Brenda Shaughnessy’s third collection of poetry, Our Andromeda, recently published by Copper Canyon, is both a celebration of form and a devastating exploration of motherhood and desire. The Poetry Foundation asked Erika Meitner and Joy Katz, both poets and mothers of five-year-old boys, to read the collection. The two spent several weeks corresponding with each other about the book. Below are their letters.
My son Oz just started kindergarten this week. I watch him vanish around the corner each morning in a flashing yellow bus and assume he arrives safely in his classroom. It’s been years since I’ve studied Greek mythology, so I had to look up Andromeda on Wikipedia, where I discovered that she was an Aethiopian princess, with a constellation and an entire galaxy named after her. The gods chained Andromeda to a rock to punish her mother for bragging about her beauty. O mothers and their hubris.
Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda is in some ways a riddle. The first poem, “Artless,” plays with the idea of the word “heart” containing “art”—its speaker kicks off the entire book with a blunt statement: “Artless / is my heart.” She continues:
No poetry. Plain. No
fresh, special recipe
Shaughnessy seems to warn us that emotion might take precedence over craft in this book, but the warning comes in a poem that’s so tight and musical I don’t quite believe her. It was hard for me to avoid comparing “Artless” with Bishop’s “One Art,” due to the title alone. But Shaughnessy’s poem isn’t about loss—it’s about less. Many lines end with some compound form that includes the word: “dayless,” “senseless,” “fightless.” By the last third of the poem, the “I” shifts to an “us”—the speaker has merged with her heart and becomes “aloneless,” an invented word that somehow implies full and empty at the same time. Is this poem—this whole book—meant to be a repudiation of Bishop’s thesis “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”?
In July, Hilton Als wrote a post about Our Andromeda that The New Yorker headlined “Brenda Shaughnessy’s Ferocious Mother poems.” Is it fair to peg Our Andromeda as a motherhood book? I wondered what you thought about that. Of the 52 poems, only 10-ish directly address motherhood. It’s also about many kinds of desire, about the body, about creating a personal mythology, about the power of imagination, about wishing things otherwise. We don’t get our first distinct mother poem until page 22, “Liquid Flesh”:
I know I am his mother, but I can’t
quite click on the word’s essential aspects,
can’t denude the flora
or disrobe the kind of housecoat
“mother” always is. Something
cunty, something used.
This passage is an interesting microcosm of a poem that’s honest and sometimes shocking, and offers up great language play and internal rhyme among rhetorical moments that eschew music. Als writes: “In the brilliant long poem, ‘Liquid Flesh’—a piece I dare any mother to read without a shiver of recognition; this beats Sylvia Plath’s mother poems by a yard—we meet the mother who must nurture, despite her exhaustion, confusion, and pain. Who else will feed her baby, and her ideas of a mothering self?” I can’t help but read a statement like that and wonder if you had a “shiver of recognition”? Are all mothers meant to identify with all motherhood poems? Will all female poets who write about the terribleness (or realness) of motherhood forever be compared to Plath?
And what about the last, long poem, “Our Andromeda”? I felt a little like the book was holding out on me. Earlier, in “Cover the Lamp with Its Own Light,” Shaughnessy writes:
for example (did you know
there was a baby? You’d think
he’d be mentioned by now,
but the things I choose not to say
might keep you wondering to the end
of the page, the fat page, the fat
unmentionable this and that)
I was wondering about the baby: Yes. But Shaughnessy keeps the most heart-wrenching information for last. In “To My Thirty-Eight-Year-Old Self,” we first get hints that Shaughnessy’s son is disabled. “The New People” and “If You So Much As Lay a Hand” tell us he was sick as a baby. But it’s not until we get to “Our Andromeda,” the book’s final poem, that we learn the story the rest of the book doesn’t tell us (avoids?). This 22-page opus, addressed to Shaughnessy’s son Cal, tells us that he is blind and unable to move his limbs or talk. We learn that to some extent, Shaughnessy blames herself for these things.
“Our Andromeda” is epic: part letter to Cal, part birth story, part invective, part lawsuit debriefing, part myth, part wish. This is a poem laden with blame and recrimination:
People get sick in Andromeda.
The difference is that people taking
care of the sick don’t pretend
they know what they do not
and cannot know.
