Brenda Shaughnessy

Copper Canyon, 2016

Brenda Shaughnessy’s So Much Synth opens with the poem “I Have a Time Machine”: “But unfortunately it can only travel into the future / at a rate of one second per second, // which seems slow to the physicists and to the grant / committees and even to me.” Nevertheless, out of the window the poet can see the past. “But it’s never live; it’s always over.” In this collection, however, Shaughnessy mines her own history in hopes of reshaping the narrative of the future.

In “A Mix Tape: “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” Shaughnessy deftly and humorously describes the process of curating the perfect tracklist for a crush, “…what you wanted / to tell the person but couldn’t say // any other way.” But the making of a mix tape, she suggests, is no casual act; it’s a “private language, lost art, // first book, cri de coeur, X-ray, diary.” Shaughnessy uses this touchstone of adolescence to remind us that there is much at stake in girlhood. “You couldn’t just be yourself anywhere,” she writes in “Is There Something I Should Know,” a long poem that acutely renders the agonies of puberty. As a “half-Japanese” girl—especially one who confusedly longed for a beloved to “lose himself (herself?) in me”—Shaughnessy felt “either overly looked at // or totally overlooked.”

Lest readers think that young girls’ struggle with the mysteries of womanhood (how to insert a tampon, gym short size) are awkward but minor preoccupations, Shaughnessy forgoes her usual syntactic dazzle—fully on display elsewhere in the book—for direct rhetoric:

When you learn that you are supposed

to feel lucky and happy because you weren’t raped and killed,
you are already, in this, being truly brutally hurt

in a central, deep, and formative place. This I never admitted.
This is never permitted acknowledgment.

If you say this, someone will refute it. So I will say it here.

Shaughnessy voices in no ambiguous terms the violence perpetrated (and perpetuated) against the female psyche, as if acrobatic wordplay or metaphorical flourish would mute the message she so ferociously wants to impart. “Please Be Okay till Morning” she beseeches her infant in the title of one poem, though it’s clear she wants nothing less than for her daughter—all daughters—to step out into the “dangerous air” of every day with their “vital, mighty sel[ves]…” intact.