So Much Synth

by Stephen Burt

Shaughnessy’s third book, Our Andromeda, was an earthquake of sorts: Its combination of sculpted, pun-rich language (in short poems) and heartbreaking directness (in short and in long ones) presented the poet as the reflective, generous mother of a disabled son. Now the chief topics differ—Shaughnessy writes about her teen years, about the most troubled decisions of her twenties, about her young daughter—but the ferocity, the variety (some poems wax demotic, others nearly baroque), and the trustworthy, charismatic speaker are the same. She’s propelled by rhetorical questions: “What is beautiful, what is terrifying, / what is absurd in me?” “[H]ow far back behind our backs do we go // to find the first hurt.” “Why I Stayed, 1997–2001” tries to explain loyalty to an abusive partner: “When a woman you love hits you / on the head with a book / you love, is that love?” An astonishing central section, with titles and subtitles (“Is There Something I Should Know?”) taken from 1980s pop hits, investigates one queer, hyperliterate, Asian American, female-bodied adolescence with a disarming specificity (“My mom begged me to wear my 32AA to school”) that lets her reach out to many other girls: “This feeling of being out of control of what I said / was happening more frequently...Why did I want to stay at the mall anyway?” Re-creating, synthesizing (as it were) her youth and adulthood as Duran Duran and Simple Minds synthesized their catchiest melodies, Shaughnessy gains power as she modulates from memory into feminist argument, and then—in the last few poems—into speech as a responsible adult: “Was I ever truly happy, like some girl in a red tank top / eating sunlight in spring?” Maybe so, maybe not. What’s clear, by the end, is how happy, and how righteously angry, and how well understood, Shaughnessy’s rare powers will let her best readers feel.

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2016.