Brenda Shaughnessy’s So Much Synth is a vexatious performance. Almost every poem casts the reader into the role of supportive listener. If you want to know what a therapist feels like, you should read this book. Also, many of the poems not only arrive eager to be interpreted academically (scholars would likely link So Much Synth with a Girl-In-Crisis discourse over a Girl Power one), but they arrive as well with the expectation of being unconditionally loved. What else would account for their bold indulgences? The poems are mostly about the poet's adolescence and the incongruity between the cultural framing of girlhood and its actual embodiment. For the poet, both disempower. But there's poems here too about Shaughnessy as a young woman and as a mother.
Anchoring So Much Synth is a 644-line coming-of-age poem with a cool soundtrack (lyrics from her favorite 80’s bands periodically intrude the unrhymed couplets) and it's stuffed with so much distressing minutiae I’m surprised it wasn’t prefaced with a trigger warning for Shaughnessy’s more sensitive readers. Every other poem in the book is mere satellite to it. Titled “Is There Something I Should Know?” (borrowed from a Duran Duran song of the same name) the poem’s very length imitates the excesses of the teenage mind and because the poem simulates the hyperbole of teens (“it was totally disgusting”), it often can't escape their dramatic mush. Here, we learn what the poet thought about her "first menstruation":
I thought mine was too brown, poop-like, hardly a
glamorous womanly thing I’d read about in a great book!
It didn’t seem ladylike or sexy at all. It was just scary
and messy and had to be hidden from everyone
because everyone knew it was totally disgusting.
If you ever got your period at school in such a way
that anyone knew, you’d never get over the humiliation.
You’d have to convince your parents to move.
This scenario terrorized us. No way was I ready
to handle such a delicate social secret.
Whether anyone else was, who knew?
We couldn’t talk about it because some people
hadn’t gotten it yet and were shy about that, others shy
because they did and didn’t want anyone to know.
For every stage of puberty, Shaughnessy’s young speaker is besieged by one bodily change after another (“swollen mushroom nipples”, hairy legs in P.E. class, “chunky fluids” on sheets, “greasy bangs”, “cramps and hormones”) all the while confessing that she just “Want[s] to be wanted by someone I wanted.” Throughout "Is There Something I Should Know?" the poet tells us how girlhood is a contradictory (and often publicly embarrassing) phase of development where young women are taught to regulate their bodies precisely at the time their bodies are experiencing profound changes. Seen through Shaughnessy's eyes, adolescence tortures girls into womanhood and as they finally arrive the blunt instrument of male desire waits to finish them off:
it’s the only thing men and boys will ever want
them for, to persuade them they’re so defective
they’re lucky he’s a cool guy who accepts all
the flaws no one else would put up with, a nice
guy who wants to help them feel beautiful
by inserting his penis, often without warning,
into their precious young bodies and use them,
their whole dear romantic trusting selves,
to get his pleasure from their orifice, which
is what he spent all that energy trying to procure,
even though he claimed he had better
things to do…
There's a protective fury to these lines that's noble and the simplistic crudeness of the vocabulary ("penis"; "orifice"; "procure") shows that men, or at least the "rude ones" Shaughnessy's encountered, only see women as locks to be picked. It's disappointing that society and nature conspire to ruin the lives of teenage boys and girls in such different ways. The interactions between them seem destined for catastrophe, but it's clear that girls reach adulthood more damaged than boys, particularly when it comes to sex. Culture encourages (and celebrates and monetizes) adolescent sexuality while only shaming girls for being sexual. Welcome to your patriarchy.
Like most poets, Shaughnessy is a member of the caring class and feels a duty to look after everyone, but particularly girls, or I should say her daughter (the notes in her acknowledgment page are perhaps the most outrageous I've ever read) because after putting down So Much Synth, the poet seems (seems) to only care about herself. It’s an unsettling feeling no reader will miss, but if you do miss it, then you're probably friends with the poet. The source of this lack of reciprocity arises from the book’s most troubling characteristic: rather than revealing what her experiences might possibly mean for us, she wants the reader to simply relive them with her. We might see our life in a Shaughnessy poem from time to time (“Why I Stayed, 1993—2001” will be a powerful example for many), but usually the focus is so stringently fixed upon the speaker that a concentration of light leaps off the page and so readers rarely get to re-experience the past because the poems blind them to it. It’s this critical mutuality between poet and reader Shaughnessy neglects to stylistically cultivate, and as a result her overt accessibility doesn’t provide the interpretive texture for the poet and us to adhere to. In other words, for all the self-disclosure in So Much Synth, there’s almost no sense of intimacy. This is in part due to the fact she doesn't depict in any detail the common geographies of girlhood: spaces where identity formation occurs, like the childhood home, the school bus, the lunchroom, the hallways, the locker room, the bathroom, the classroom, the student desk. Adolescent spaces are mentioned, but rarely if ever meditated on as spaces for which most of her readers will have themselves navigated. The effect is one of impoverishment. For a book whose success so heavily depends upon our empathy, Shaughnessy only asks for our sympathy, and since the poet deploys (for the most part) only a voice - and because this poetic strategy is so over-utilized (perhaps to compensate for feeling silenced as a kid) - it alone is ill-equipped to synthesize, rhetorically, the energy of her own recollections.