It’s visceral, beautiful, ugly, bare, primal. Because the poem is addressed to Cal, much of it is told in a sort of faux-childlike voice laid over accusatory statements directed toward the cult of natural childbirth, doctors, hospitals, midwives, friends, and the speaker herself:
Cal. I can blame just about anyone for what
happened to you, but ultimately it was my job
to get you into this world safely. And I failed.
I felt implicated in this poem, deeply moved, and silenced by it. Joy, what do you make of the tone in this last poem? I wasn’t sure what to do with it.
I have to run. School is closed, and Oz is yelling, “Mama, how do boogers help get rid of a virus?”
That first poem, “Artless,” also made me think of Bishop’s “One Art.” Here’s how I figure the equation in Shaughnessy:
HEART – ART = HE
The wordplay—this is a brutal book, but not without certain dark pleasures—offers a kernel of meaning that for me carried over to the rest of the poems: This poet’s Heart is all He, he being Cal, the boy we come to learn, in the book, is injured and suffering. Possible meaning: Life has eclipsed art for the writer— “No poetry. Plain.”
Nothing to see here, Shaughnessy says, as she flashes her chops in that crazily artful poem. Right, that’s tricky. Should we trust this voice? Why not? I think the poem is less a paradox than a sword maneuver severing Heart from Art. A suffering baby (which I’d argue is at the emotional center of many of these poems, if not literally present in most of them) is a huge sentimental burden for a book. This book announces, by way of form, that it’s not going to sink into maudlin content. It questions the link between life and art.
I’ve been thinking about the Victorian meaning of “artless”—how in novels like Vanity Fair, girls are called artless if they don’t cunningly pretend to act one way when they feel another. They’re emotionally “natural.” Not ironic. It’s always what the husband wants, but it’s also a kind of naïveté, a sentimental cluelessness that leads to ruin. When is artlessness good for poems, and when is it a sentimental pitfall? (Many critics, like Victorian men, seem to make “artlessness” a supreme virtue.)
Shaughnessy’s artlessness rises at the end of the book, in the less formal, more confessional stanzas about Cal. In “Our Andromeda,” there is no dressing up of anguish. We get Shaughnessy’s naked anger—the NICU doctor asked her if she had “used street drugs,” as if the birth problems couldn’t have been caused by a doctor—but also naked love:
You in my arms, your little searching fingers
on my face. Wistful, graceful
stars on a wet, clear night.
I’m not sure how the emotion of this last poem would play if it weren’t balanced by the artfulness of “Artless” and the other, more intellectual poems. Those lines all by themselves feel sentimental to me, but in the context of this book, they don’t. In fact, the galactic emotionality of “Our Andromeda” made me start the book over and reread the rest of the poems amid its smoking remains.
I love how you can see Bishop slowly losing it in “One Art” as her losses get bigger and bigger. A house, a city—no problem! I’m fine! But she’s not fine, she’s trying to hold it together. Shaughnessy lost a “normal” child: how to “master” that? Bishop ordered herself to “Write it!,” as if language could forestall disaster. In her book, Shaughnessy has written disaster: doctor errors, Euripidean pride, all of the lucklessness that led to Cal’s injury. So, for me, the poem is a conversation with Bishop, not a repudiation. Shaughnessy reverses the desperate irony of “One Art” by attempting to master loss through love. (It’s hard to believe I just wrote that about a book of contemporary poems.)
Plath. Oh yes. Plenty of Plath here, only not so much the Plath who writes about her babies (“at home / Like a sprat in a pickle jug”). It’s more the Plathy tercets and syntax, the echo of “Love, love,” the cool Plathy artfulness. Aren’t Shaughnessy’s non-mother poems Plathier than the mother-poems? When Als says “Plath,” he means Ariel. But no one talks about Ariel as a mother-book (possibly because it’s a “suicide book,” which is a different problem). There’s about as much motherhood, by page count, in Ariel as there is in Our Andromeda.
I’m not sure why Als “dares” me to read the poems of Shaughnessy’s in which I will recognize aspects of my own life as a young mother. Bewilderingly, Als seems surprised to read the news that motherhood is a job with terrible hours. Motherhood involves fatigue and confusion, and The New Yorker is ON IT.
I agree, this is a book of regret, lament, and love. But look how much I’m talking about its few mother-poems. Hmm.
