Identity Poetics

Brenda Shaughnessy, Our Andromeda

Copper Canyon Press, 131pp, £10.00, ISBN 9781556594106

reviewed by Liam Murray Bell

Our Andromeda, as the title might suggest, is a collection of immense scale and scope. The third collection from Brenda Shaughnessy has already been described as a ‘monumental work’ in The New Yorker, and it sustains the sharp focus on the self that underlies her previous two collections, Human Dark with Sugar and Interior with Sudden Joy. The dedication at the start, ‘for Cal’, resonates throughout: Shaughnessy uses the birth of her son as a thematic reference point for her analysis of the interstices between motherhood, family, and creativity.

The poems fluctuate between plaintive and playful, capable of the wide-angle lens suggested by the reference to Andromeda, but are also peppered with personal touches and detail that narrows the focus back onto the poet’s relationship to the birth of her son. The collection offers a raw account of motherhood: ‘I can blame just about anyone for what / happened to you, but ultimately it was my job / to get you into this world safely. And I failed.’ The undercurrent of bitterness and anger is, as is often the case with Shaughnessy’s poetry, directed at herself and diffracted through her own aesthetic ambitions.

The collection is divided into five parts, the first of which, ‘Liquid Flesh’, rarely strays beyond confessional poetry. A strength of the structure of the collection is that this focus on the personal experiences of the poet only operates as a prelude to a more sustained, formally innovative interrogation of the self in the later sections. The title's reference to Greek mythology – with its implications of failed motherhood and feminine passivity – is intertwined with the possibility of an alternate universe within the Andromeda galaxy, an investigation into religion and superstition, and the family unit before returning back to the self – as mother – in the final section. These layers of complexity across the collection are used to build towards the metapoetic conclusion of the final poem, ‘Our Andromeda,' which turns the collection's construction of the poet’s emotional relationships back towards the act of creating itself.

'Double Life' contains the key assertion that ‘Duplicity after all takes many, not merely two, forms,’ and Andromeda is projected, like poetry itself, as a universe of myriad alternatives. There is, however, still a rootedness in the here-and-now: the poem ‘Outfoxed’ directs satirical bile at Fox News with a condemnation that is both scornful and effective, shifting between interior and exterior criticisms. There is an interrogation of the creative process in ‘The Seven Deadly Sins of (and Necessary Steps Toward) Making Art’ that shines in terms of both self-reflection and the beauty of the language (‘3. GOALS / Stop staring out that old woman’s window like a cat’). Shaughnessy is a poet of immense skill, working within the restrictions of line and metre but without ever producing poetry that feels restricted or inhibited.

Perhaps the third part, ‘Arcana’, lacks intensity in comparison to the rest of the collection, insomuch as the poems – linked to tarot cards – are less explicitly drawn from personal experience and reflection, and some of the moments of humour – for instance the poem ‘Card 20: Judgement’ which extends the simplest of jokes about elephants carrying suitcases and their ‘trunks’ – feel slightly flippant in comparison to the sharp-witted observations of the first two parts. This lull is overcome in the next section, ‘Family Trip’, which reconsiders family and identity. The wonderful contradictions in ‘I Wish I Had More Sisters’ point back towards the earlier ‘Double Life’, emphasising the poet’s preoccupation with an ‘alternate me.’ It is a poem that is indicative of the self-questioning, often rueful, tone of a collection which both strains against and dissects the role of biography in poetry. Identity is continually fractured and reanalysed, always within tightly controlled stanzas.

By the end of the collection, Shaughnessy's artful deconstruction of the confessional mode has primed the reader for complex works like ‘At the Book Shrink,’ in which Shaughnessy shows herself to be dissatisfied with the constructed worlds, relationships and outcomes that she has imagined in the previous sections: ‘My story is telling / But it is not telling me.’ Perhaps in order to rectify this, she embarks on a sequence of poems that are addressed to herself at the ages of twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five and thirty-eight. The first three are self-critical, but in a self-deprecating rather than a scornful tone, and there is a wry humour and a wistful wisdom in her revisiting of previous loves and lives. It is a lovely sequence that draws together all that has gone before, and explicitly portrays the personal perspective as a fundamentally mutable centre to the collection. The work vacillates between past selves, and culminates in a poem that projects into the future: ‘Calvin will be fine.’

The final poem, ‘Our Andromeda,’ draws together the strands of speculation that pervade the previous sections, and combines the raw emotion and maternal anger of the rest of the collection with Cal as a redemptive force. In the opening stanzas, it is proposed that Cal will get a ‘fair fight’ in Andromeda, that in this alternate universe all the errors and oversights of this world will be corrected. Andromedan love is the other-worldly strength that brought Cal into this world, yet this utopian vision is clearly only idyll; Andromeda is somewhere where ‘everybody knows what they / need to know,’ where doctors, insurance companies, and midwives all perform in the way that they should. Shaughnessy's questioning of reality serves to underscore her resolve to fully interact with this reality, not solely through the self – the I – or through the son – Cal – but through a combined ‘we’. They emerge together, having arrived at a poetic catharsis. And the reader is drawn along too, also emerging from this remarkable collection bearing the full weight of Shaughnessy's ruminations on humanity. Maybe there is no alternate reality, but the strength of this collection is that it allows the weight of imagined worlds, created or imagined, to inform and inspire the emotional worlds we all live in.
Liam Murray Bell is a writer based in Sussex. He is author of So It Is, a novel about the role of women in the Northern Irish Troubles, and co-editor of the essay collection Writing Urban Space.