Thursday, April 9, 2009

My Favorite Recent Books of Poems: Human Dark with Sugar

NEXT TIME THE WAITRESS asks you if you want sugar with your Human Dark, say yes. You won't be disappointed.

That would probably be a better last line for this review than a first line. It has a kind of salutary ring to it; it signs off more than it turns on.

But, then again, I'm writing about Brenda Shaughnessy's smart collection of poems, Human Dark with Sugar, one of my favorite books of poems from last year. One reason I like this collection so much is because she turns everything around, yet it all makes sense.

For example, she begins her poem "Drift" with a line that could have come straight out of a TWR post: "I’ll go anywhere to leave you but come with me."

Wow. I say that to myself every day.

And yet, nothing happens.

The difference between Shaugnessy saying that to the reader and me saying that to me, is that in her world things do happen. The world's messiness a) opens up; b) feels less messy; and c) seems funny rather than threatening. That's pretty much a poetry trifecta.

See, for example, "First Date and Still Very, Very Lonely:"


is a sacred day. A date day.
An exception to the usual
poor me, poor me!

I'm not poor and I'm not me.
I remember both
states as soon ago as last week.

The poetic persona has both fallen out of fashion and had a falling out with falling out of fashion. We are taught--or many assume we are taught--to read the "I" in contemporary American poetry as "the writer." We presume the confessions are not those of an invented persona but of the actual person. Troy Jollimore plays with this distinction, but Shaughnessy blurs it. She wants the reader to feel uneasy, to wonder if the laments and desperations of the speaker are "Brenda Shaughnessy's" or the hip construction that witty female poet named Brenda Shaughnessy invented.

The question is: do we care? And, who is this we anyway?

Around 4:30 am, when my 5-month old son woke up hungry, a very funny final line for this review came to me as I was stumbling to the bathroom. I was so pleased with myself because it worked as a closing sentiment, but it would also feel like an opening gambit. This morning though, when I awoke, it was gone--an experience Shaughnessy writes about in "Magician." Her final line in that poem speaks, I guess, to my 4:30 epiphany and, perhaps, to the question of persona vs. person: "Nothing ever really happens."

Or is it that everything always happens?

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