I wonder about expectations for this book. People read Ariel looking for a trail of crumbs leading to Plath’s tragedy. What kind of expectations did I have as I waited to get Shaughnessy’s book? Brenda and her husband, Craig, were my neighbors in Brooklyn before I moved to Pittsburgh; I saw Craig on the Carroll Park playground with Cal pretty regularly (our boys are the same age and have played together). I understood that the book was going to concern Cal some way.
Before babies arrive, whether by birth or when someone in a faraway orphanage calls your name and hands a baby through the air to you, there’s all the expecting. In that last poem, Shaughnessy describes the joy she expressed to friends when their babies appeared. She talks about her family’s “stun gun” silence at her own birth announcement. I was probably not the only poet waiting to see how Shaughnessy’s poetry would enclose this “failed” expectancy, this particular coming-into-motherhood. Erika, we both knew Shaughnessy’s story before the book appeared. Was it an expectation outside the world of the book that caused you to feel the book “held out” on sentimentally risky content until the last poem?
What about longing, and what-ifs? I found that some of the earlier poems in the book play through the longing ignited, like a fuse, by the last, long poem. The longing for a psychic do-over via a forced arrangement of tarot cards (“Arcana”), longing for the double life of the philanderer (“Why Should Only Cheaters and Liars Get Double Lives?”). These poems offer visions of perfected, comforting, or at least alternate, outcomes. It makes sense when you consider that, in the book, Shaughnessy blames herself for Cal’s pain. A book of poems is a controlled universe. If she had chosen a C-section. If she hadn’t used that midwife. If if if.
The “ifs” connect me to this book. I live in ifs. Ever since my own baby appeared, I’ve been recovering from accidents that almost happen. I am pinned to a timeline—I have a beginning, a present, and an end. Evidently I was immortal before I became a mother, even though I had recently lost my own mother. I reckon with this every time I stand there with Chance waiting for the school bus on our busy roundabout.
Kindergarten. Chance is thrilled—shouts at the mailman, “I just got home from kindergarten! I took the BUS!” I can’t get a word out of him about what goes on there, though. Not what he ate, not the name of a new friend. He says he sits and looks at the wall all day.
It is difficult for me, right now, to see poetry as a place for “what-ifs.” Part of my discomfort with writing an alternative outcome (for myself) has to do with who I am as a person and a poet—hopelessly practical, nearly documentary. It also has to do with my own struggles with the unsayable. I read the electronic galley of Our Andromeda for the first time in a radiologist’s waiting room. After looking at an MRI of my pelvis, the doctor confirmed that I had an injury from my son’s birth—a C-section I had ultimately asked for after 22 hours of labor. He explained that the surgery left me with scar tissue blocking the entrance to my uterus. “When in fact, if I had let myself be weak, / a C-section would have kept Cal safe,” Shaughnessy writes. I read that line after I learned that the surgery I chose, which helped deliver a healthy baby, is keeping me from having another child.
For the past three years, we’ve tried to get pregnant again, seen eight different fertility specialists who all dubbed us “unexplained” until this last doctor. And one of the most painful things about all this time has been the deep silence around infertility. It’s not socially acceptable to discuss. There’s no space in poetry for the wanting, the anger, the jealousy, injections, sadness, disappointment, ultrasounds, expense, complications, blood tests, time-suck, and clusterfuck of this experience. Or if there is a language, I haven’t found it artful enough to use. Which is to say that I admire Brenda for unleashing her rage, complaints, heart, and all the forces of her imagination onto her birth experience and being able to make poems from it.
I don’t know how my story will end; either we’ll have another child or we won’t, but the idea of an alternate reality where things work out the way I’d like them to is too painful for me to even imagine. Our Andromeda presents both the pain of the existing world (where doctors make sickening mistakes) and a better world (where Cal is uninjured). Shaughnessy opens “Our Andromeda” with these lines: “When we get to Andromeda, Cal, / you’ll have the babyhood you deserved.” In the act of writing the poem, she gets to Andromeda with him, even if only on paper. Yet I struggled mightily with this paradox—the idea, in this book, that the speaker can both fully accept the way things are and also simultaneously imagine or wish them otherwise.
