intact. Cal’s would-be path: I had to imagine, construct, create it. I had to write it to make it exist. It was perhaps the most perverse act of longing I’d ever committed…
Not even the fiercest mother love can turn time back to undo or prevent the injury already incurred. I’d do anything to change it and I’m powerless to do so. All I can do is write my ass off about how angry I am on his behalf, how devastated I am, and how grateful I am that my beautiful son exists. How proud of him and in love with him I am. I can write that reality. It too exists in the boundless space of poetry.
This is a fierce, brave book, a collection that challenges us to consider the relationship between truth and art. In Poets & Writers, Shaughnessy and her husband, poet Craig Morgan Teicher, reference the essay “Against Sincerity” by Louise Gluck. Actuality, Gluck says, is “the world of event,” while truth is “illumination, or enduring discovery which is the ideal of art.” Gluck argues that “the artist’s task…involves the transformation of the actual to the true…The secrets we choose to betray lose power over us.”
“In no small way our love of and commitment to poetry—especially to each other’s—has enabled us to remain hopeful, joyful, and most of all, imaginative through some of the most challenging experiences any parent, or any couple, could face,” says Teicher and Shaughnessy. “We believe writing these poems makes our family stronger, we hope they may help others in similar situations, and we believe making art out of life is essential.”
While Plath and Gluck are obvious reference points, the urban imagery, emotional dislocation, and cultural allusions in Shaughnessy’s work also conjure the brilliant, early poems of T.S. Eliot.
But regardless of her influences, Shaughnessy has written a courageous and important book, a collection that is perfectly capable of stunning readers through its rawness and facility with language. Few critics have expressed their admiration as articulately as Victoria Redel in the New York Times Book Review:
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….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.
The unplowed road is unusable
unless there’s no snow.
But in dry, warm weather,
it’s never called an unplowed road.
To call it so, when it isn’t so,
doesn’t make it so, though it is so
when it snows and there’s no plow.
It’s a no-go. Let’s stay inside.
And here we are again:
no cake without breaking
eggs, unless it’s a vegan cake
in which the 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, lit
with robots breathing
powerlessly in nature.
you are so futuristically
existing in the daytime
for later, because it becomes
later eventually, then
earlier, then later again.
And a place is made
for that hope, if I call
it hope when half the time
is erased by the other half.
Light becomes itself
in the dark, and becomes
nothing when the real light
comes. It is enough to make
even the simplest organism
insane. Why did the chicken
cross the unplowed road?
Because it was trying
to beat the egg to the other side.
It wanted to be first,
at last, and to stay first,
at least until the day
breaks itself sunny side,
and the rooster crows.
The only snows are dark snows.
Why Should Only Cheaters and Liars Get Double Lives?
(a poem inside a poem)
That is, why should they get two stabs at it while the virtuous
trudge along at half-speed, half-mast, halfhearted?
If an ordinary human 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 pit of sleep.
Duplicity after all takes many, not merely two, forms,
and just the very idea
of doublness, 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 we could learn to fly.
There’s always that irreducible “something extra”
to life on Earth:
The way some men won’t “talk that way” in front of women,
not wanting to astonish us with their secret man-ness,
as if there is another world bisecting ours,
living among us like an unspeakable mold.
The recent invention of the double-decker pill,
equally effective on sunny and rainy days.
On the wall, a plural mural: a diptych of Paula ‘n’ Wally’s.
What fallopian and what fellatino! Like a Nan Goldin oldie,
but an impostor. Okay. Why not try to offer more
squalor no matter who the photographer?
When someone’s called a “lifer” it means that person is trapped.
A “lifer” has no real life but what do we call the rest of us?
How terrifying it is to try trying!
Which frying pan will best
kill the loved one? Which will
make the best omelet?
The books on the bookshelves are touching themselves
like virgins. But I’ve had them.
If only you’d been a better mother.
How could I have been a better mother?
I would have needed a better self,
and that is a gift I never received.
So you’re saying it’s someone else’s fault?
The gift of having had a better mother myself,
my own mother having had a better mother herself.
The gift that keeps on not being given.
Who was supposed to give it?
How am I supposed to know?
Well, how am I supposed to live?
I suppose you must live as if you had been
given better to live with. Comb you hair, for instance.
I cut off my hair, to sell for the money
to buy you what you wanted.
I wanted nothing but your happiness.
I can’t give you that!
What would Jesus do?
He had a weird mother too…
Use the myrrh, the frankincense, as if
it were given unconditionally, your birthright.
It’s a riddle.
All gifts are a riddle, all lives are
in the middle of mother-lives.
But it’s always winter in this world.
There is no end to ending.
