Review: So Much Synth by Brenda Shaughnessy (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)

Laughlin Award winner Brenda Shaughnessy’s fourth collection thematically contrasts her third book, Our Andromeda, “[watching] the fish swim.  In backward circles.”  What Shaughnessy maintains is her characteristic confidence within duplicity.  Nostalgia emerges as coping mechanism, while poems simultaneously elucidate routine violence against young girls and women.  The ache of being human in a world that is “so much” reoccurs within Shaughnessy’s poems with almost as much frequency as pop music from the eighties, toward which the title of this book nods.  What Shaughnessy achieves is hurt like synth beating underneath the joy of her life – that beat is constant, dynamic and—at times—unsettling.

Shaughnessy is a confident poet; in the first poem of the collection, “I Have a Time Machine,” she flirts with form from across the bar.  The lines in this poem seem to structure themselves, couplets composed of a long and then shorter line, reminiscent of the “one step forward, two steps back,” glitch in Shaughnessy’s time machine.  Near the end of the poem, the couplets begin rhythmically, “Myself …Myself …Me …Me…I…I…” Shaughnessy is at once teasing, “Thing is, I can’t turn it off.  I keep zipping ahead” – and in control, “well not zipping.”  She is nostalgic, but simultaneously aware and embarrassed by her sentimentality.  The time machine in the poem manifests the message of the collection, “…it’s never live; it’s always over.  The fish swim / in backward circles.”

With ‘Time Machine’ as the book’s prelude, the first section of So Much Synth begins with the poem, “McQueen is Dead.  Long Live McQueen.”  Shaughnessy draws a connection to her title when she describes a passing row of buildings in the city as, “so much lense, textures so tall.” Here, the speaker is asking us to learn the difference between “too much” and “so much.”  Both suggest inundation but only one connotes excessiveness.  A person, a girl in love with “so much” is vulnerable to “so much” – anxiety and love, trauma and friendship, Melissa Etheridge and “so much” other eighties music.

The setting for the second section is the speaker’s twenties, in a house occupied exclusively by lesbians.  She writes, “Cynthia got / kicked out for being bi and / then bringing a guy to the loft.”  Shaughnessy occupies this setting with characteristic duality.  Though she reveals hurt tenderly, she never entirely abandons her identity as poet – her wisdom and hindsight are ghoulishly present in the collection.  Yet, her wisdom, as the poem, “Wound” demonstrates, doesn’t protect the speaker from her shame.  She writes:

As if to woo
not to wow.

I didn’t dazzle like I expected
to.  My body,

interracial & grumous
either overly looked at

or totally overlooked.

Shaughnessy continues to write in dichotomies.  When she says, “overly looked at” and “totally overlooked,” her playful diction allows space for both realities to exist.  The sonic joviality of, “As if to woo / not to wow,” is undermined by the formal, “As if.”  Contrast the former two words, only a letter apart, with two other words Shaughnessy couples: “interracial & grumous.”  “Interracial” appears with a small spotlight on it and is the most explicitly Shaughnessy will discuss race within the collection.  The directness of “interracial” demonstrates at once shame, slapped across our childhood speaker’s forehead, and the measured intention of the speaker to reflect toxicity back at the people who projected it onto her in the first place.

So Much Synth is beautiful because Shaughnessy is a proven talent; it is gorgeous because it never allows pain to linger long without joy.  Eighties music is a perfect vehicle for Shaughnessy’s experience of nostalgia, and the third section of the collection is particularly infused with synth, Aqua Net, and Duran Duran.  Shaughnessy approaches eighties pop with a soulful simplicity in such opposition with our typical consideration of the eighties it would seem contrarian if not for its vulnerability.

In, “Is There Something I Should Know?” a thematic fluidity of gender and sexuality cracks open into a full gender critique.  Earlier in the poem, Shaughnessy’s young speaker lusts over “really any of Duran Duran except Andy,” and it reminds of comedian Kate McKinnon, who once sang in a Saturday Night Live sketch regarding a childhood crush on Hanson, “…that’s how I could tell, that I was gay as hell.”  Here gender is a flood of expression and flexibility, humorous even.  Yet, later on in the twenty-eight-page poem, Shaughnessy confronts the consequences of sexuality in rape culture more directly:

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 is never admitted.
This is never permitted acknowledgement.
If you say this, someone will refute it.  So I will say it here.

Shaughnessy flows effortlessly through nostalgia to pain, which she exposes to us in this moment.  The mother-daughter duality of the collection flips again and Shaughnessy is separate from her pain, critiquing, “every sentence you speak ending in a question / so as not to anger anyone who needs to be right?”  Other times her writing is simple and intense, evoking a diary entry, “Anyway, tampons were way better because you // couldn’t see them and they didn’t slip, but you also / didn’t know whether they were full or not.  So????????????????”

So Much Synth circles its contradictions elegantly.  Shaughnessy is a realist who knows she is above excess, but also a poet swimming in synth, a woman who prefers to listen to Simple Minds than tighten the white knobs on her dresser drawers.  She deprecates the parts of her identity that make her different, like in, “Gay Pride Weekend, S.F., 1992,” when she writes, “Knowing that being / fierce and proud and out and / loud was just a bright new way / to be needy.”  Almost simultaneously she writes electrically about the same aspect of her identity, “The love we made leapt / to life like a cat in the space / between us.”  We see Shaughnessy critique herself but she lets the poem rub up against that critique like a cat.  Perhaps it is a result of aging inside that fish tank of nostalgia, perhaps of growth, which by necessity occurs outside of the fish tank, which we catch sight of when Shaughnessy mentions her son and daughter, as in the poem, “Simone At Age Three, Late Summer.”  Somehow the language in this collection, the clean lines and couplets, drip like honey with the knowledge that the people we’ve been rarely go away. They are resting inside of us, and we all have time machines.

Brenda Shaughnessy was born in Okinawa, Japan, and grew up in Southern California. She is the author of So Much Synth (Copper Canyon Press, 2016); Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press, 2012) which was a New York Times Book Review “100 Notable Books of 2013”; Human Dark with Sugar (Copper Canyon Press, 2008), winner of the James Laughlin Award and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Interior with Sudden Joy (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999). Shaughnessy’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Harper’s, The Nation, The Rumpus, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, Newark, and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, son and daughter.

Sage Calder Hahn

Sage Calder Hahn grew up in rural Northwest Connecticut and currently lives in Boston. She recently graduated with a Bachelor's Degree from Brandeis University in Creative Writing and English, and currently works as a sex-educator in Brookline. Her writing has either been featured in or is forthcoming from Open Letters Monthly and Tinderbox Poetry Journal.

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