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About Brenda Shaughnessy

I spent the whole day
crying and writing, until
they became the same…

… A scratch on the page
is a supernatural act, one twisting

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

From “Miracles” by Brenda Shaughnessy

At mid-career, Brenda Shaughnessy has earned a reputation for writing “poems that absolutely matter.”  In poem after poem, her plain-spoken honesty is both fierce and brave.  Yet love is her great theme, or how we love – how we love as parents, siblings, friends, and how, especially, we learn to love ourselves.  Shaughnessy’s poems are also esteemed for their sophisticated and playful language and their muscular turns of phrase.  She is a poet at the top of her game, and a strong game it is.  

Shaughnessy has published four highly regarded books of poems, including her breakthrough collection
Our Andromeda, which became a cause celebre among critics and readers alike.  That book reports on the difficult birth of the poet’s son who was born severely disabled, which plays out in searing, urgent poems that unflinchingly ponder maternal love and responsibility.  “It was my job to get you into / this world safely. And I failed.”  The mother-poet imagines making a new world for her son, Cal, in the galaxy Andromeda in the title poem of the book:

When we get to Andromeda, Cal,
You’ll have the babyhood you deserved…

… You’ll get the chance to walk

without pain, as if such a thing
were a matter of choosing a song
over a book…

In Our Andromeda, the poet’s imagination becomes a powerful tool of love, a glowing life force that out of heartbreak creates and sustains optimism.  The courage and candor of its poems earned Our Andromeda recognition as one of the New York Times “100 Best Books” and as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and Griffin Poetry Prize.  

Shaughnessy’s recent book,
So Much Synth, uses adolescence as a metaphor for existential dilemma – how do we become human and how, in that process, do we learn to love ourselves.  The poet’s own youthful experiences, as a victim of sexual violence and as an experimenter in lesbian sex and lifestyle, underpin a physical and psychic self-loathing that forms a heroic challenge to the young person’s normal discovery and assertion of selfhood.  In these poems, bitter-tasting nostalgia is fueled by the pop music of the 1980s, with numerous references to icons of the period, including Duran Duran, Madonna, and Simple Minds – bad music for bad life choices as in “To My Twenty-Six-Year-Old Self”:

You really are being such a poet,
aren’t you? Ten Dollars a week
is the food budget, and that’s the day-old

rolls for the freezer and looking for butts
and considering the offer from friends
who can get you a job at their strip club.

But you’re too fat to be a stripper,
you say, starving down to nothing.
But this is the life of an artist, you say,

even when the electricity shuts down
and the cop on the corner offers you
cocaine…

The poet’s struggle to define and love herself in So Much Synth is also an aspect of maternally protective love for her young daughter who she fears may one day confront similar coming-of-age hardships. 

Shaughnessy’s second book, Human Dark with Sugar, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, established her command of a poetic voice and language that is at once playful, sexy, and insightful.  The opening lines of that collection’s first poem, “I’m Over the Moon” perfectly exhibits the poet’s formidable talent:

I don’t like what the moon is supposed to do.
Confuse me, ovulate me,

Spoon-feed me longing. A kind of ancient
date-rape drug. So I’ll howl at you moon,

I’m angry. I’ll take back the night. Using me to
swoon at your questionable light,

you had me chasing you,
the world’s worst lover, over and over

hoping for a mirror, a whisper, insight.
But you disappear for nights on end

with all my erotic mysteries
and my entre unconscious mind…

Brenda Shaughnessy was born in Okinawa to mixed-race parents.  She grew up in Southern California and earned degrees from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Columbia University.  She also received a Guggenheim Fellowship and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute, the Japan/US Friendship Commission, and the Howard Foundation of Brown University.  She currently is a professor at Rutgers University.