Remembering yourself when you were young is seductive and inevitable. For Shaughnessy, it's a narcotic. What was impossible to see about yourself then becomes clear now: the awkward intensity, the big heart. A poetry that tries so hard to untangle the nature of time more often than not only depicts how the poet spent hers. Shaughnessy’s work keenly captures the labors of youth with meticulous care, but too often she only captures youth’s shallowness. “A Mix Tape: ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)'" painstakingly recounts the process of recording one song after another:
Such a delicious pain in the ass to make,
on a double deck if you were lucky,
otherwise you had to drop the needle
onto the precise groove as your left
index hit PLAY / RECORD, taking all
afternoon or many. Mistakes, thinking
too hard about what you wanted
to tell the person but couldn’t say
any other way. It was always
“I love you,” didn’t you know?
Mix tape: private language, lost art,
first book, cri de coeur, X-ray, diary.
Between her banal subjects and reverence for the plainspoken (the private mysteries of slang are strangely absent in So Much Synth), Shaughnessy promotes ephemera to a level of importance unequal to its actual worth. As a result, we get poems about making a mix tape. Or poems where you write your former self a poem, like in “To My Twenty-Six-Year-Old-Self":
You really are being such a poet,
aren’t you? Ten dollars a week
is the food budget, and that’s day-old
rolls for the freezer and looking for butts
and considering the offer from friends
who can get you a job at their strip club.
But you’re too fat to be a stripper,
you say, starving down to nothing.
But this is the life of an artist, you say,
even when the electricity shuts down
and the cop on the corner offers you
cocaine if you’ll fuck him,
but you need money, not drugs.
You write poems in the dark and tell
your friend you’re dieting,
but later at the posh lesbian bar,
when she leaves her ten-dollar lychee
martini to go to the bathroom,
you steal it, and promise in your head
to write some lousy poem
for her later to pay her back.
This is sly – you finally paid your friend (or is it really yourself?) back. And there’s a whiff of bracing self-mockery. This poem isn't so much about risks never taken, but of the luxury of never having to take any: if she were really desperate, she would have taken that job at the strip club or known she could have sold the cocaine for cash. Yet she has a line she won’t cross and it’s her body, but if you're not willing to exploit that to survive then mom or dad are usually a phone call away.
Elsewhere, we learn that Shaughnessy once had a dynamic social life in the lesbian community. In “But I’m the Only One” (a clipped reference to a popular Melissa Etheridge anthem from 1993) we get a front row seat to the shenanigans that took place one summer in what the poet calls the “the dyke loft”. Its portrayal of queer leisure is a fun snapshot of a carefree and passionate life:
We all smoked constantly, anyone
could afford to smoke back then.
Catherine bummed my last butt
but I know I saw her new carton
in the freezer. She didn’t want
to open it yet, was trying to
cut back. This was before we
almost got the gas cut off, before
we lost electricity the first of
many times. After Justine had
been bullied out with her three
cats but Kristen—whom we
suspected was asexual and not
really lesbian—was still hanging
on even though she adopted yet
another cat into the loft without
asking. It was only one more,
she reasoned, but we already had
had Seether, Amber, Balzac,
Gigli, and now Eva Luna.
Anna and Jackie came by,
they were friendly to me, but
Tjet and Julie weren’t. T and J
were Clit Club. A and J were
literary. Then Michelle and
Shigi secretly slept together,
a disaster, and Cynthia got
kicked out for being bi and
then bringing a guy to the loft…
Innately comedic and charming in an O’Hara sort of way, the poem frames a point in time (the AIDS epidemic, never mentioned, hangs brutally over this poem) probably no one but the poet and her friends are invested in. But it also points out that even adult peer groups operate similarly to those in high-school, where people are sized-up, categorized, paired or unpaired, or asked to leave or remain.
In “Simone at Age Three, Late Summer” (seasons instead of years demarcate familial relationships in So Much Synth), Shaughnessy is refreshingly less enamored with herself as she depicts the maternal relationship. What first appears to be a mommy blog post turns out to be a fascinating contest of wills:
Total astonishment, “Mommy! Look!
It’s the moon!” Pointing to the silver
teacup balancing in the blue late morning.
Then sternly: “In the daytime.”
Her fingers cup her chin—a thinking
pose—she shakes her head solemnly
as if in disbelief, “It’s very, very strange.”
Looks at me again to confirm. “Yes,
Simone, it’s mysterious. Now come on,
let’s move along. We gotta get to school.”
But she’s still examining the sky. “Look,”
I say, “the leaves are just beginning to turn.
Brown and fall on the ground, see? That
means summer’s almost over.”
“I like this breeze.” she says. “I want
to stay here in the shade. You can have
The sun, Mommy. I know you like it.”
Protesting—“I like both”—I say, “But let’s
keep walking.” She sighs. “The wind
is so nice”; she closes her eyes and follows
my voice, her big toes already reaching
the edges of her scuffed gold sandals.
They only lasted two months. Already she’s
forgotten she’d meant to monitor the day
moon, and we might get to Court Street
on time, or nearly so. “Summer’s over,
the leaves fall in fall. The moon is strange,
very strange, but what season is the wind?”
The precocious utterance of a child always grabs the ear. When Simone asserts knowledge about her mother, it’s startling to the poet because it reflects insight – a reward usually bestowed upon adults – and suggests this three-year-old might already possess a kind of sovereignty. It’s just a moment, but a significant one: the speaker’s protest against her daughter’s claim is swift, ending any possibility, at least for now, of one flesh becoming two. When the poem pivots towards its conclusion, and this is when Shaughnessy is at her most interesting, cosmological/terrestrial time is juxtaposed with a socially-constructed time that requires obedience – we’re running late for school! – creating a cross-grained feeling of one’s life moving against different temporal laws which is realized in the "scuffed gold sandals." The poem ends with Simone indulging in the wind, while the speaker questions it, completing an intriguing circuit of metaphor too often absent in this collection.