Poet conveys depth and complexity of language

Brenda Shaughnessy can spend 45 minutes discussing a single word.

Last Thursday in Dodd Living Room, she demonstrated that this careful contemplation – which sometimes borders on obsession – generates poetry that simultaneously compels and evades. Reading from her debut, “Interior With Sudden Joy,” and sharing several newer poems, Shaughnessy brought her words to life. She did little, however, to alleviate their difficulty. In the intimacy of her setting and through the ease of her expression, her poetry became paradoxically both accessible and impossible.

In the interludes between poems, Shaughnessy provided brief descriptions her work.

She opened the poetry reading with “Love Poem Letter,” and then explained that “Interior With Sudden Joy,” published in 1999, is a collection of her thoughts on many things, but mostly love, her attitude toward which she describes as “hurt,” “angry” and “wiseass.” The strength of these emotions lies beneath the surface of “Love Poem Letter,” as well as those poems she read that do not directly address the subject of love. “Life as Selected Solids,” a newer poem that does not appear in “Interior With Sudden Joy,” touches on the broader theme of life itself, but disguised beneath what Shaughnessy explained as an anti-war statement are the same hurt, angry and wiseass sentiments.

Each of Shaughnessy’s poems has its own message, but no matter what it concerns – love, life or war – deriving this message proves difficult.

Stylistically, her poems resemble those by Sylvia Plath; her words and images are rich but complicated, her emotions are powerful but somehow controlled, and though her thoughts are very personal, they are meant to be shared. But Shaughnessy lacks the occasional innocence of Plath, and so her poetry becomes more excessive and very hard – a little bit of it goes a long way. This strategy enables her to engage her audience; once she has their attention, however, the struggle to dissect her poetry begins.

She wrote “Project for a Fainting” in response to a work by Dorothea Tanning. Shaughnessy cites Tanning as her favorite painter: “Interior With Sudden Joy” is named for the painting by Tanning that appears on the book’s cover. If “Project for a Fainting” is meant to pay tribute to her muse, it is unfortunate that Shaughnessy admits that the poem “pisses me off.” Still, in it we find perfect examples of Shaughnessy’s characteristic unwillingness to simplify. Calling rain “Unfemale,” she then explains that it “is / with her painted face still plain and with such pixel you’d never see / it in the pure freckling, the lacquer of her.” She adds to this twisted description of rain a truth: “the world / is lighter with her recklessness.”

Her poetry depends on these rare moments of clarity of language and thought to connect with her audience, to make us want to sacrifice our sanity to delve into more confusing stanzas and attempt an interpretation.

Shaughnessy also shared “Embarrassment,” an unfinished poem that she believes could accommodate many more verses – such is the nature of her life. Perhaps because it is unfinished, “Embarrassment” provides insight to Shaughnessy’s techniques not available in her finished works. Here, her tendency to include paradoxes emerges: the names we call ourselves, she says, are “swallowing themselves into our nausea.”

This same wit is evidenced in “Spring,” in which she describes “a cat, too delicious herself to be hungry,” and in “Driving in Japanese,” where she concludes “what’s the opposite of opposite is gone.” While she seems to include some of her paradoxes for the purpose of mesmerizing her audience, others are more common and straightforward, lending her poetry unexpected wisdom. In “Embarrassment” she reminds us “we attract what we repel.” Before reading “The Self-Eliminating Process,” Shaughnessy admitted to thinking a lot about the concept of infinity, which is “not a happy thing.”

This forces her poetry to accommodate the real world, as well as what lies beyond. “Life as Selected Solids” alludes to the structure of cells in its imagery, and in “Embarrassment” she decides “things are less embarrassing at the cellular level.”

Following this statement, she pairs the cellular with the celestial, telling an unidentified listener “I’m amazed you see stars,” when “I see a dark tight hole letting stars through.” She adds, “I give that to you,” an impossible act that links herself and her listener to infinity, the very concept that makes her struggle.

Listening to Shaughnessy’s poetry is like looking “Through a thousand panes of glass / not all transparent.”

As she moved through each poem, it was tempting to ask her to stop, wait and repeat the previous stanza. By the time one made sense of her title, she had already finished reading the poem. Still, having the opportunity to listen to Shaughnessy read her poems aloud was unusual, and it gave them accessibility not possible with the printed page.

Even if her poetry’s meaning was lost in the rhythms of her speech, her language was as rich as ever. To hear her poetry spoken makes it all the more fantastic – and for Shaughnessy, that’s what it should be.

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