I think, in some ways, leaving “Our Andromeda” and most of the Cal poems until the end of the book was a nod toward the audience, as you were asking about. We know there’s a baby in this book by page 22. And yes, I was wondering where the baby was, because I sort of knew the life story of the poet (without details—only that Shaughnessy had a disabled son), but after reading what you had to say about “Our Andromeda,” I’m convinced that this book is meant to be read over again. This rereading makes the book cohesive and even more devastating. When she says, on page 8:
What if all possible
pain was only the grief of truth?
The throb lingering
only in the exit wounds
It’s impossible not to think about the grief of the last poem, or of Cal’s perilous birth.
My silence, though, after reading “Our Andromeda” had to do with the way the anger in the poem is presented—the potshots at people who were “least able to drum up / compassion.” Shaughnessy implicates bloodless doctors, insurance companies (I’m with her there), and even her own family. She calls out unqualified people going up for tenure and
stay-at-home moms who had once
been talented but were now pretending
they were not in order “to raise a family”
and to slide into inanity.
Only childless friends get a pass for reacting the correct way to Cal’s birth, by helping to nurture the family with food and kindness and sympathy. Shaughnessy goes so far as to actively curse friends with kids, who all unequivocally (according to the poem) responded the wrong way when Cal was born. “Let them be poor, then, let them continue / their sexless marriages! … May they suffer every other misfortune!”
So I suppose, as someone with a child, I automatically feel implicated, although I have never met this family.
That last poem creates an antagonistic relationship between the speaker and the reader. As readers, we are, by virtue of the poem’s direct address to Cal, eavesdropping on an intimate conversation—but it’s a performance. It’s a poem in a book for grown-ups. One could argue that Shaughnessy’s derision simply shocks the reader. Is this act of pushing the reader away meant to recreate the isolation she herself felt after Cal was born? “Our Andromeda” does move from curse to blessing—Shaughnessy blesses Cal, as he is: “Your frail arms are perfect arms. / Your uncertain eyes, perfect eyes.” We get to witness her acceptance of Cal, but I sense that this blessing, or hopefulness, does not extend to the wider world.
You mentioned what your new doctor said in our phone conversation last week. So your resistance to writing an alternative outcome makes sense to me right now. For me, the what-ifs in this book are obsessive. The engine of the what-ifs is regret—with regret, again, balanced by the ecstasy that happens when the speaker quits longing for a perfect galaxy in order to live in this imperfect one with her son.
I wonder about looking for a poet to heal herself, or us, in her poems if those poems enclose some calamitous longing. For me, just the rendering of longing or pain can be an end. Sometimes it’s even beautiful—as in Rothko’s black paintings. In Brenda’s poem the speaker comes to accept this world, but her transformation doesn’t heal her pain. The two opposing forces coexist. The way, I imagine, having a disabled child is a life full of wonder and pain and regret and yearning and rage and love all in one day, or in an hour. True that the blessing at the end of the book doesn’t extend to us. It’s private.
When I think of openness in poems, both formally and emotionally, I think of Bernadette Mayer. Mayer’s poems (for instance, in Midwinter Day) are open. They are loose nets of emotion and life and language. Again, Shaughnessy in this book is more like Plath in Ariel. The form is tight; there’s wordplay, and emotion too, but—or not “but,” but “and”—diva performance. But when Shaughnessy spends the “whole day crying and writing,” even though that is objectively a vulnerable thing to say in a poem, it strangely doesn’t feel as proximate as when Mayer says, “Clark’s brought us a bushel of apples, it’s already on the table when we come in.” That last is a lower-grade confessional risk, for sure—Mayer is talking about apples. But to me it feels oddly more vulnerable.
I am really not weighing the one poetics against the other. I like Frederick Seidel, another obsessive, insanely formal poet of bitterness and distance and beauty, another inheritor of Plath. Anger likes shape. Look at Ginsberg’s “Howl.” That isn’t formal in the manner of Shaughnessy or Plath or Seidel; it is wilder—but it is a lamentation, and it keeps to a consistent set of rules.
I’ve been thinking more about the arrangement of Our Andromeda, since I’ve never encountered a book that’s three-quarters cool thinkiness and one-quarter passion that’s all released at the end. It’s such a clear choice. Do you think that if the “hot” poems came sooner, people would find the book sentimental? And was the confessional mother-content mostly left till the end to assure that the book would not be deemed a mother-book, which could be reductive or even, depending on the critic, embarrassing?
