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Shaughnessy, Brenda


Nationality: American. Born: Okinawa, Japan, 1970. Education: Columbia University, New York, M.F.A. in poetry.



Interior with Sudden Joy. New York, Farrar Straus, 1999.

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Brenda Shaughnessy's poems in Interior with Sudden Joy are lively but dense and are sexually charged. Most have a first-person narrator who reflects upon relationships and private experiences. Shaughnessy sometimes uses unusual words like "scopophilia" and concocted words like "aracholescence." Because she employs odd images and comparisons, her meanings are often difficult to discern, and it is sometimes necessary for the reader to puzzle over her poetry.

In "Still Life, with Glozinia" the narrator proposes to draw a picture of the listener ("I will make something of you both pigment / and insecticide"), suggesting underlying ill intent. The poet draws an analogy with nuns who make a wine with berries and gloxinia that turns their insides "all blue." Like them, the speaker is cold and unable to paint or move her subject. Various other poems are addressed to a difficult lover. Shaughnessy invokes a loved one in "Letter to the Crevice Novice," suggesting that he or she is like a vampire who would kill to keep love alive for centuries and that "love was death / enough." A question arises about the depth of this love since the novice perceives love only superficially. "Fetish: The Historical Orphan" bemoans the glacial love of one addressed as "Czarina," who causes the speaker pain; the speaker wishes for "a fusing of the retinas, to see yourself as I see you." "What's Uncanny" deals with a lover with whom there is "too much choreography … Too little dance." "Mistress Formika" relates the pleasure and pain of love: "Can this be too much pleasure in one so smart, debauched / and thin?" But quarreling also ensues. "Illumine" asks for intimacy and emotional closure, and in "Postfeminism" the poet speaks of two types of people: "Hot with mixed / light drunk with insult. You and me." "Arachnolescence" is a dark poem about fantasies of pain the speaker will inflict upon a lover who is an "arachno-demigod." "Rise" relates the resumption of an affair, yet the end of the poem strikes a bitter note: "you lie with me, smelling / of almonds, as the poisoned do."

In Shaughnessy's comic, voyeuristic poem "Panoption" the speaker, looking through a telescope on a viewing deck, sees a roommate experimenting with a vibrator. Several possibilities emerge: to confess in detail to the roommate, to keep watching, or to stay home and watch a potential viewer of the speaker. "Lacquer" is about the poet's mother, who writes her diary in Japanese, a language not understood by the daughter. The poem is emblematic of the failure of communication.

As she incorporates curious words into a private diction, Shaughnessy's art becomes resonant of poets like John Ashbery. Her poetry is both idiosyncratic and sensuous and, like that of Dorothy Tanning, is indebted to the surrealists. At times Shaughnessy's poetry is self-conscious and enigmatic. Witty and lively, Shaughnessy celebrates female sexuality as the theme of the joy and sorrow of love informs her poems.

—Shirley J. Paolini

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