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book review: time travel in the poems of brenda shaughnessy

There’s a lot that could be said about the wonderful poetry of Brenda Shaughnessy (and many have), but one aspect that stood out to me on reading three of her books is the theme of “time travel”. Not in the science-fiction sense, but the looking back over time and the conversation between generations.

I noticed this first in her 1999 book, Interior with Sudden Joy, in the intelligence and wit of the poem “You’re Not Home, It’s Probably Better”, of finally having the right thing to say, or rather, having now become the person with the right thing to say. Here’s part of it:

I am calling to wish you well. I am calling because I want to
change something I said. A year ago you asked me three questions.
I thought you were asking my birthday wishes and answered all
wrong. If you remember (if I know you you’ll pretend you don’t)
I answered:

. . .

It’s my birthday again and because I am cleverer now I can answer
you with more nerve.

(The full poem is worth reading, to see the now and before answers. The questions themselves are left for the reader to imagine.)

The theme is there again, more broadly, in her 2012 book, Our Andromeda, published when she was 42, writing to her past selves in the series of four poems “To my 23 / 24 / 25 / 38 Year Old Self”, writing not to avoid past mistakes or change things, but with compassion to share that there’s someone who does actually understand what it was like. It’s also there in the conversation between generations in the poem “Magi”. Here’s part:

If only you’d been a better mother.

How could I have been a better mother?
I would have needed a better self,
and that was a gift I never received.

So you’re saying it’s someone else’s fault?

The gift of having had a better mother myself,
my own mother having had a better mother herself.
The gift that keeps on not being given.

. . .

Well, how am I supposed to live?

I suppose you must live as if you had been
given better to begin with. Comb your hair, for instance.

And the theme becomes explicit in her 2016 book, Too Much Synth, in the very first poem, “I have a time machine”:

But unfortunately it can only travel into the future
on a rate of one second per second,
which seems slow to the physicists and to the grant
committees and even to me.
But I manage to get there, time after time, to the
next moment and to the next.
Thing is, I can’t turn it off. I keeping zipping ahead –
well, not zipping – And if I try
to get out of this time machine, open the latch,
I’ll fall off into space, unconscious,
then dessicated! And I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of that.
So I stay inside.
. . .
I thought I’d find myself
an old woman by now, traveling so light in time.
But I haven’t gotten far at all.
Strange not to be able to pick up the pace as I’d like;
the past is so terribly fast.

This poem is a great introduction to a book that’s a retrospective on adolescence. I take many of Brenda Shaughnessy’s poems as speaking to, about, and between women and their experiences, and it’s a privilege to listen in and learn.

And along with all that, and apart from the time travel, there’s simply a lot of delightful wordplay and humor, for example, as in “Streetlamps”:

The unplowed road is unusable
unless there’s no snow.
But in dry, warm weather,
it’s never called an unplowed road.
To call it so, when it isn’t so,
doesn’t make it so, though it is so
when it snows and there’s no plow.
It’s a no-go. Let’s stay inside.


Interior with Sudden Joy, published by Farrar Straus Giroux (1999)

Our Andromeda, published by Copper Canyon Press (2012)

So much Synth, published by Copper Canyon Press (2016)

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