In the Poetics, Aristotle divides history from poetry: History relates what has happened, whereas poetry tells what may happen. It is the friction between these two spheres—the actual, so-called real world, versus the world of possibles, a parallel universe, the realm of dream, of imagination and of perception, that double-world where our other selves are constantly splitting off from us through the choices and chances we never took—that powers Brenda Shaughnessy's magnificent, monumental new book of poems.
Shaughnessy uses the concept of Andromeda in two ways. On the one hand, the name conjures up a figure from Greek mythology, a child punished for a mother's hubris through divine retribution (and indeed certain poems feature a mother threatening and remonstrating with a God who has injured her child). On the other hand, what's meant is the Andromeda galaxy that doubles the Milky Way and is hurtling toward us: "another world bisecting ours," "a secret world…the tumor-sibling." While elements of a recognizable reality—Brooklyn's Court Street, the publisher FSG, a neighbor's plaster statue of the Virgin Mary—make appearances in these pages, they are constantly being displaced, obscured, or clouded by leakage from somewhere else. More often than it terrifies, however, this nebulous elsewhere offers the hope of a haven or promised land. The poem "Why Should Only Cheaters and Liars Get Double Lives?" provides a glimmer of a sort of escape hatch:
If an ordinary human can pull the fattest cashwad
out of the slimmest slit,
and the fullest pudding out of the skimmest milk,
then it might be possible
to insert a meager life in Andromeda,
into, at the very least, our wide pit of sleep.
The book is obsessed with "copycat bod[ies]," doppelgangers, nemeses, or, as one poem has it, "twinniness." Alive to the multiplicity of potential, the "plural mural," this poet is wise enough to know a frying pan can be used equally well to make an omelet or smash in the beloved's skull. The speaker calls herself "ontologically / greedy," and it's fair to say the same of this book. In the course of the collection we encounter nonexistent sisters who serve as "alternate[s]," who try out the "abortions, divorces, / the arson, poison jelly" that our protagonist never does. There are the endless possibilities of the twenty-six letters of the English language, which one poem marvels over, and there are addresses to younger versions of the speaker's self, selves that are lost, submerged in the speaker of the present. (Also, by the same token, we find a poem spoken to an older self, to whom presumably the narrator will one day give way.) This work refuses to privilege the real over the possible—or at least, not without a fight.
Shaughnessy is the author of two previous poetry collections—Interior with Sudden Joy (FSG, 2000) and Human Dark with Sugar (Copper Canyon, 2008), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The lush sonic textures and delight in wordplay of the earlier collections are evident in this third book, but here the way one word puns off, rhymes with, or otherwise echoes another suggests multiple possibilities, multiple meanings heard at once and therefore blurring together, like the different notes in a musical chord. Shaughnessy perpetually asks the reader to consider not what is so much as a series of otherwises. Rather than conduct their business through declarative sentences, these poems rely on conditionals, the woulds and ifs of possibility. The fierce, beautiful poem "It Never Happened" tells a story almost entirely through the repeated inducement "Let's imagine…"; its narrative of two lovers' desire is hypothetical, and only one small piece of it is revealed to be "the only true part."
To dwell in the realm of not- or never- is a curious choice, because in these poems something very definitely has happened, even if its telling is deferred, something so crucial that it splits everything into a "then and now." As early as the third poem, the speaker says she feels as though she has come before "god" like a "prisoner" before a "firing squad" and been shot. Clues are scattered along the way, but it won't be until the final pages that the book's dramatic situation is laid bare. (This is a collection of poems best read together and in sequence, which amplifies their power and scope and allows the whole to reach its terrific crescendo.) In the first of five sections, "Liquid Flesh," the poet considers the fluid outlines of identity, how she who was once a child can now be a mother, how a mother both spills into but is not one with her child. "Double Life" fully inhabits the other-world in many of its senses: the worlds of art, dream, lies, games. The poems of "Arcana" take their titles from the Tarot, but here the cards are out of order—forcing the reader to question the relationship between fate and chance, the comfort of prediction versus the arbitrariness of accident. "Family Trip" pans out to consider the self's predicament as it is enmeshed with others', how, for example, "all lives are in the middle of mother-lives."
At the core of this collection lies a moving, searing investigation of motherhood, grief, and the vital question "Well, how am I supposed to live?" (Shaughnessy's redux of that central riddle of Greek philosophy, the Socratic How should one live? ) The final section is dominated by the climactic title poem. In "Our Andromeda," the book's tropes invert. The speaker calls herself "a liar" and rejects the world of what never or could have happened in favor of what has happened. In a twenty-page apostrophe to the speaker's child, the story of his birth and injury is told with heart-rending plainness. Now and then collapse into one here; Andromeda ceases being a refuge of possibility, an elsewhere. That galaxy which all along has been threatening to collide with the Milky Way finally does, and these two—like mother and child—revolve together, and their union is perfect at last, or as the final lines have it:
We've only just arrived here,
rightly, whirling and weeping,
freely, breathing, brightly born.
Shaughnessy's Our Andromeda is a big-hearted and brave book, animated by rage and awe, guided by an attentiveness so close it feels like love.
Monica Ferrell is the author of the poetry collection Beasts for the Chase (Sarabande, 2008) and the novel The Answer Is Always Yes (Dial, 2008).