The season of giving, the season
when the bears are never cold,
because they are sleeping.
The bears are never cold, Mama
but I am one cold, cold bear.
To My Twenty-Three-Year-Old Self
The woman you think
Is the love of your life
Is only a way to get
To New York City.
I probably shouldn’t
Say that until she leaves
You. Because you will
Hate me if I say it now.
You “love” “her” so
Much. You are lavishing
A lifetime of unexpressed love
On this poor expressionless
Child. She can barely feel.
And you, you narcissist,
You can only feel yourself.
If you really loved her,
You would try to help her.
But in the end, I’m glad
You spent your energies
Writing love poems and
Trying to transform your love
Into art. It worked out
For you. FSG will buy it
Even though it’s juvenile.
You’d believe that before
You’d believe she’ll leave you.
In six weeks. Without a trace.
Saying:You don’t know who
You are. And besides you’re not
Butch enough for me.
As if you wouldn’t make yourself
Into anything for her.
Had she only said she wanted it.
Luckily for you, she didn’t.
The New People
I had no desire to get to know the screamers,
our loud-in-ten-ways, annoying, drunk and boorish
neighbors, but I didn’t put up
a fence or anything. Didn’t fight it
when they brought us plates of their fatty meals
and overlong chitchat. We were new,
just renting, and I didn’t want to be rude,
either, when Joanna and Vince
brought us their statue of the Virgin Mary
when our newborn son was in the hospital.
Joanna had tears in her eyes and though I am not
Catholic, or even Christian—or not
anymore anyway, I think, if it’s like what I suppose
in that you have to keep up with the dues
to stay in the club—
I accepted the statue. I took in the alien
mother and wrapped her in a blanket.
I lay her on a low shelf and broke
the news to my Jewish husband, who cringed
and said, “She gave you what?”
But I didn’t care
what it was, from what god or goddess
or neighbor or creature or kiln.
I was becoming someone I didn’t know
each day without my little boy—near insanity
about his tiny, pure, hurt self. All those wires.
Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Holy Statue in my baby’s silent room, I promise
I will believe in you, and in Jesus too. Please…
Why was I cradling a “mother” statue,
a ceramic doll, this creepy relic,
instead of my living, beautiful son?
If she could make it all the way here,
across so many territories of indifference,
into my most secret empty room—
surely my child, who belonged, would come home soon?
Love comes from ferocious love
or a ferocious lack of love, child.
A to and a from, and an urgency,
a barefoot sprint in the high snow
for the only sagging shack in sight.
No doctor runs through the winter
woods at midnight to bring placebo.
But when he does it’s just too late—
the house all fevered, grief the very
gifts of milk and stew and hearth
offered anyhow. How many tree
limbs are amputated by the self-
important sudden surgery of a gale—
those same limbs tortured further,
re-galed, as spirit-dancing fire?
But the trees don’t experience it
the way it seems to me, like how
all that individual snow clumps
together because it is lonely
and trusts its kind. To be home
is to go somewhere, is velocity,
the same urgent comfort
of your name. You’ll lack nothing,
child, and I will never let you go.
About Brenda Shaughnessy
Brenda Shaughnessy earned a BA from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an MFA from Columbia University. She is the author of Interior with Sudden Joy (1999), Human Dark with Sugar (2008), winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, and Our Andromeda (2012). Her work has appeared in the Yale Review, the Boston Review, McSweeney’s, and Best American Poetry, among other places. With C.J. Evans, she edited the anthology Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House Magazine (2009).
Shaughnessy’s work is known for its ability to twin opposites: her poems are both playful and erotic, lyrical and funny, formal and strange. Reviewing Human Dark with Sugar, poet Cate Peebles noted that “Shaughnessy draws attention to the contradiction of being made up of so many parts while appearing to be one single body.” In the New Yorker, Hilton Als said of her book, Our Andromeda: “it further establishes Shaughnessy’s particular genius, which is utterly poetic, but essayistic in scope, encompassing ideas about astronomy, illness, bodies, the family, ‘normalcy,’ home.”
Shaughnessy has received numerous honors and awards for her work, including fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute, where she was a Bunting Fellow, the Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission, The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Howard Foundation of Brown University. She has taught at universities including Columbia, the New School, Princeton, and New York University. Poetry editor-at-large of Tin House Shaughnessy is currently an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University, where she also teaches in the MFA program.
She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, son, and daughter. For more information about Brenda and her work, please visit her website.
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All poems © Brenda Shaughnessy. These poems appear in Shaughnessy’s book Our Andromeda from Copper Canyon Press © 2012 and were reprinted with express permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. Author biography courtesy of The Poetry Foundation.