Twice, maybe three times, in the course of reading, editing, and teaching, I have come across, or rather been traversed by, new poems of such originality–such consequence of diction and innocence of attitude–that no response seems possible but gratitude. Oh yes, envy is in there as well, for Ms. Shaughnessy appears to have discovered most of the formulations one hankered for and missed in one's own expression: "once more, you lie with me, smelling / of almonds, as the poisoned do." Authority like this means merely-merely!-that we have come to terms with an author and that hers are the terms we have come to. The resonance of Shaughnessy's poems is that of someone speaking out of an ecstasy and into an ecstasy, momentarily pausing to let us in on the fun, the pain: "I'm gifted, I give in. I give you / all my old synesthetic fire." These spirits, then, are high, yet for all their hilarity they remain soul-traces, or as Catullus would say, animal. The temptation, certainly, in attempting to characterize all this juice and all this joy (Hopkins) is to keep on citing, for when anything is as fresh as this diction, as free as these associations, as fraught as these passions, it is not descriptions or definitions which are wanted but the thing itself, the new words in new places, the necessary instigations. It is with great excitement, and (for me) the oddest kind of humility that I propose to her new readers the art of Brenda Shaughnessy, for she makes me feel that I have been what we might call behindhand with my business as a reader, an editor, and a teacher. These are the poems which come before all conversance.

–R. H.


What's Uncanny

is the body's wiry edge singed & dried,
touched at last by the curious

gloves of the question guard. 
Too much choreography.

Hamstrings, half edible & music,
stretched like catgut, the sad-animal pull.

Our knees two peculiar systems 
of locking, of looking. Too little dance.

Compulsion is always narcissism: 
I miss you, admit it.

I'm gifted, I give in. I give you 
all my old synesthetic fire.

Loved-body smoke is terribly popular 
in dry neighborhoods,

and our lungs are succulents. We share 
this loss of breathing. Listen for it. 



Luck today will be skill tomorrow. If only your fear
held now gorgeous in its white cotton frock 
could become small and frayed in the next millennia.

Be brown and blowsy and on the ledge instead. Used 
and fueling, a succubus cannot ruin what she pulls 
on her tricky leash: dread's body, desire's body.

If terror bent double could thicken into a frenzy 
for the last flushed basket of windfalls 
that arms October, could you really wander

forever in that shelter? Are wondering and losing 
the same? If you ply me now all pure-voiced, 
with some sepia trinket from your big box of ducks,

could I sculpt this cold knowledge into the fresh 
hot fruit swinging in next summer's 
branches, slimsy in rain, saturated 
in the pear-flustered color closed in your eyes? 
This bleary, fragile calendar: Your disbelief, 
your loveable haunting. How clever you are

tomorrow. The expert veils around your face, scarlet 
fabric woven by apprentices whose fingers 
are sad and large with the work of beginning.


Mistress Formika

In temple city, in this tight lighthouse of rare women, 
my pale goggles stinging in the lemon juice 
of all my watching, where even your synthetic

hairs are generous, yielding to a stiff ritual, perfect with your 
gynecoid east village supersmirk. That smarts! 
This perfomance of thighs blessed with an excruciating

unnatural talent for the part. For the parting. 
And the pupils, we, and the lashes, all yours, observe
the rules of tragedy-in-sumptuous-fabrics, loving but strict,

in fact bullying, my god the backwatching and the switchblade! 
And all imaginary: the spell a queen casts on her bee, a lover will 
let herself be made up in orange for the beloved, but yours

is a sweeter excercise, twistier. Thank you, for shaking, for 
who hasn't forgotten how to use her diva-noodle? 
Can this be too much pleasure in one so smart, debauched

and thin? So far beyond wondering we have fallen 
into quarreling, braided evening feelers in hand, 
with this dark stallion blindness, too close to the fence to jump 

it clean. You, both gate and barrier to the hearth and breast 
of eve and adam's apple orchard. And I stumble over 
strange broken pieces strewn everywhere, what's the damage? 

Is it you sleeping in the grass, dear with a cheeky bliss, 
pale and mournful? The delicious no-secret plain and defused, 
genitalia quiet and ripe, the gorgon of your hair loved off

and lying guilty where you tossed it, 
by the broken fence, firewood for a home too well built 
for such arsonists of the flesh to resist.


Project for a Fainting

after a painting by Dorothea Tanning

Oh, yes, the rain is sorry. Unfemale, of course, the rain is 
with her painted face still plain and with such pixel you'd never see

it in the pure freckling, the lacquer of her. The world 
is lighter with her recklessness, a handkerchief so wet it is clear.

To you. My withered place, this frumpy home (nearer 
to the body than to evening) miserable beloved. I lie tender

and devout with insomnia, perfect on the center pillow past
midnight, sick with the thought of another year

of waking, solved and happy, it has never been this way! Believe 
strangers who say the end is close for what could be closer?

You are my stranger and see how we have closed. On both ends. 
Night wets me all night, blind, carried.

And watermarks. The plough of the rough on the slick, 
love, a tendency toward fever. To break. To soil. 

Would I dance with you? Both forever and rather die. 
It would be like dying, yes. Yes I would.

I have loved the slaking of your forgetters, your indifferent 
hands on my loosening. Through a thousand panes of glass

not all transparent, and the temperature. 
I felt that. What you say is not less than that.