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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Brenda Shaughnessy is only 29 years old, but American literature has been preparing her arrival for a long time. It began to do so when Emily Dickinson gave license to the writing of dense ecstasies of wit. It furnished Shaughnessy's Interior with the cracking music of Plath and the cracked eloquence of Berryman. She has learned from John Ashbery a good-natured surrealism mysteriously precise in its rendering of inner states. Interior With Sudden Joy is surely one of the most impressive debut collections of recent years, and it arrives in the world with one hell of a pedigree. Who says America is a country without tradition?
Not that Shaughnessy is not an original. It's just that, like all fine work, hers has an aura of inevitability about it, and we wonder, reading this collection, what we did without it. Doing without, however, is Shaughnessy's great subject: I mean that she often writes of longing, a longing whose contours are taken from metaphysics and whose texture — sweet, slick, and gritty — comes from sex. Shaughnessy again and again describes rising, swelling, blisters, fever — the self fraying at the borders, extending out of itself toward its object. In "Project for a Fainting," she characterizes love as "a tendency towards fever. To break. To soil."
That "to soil" is interesting, and it sets Shaughnessy delightfully apart from many older Romantic and romantic poets. Desire is often associated in the great Romantic tradition — especially as exemplified by Shelley Shelley and Yeats — with a kind of Platonism, a love of theidealas against our daily world of dirt and infractions. But Shaughnessy agrees with Wallace Stevens Wallace Stevens that "the imperfect is our paradise." "Voluptuary" is a poem in celebration of "loving wrong," and goes, in part, like this:
If you haven't known the true faulty
pleasure of half-beauty, the sublime uncomely
dreamt without vision two hot marble arches
round your vague orca trumpet of a thigh,
then why would you love me? And how does
fever break without liquid, without spilling?&
Blister, wizen. It's worth it and it's night.
Who wants pretty, when pretty is plain
and the heart is gnarled and the fullsacked
forest of being lost is home?
This craggy sound and liquid sense assort very well with the spilling-sharp quality of lust. The trouble with lust is usually our inability to sustain it. But in Shaughnessy's work, one blister has no sooner "wizened" — what a word, so eccentric and correct — than another crops up. Lust seems Shaughnessy's primary disposition, lust not only of a sexual kind, but lust after landscape, memory, knowledge.
As always, the great passion of Eros is for recombination, otherwise known as creation. Hence Shaughnessy's improvisatory, neologistic impulse. Her poems promiscuously, playfully breed new senses of things, and we glimpse as much in her love of portmanteau coinages: "Sleptember," "Arachnolesence," "Epithalament." The last of these is particularly revealing: the epithalamium, or marriage-hymn, is combined with the lament. Desire is mixed with regret. For all her "sudden joy," the poet is well-versed in the "strict empire of phantom pain" and experiences not only love but also "contempt for all that is mere fever / and sweat, strain and maculate...." Still, she describes herself and her lover as "absolute gourmands of the ugliest meal." One is reminded of Woody Allen's joke about the meal of life: "Such terrible food!" complains one diner. "And such small portions!" complains another.
But Shaughnessy's impulse is not plaint but praise — and praise in our world means celebration of the slipping, the flawed, the smeared. "Perfection is the campsite for those who have stopped half-way," writes Shaughnessy, who is clearly intent on going, herself, all the way. Poetry has declined in our long modern time into a elegiac fixity, but the original vocation of the poet, the writer of odes, was praise. Brenda Shaughnessy is a very young poet, edgy, hip, and eager, but no one should fail to notice how ancient is the task her verse so successfully performs.