Shaughnessy’s question to the reader, about whether we’re waiting for a baby to appear, comes on page 80 of this 129-page collection. The speaker seems to tease us, hoping we’ll keep turning pages looking for “the fat / unmentionable this and that” of a baby. Would the book read differently without that question? Is it coy? Is it an arrow pointing hard to the last poem? In the middle of “Song of Myself,” Whitman suddenly says: “Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?” That’s such a great line, because it trains us how to read his poem. Don’t look for a Statement of Purpose, he says. Instead consider that a poem has no more or less purpose than rain, or a stone. Does Shaughnessy’s book chide readers who long for emotion and for backstory? Or is the “missing baby” in the first three-quarters of the book a perfect enactment of Cal’s missing childhood, the galaxy where he is uninjured?
I too was astonished by the passage where Shaughnessy damns some of her cohort, the friends “whose children will be spared.” The speaker recalls her “ecstatic leaps of joy … without condition” when their babies were born—the implication being: she would have reacted the right way had such a tragedy happened to them. But as you said, Erika, in this book there is no right way. Non-parents are praised for expressing grief, while parent-friends are criticized for it. I think in this conundrum lies a truth: If you have a child, there is no such thing as “without condition.” A child’s vulnerability is constant and unsettling, if not terrifying. I still think of the morning Oz was in lockdown in his pre-K on the Virginia Tech campus, where you teach, during the shootings there last year.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this enterprise of motherhood—the idea that there’s no right way—in relation to Our Andromeda. In “Magi,” Shaughnessy writes: “If only you’d been a better mother. / How could I have been a better mother?” The sheer tautology of that question. “It’s a riddle,” says the poem. We can always be better mothers, but it’s a rigged game, like trying to win one of those giant stuffed animals at the county fair. We’re charged with protecting our children, but we can never totally protect our children. I’ve been keenly aware, while writing about this book, of our privilege in being able to talk about our sons and their first kindergarten experiences—their utterances, their movements, and, yes, their vulnerability.
It’s so strange to me that you know Brenda and Craig as actual people. I know them only as they are constructed in this book—poem-speaker Andromeda-Brenda and rarely-seen-father Craig. Are we conflating Brenda herself with her voice in these pieces?
I want to go back to the idea of the curses in “Our Andromeda,” because I don’t read much invective in contemporary American poetry. When you mentioned Bernadette Mayer, I thought of her poem “You jerk you didn’t call me up.” There’s Steve Scafidi’s “To Whoever Set My Truck on Fire,” and Jenny Browne’s “To the Man Who Stole the Trees We Planted in Memory of My Brother-In-Law Who Killed Himself Earlier in the Spring.” In “America,” Ginsberg tells America: “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.” That’s more social commentary than curse. Shaughnessy’s curses are directed at every friend of hers with healthy children, because they all failed to provide the right response to Cal’s birth: “May they suffer every other misfortune!,” she says.
The last time I remember seeing curses like those in “Our Andromeda” was on a memorial in the Jewish cemetery where my grandmother is buried, in the section reserved for Holocaust survivors: “Pour out Thy wrath upon the Nazis and the wicked Germans for they have destroyed the seed of Jacob. May the almighty avenge their blood. Great is our sorrow, and no consolation is to be found!” Charles Simic has a weird little essay from Orphan Factory called “In Praise of Invective” in which he says: “There are moments in life when true invective is called for, when it becomes an absolute necessity.” Do you think the hurt Shaughnessy feels, and the wrongs she’s outlined in “Our Andromeda,” warrant the anger they’ve inspired?
Coincidentally, it is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Days of Awe, which in Judaism is a time for teshuvah, repentance, and atonement. I’ve been sitting in synagogue listening to biblical stories about children and mothers: Sarah giving birth to Isaac in her old age, Sarah telling Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. It’s hard for me not to see parallels in that story with that of Brenda and Cal in Our Andromeda. The last poem paints a picture of a mother and son cast out by their former community and battling a cruel world. But in Genesis, after Hagar leaves her son under a bush so she doesn’t have to watch him die, God hears her cries, and she and her son are saved.
Divinity is trickier in Our Andromeda. Shaughnessy never abandons God in the book, but does rage against him. In “All Possible Pain,” the speaker says:
with god resembled that
of a prisoner and firing squad.
In “If You So Much As Lay a Hand,” she tries to imagine what kind of monster this god is who could hurt Cal so, and vows retribution against him. The god in “Hide-and-Seek with God” is on the hunt for the speaker and her son. “Don’t let him find / us, Cal. Don’t let him find us again,” she cries. Midway through the book, in “Card 8: Strength,” we get a poem that seems to encapsulate Shaughnessy’s ideas about divinity in four short lines:
What did god say
to the friendless woman whose child
was ill and whose home was lost?
“And it’s only Wednesday!”
And in “Our Andromeda,” God is even worse: “He is what he is. Evil.” But 10 pages later, in the same poem, Shaughnessy does an about-face and moves toward a god of mercy: “God must exist … / and he must be good, everlastingly so, / to have given you to me.” Her speaker’s change of heart about God is a stark shift from anger to acceptance and blessing in the last part of this poem—the last four pages of the book.
Joy, for the past few weeks, we’ve been calling each other nearly nightly to explicate this book further, to try to understand what Shaughnessy’s project is—to gnash our teeth, wonder, kibitz, and see if we could get to the heart of Our Andromeda. It’s been a gift to be able to hash these poems over with you. Thank you. I hope your new year is filled with sweetness!
I can’t help but read this book as someone who knows Teicher and Shaughnessy, although I don’t know them well. I want to be transparent about this, since anyone reading our letters might wonder whether I speak as one of the friends called out in the last poem. (I don’t think I am.)
But through the risk of the accusations it makes, the book reminds me of the loneliness of suffering. I find this a lonely book; in the end, as we agreed, Brenda is alone with Cal in a zone—a sort of spotlight—of love and acceptance. Cast out, perhaps, as Hagar and Ishmael were outcasts.
Is true invective called for in this book? If you look at Shaughnessy’s curses in “Our Andromeda” carefully, they’re not so fearsome.
a number of “scares” after which
everything will be fine. A surgery or two.
The speaker also wishes her former friends poverty; she wishes them the deaths of their own parents. Poverty and the demise of parents: those are misfortunes that human being-poets either suffer already (do you know any rich poets, Erika?) or are bound to. These curses aren’t like, for instance, the Yiddish curses I know. Those are dark: “Finstere leyd zol nor di mama oyf im zen. Black sorrow is all that his mother should see of him.” Or: “Shteyner zol zi hobn, nit kayn kinder. She should have stones and not children.”
I actually enjoyed that poem you mentioned with the joke about the friendless woman and the ill child because it reminded me of a Yiddish curse.
Speaking of the deaths of parents: As I finished reading the book, I remembered the most prolonged social interaction I had with Craig and Brenda. It was at a party in their apartment about seven years ago, before any of us had kids. That night was during the last weeks of my mother’s illness. She had just gone into a coma, in Ohio. I went to the party and found to my horror that I was hopelessly unable not to speak of her. This wasn’t a great conversational gambit, to say the least—I remember the guests’ looks of discomfort. What was I doing? I made a hurried exit. I had gone to a cocktail party hoping for distraction.
“Be strange to yourself, / in your love, your grief,” Shaughnessy writes in “Headlong.” I had turned from my usual self into something strange: a person with a dying mother. At my mother’s funeral, my own best friend was reticent and awkward, and her daughter hid her face from me. No wonder: I was drawing an irreversible reality too near. Only the friends who had also lost their mothers were able to comfort me without fear.
I don’t feel implicated by that final poem, “Our Andromeda.” But I do feel compassion for the “tongue-tied” fellow parents whom the speaker shames. At the same time, I recognize the private grief-zone of the mother in this book.
And I realize again that we’ve been unable to separate the content from the form of this book in our conversation. It’s something I always caution my students about. “I’m not interested in content,” I say. Except, apparently, when a poem’s concerns concern me.
I’m about to teach Our Andromeda alongside Plath’s Ariel. If I am able to draw productive comparisons between the two, or guide my students through a rare content-related digression, it will be largely due to this written conversation. So thank you.
A sweet year to you too, Erika! I hope our boys get to meet each other in 5773.