2008 Poetry Finalist Human Dark with Sugar, by Brenda Shaughnessy

by Barbara Hoffert | Mar-08-2009

Each day leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2008 NBCC awards, we highlight one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Barbara Hoffert discusses Brenda Shaughnessy’s Human Dark with Sugar (Copper Canyon Press).

Seriously playful. Sexily cool. Commandingly calm. And deeply engaged in a world it cracks open and reassembles to our astonishment. That’s Brenda Shaughnessy’s Human Dark with Sugar, as sharp, packed, and inventive a book of poetry as you’d likely find anywhere. No dreamy stuff here: the “you” is given fierce directives—“Throw your love until it sticks,” “Melt yourself to make yourself more clear / for the next observer”—and disclosed in achingly exact terms, with skin moving over ribs like “liquid lead rubbing over a gravestone.” The “I” is no slouch, either, not the whiny, I’m-having-a-bad-day narrator of plenty of contemporary poetry but one tough and happy hussy, very ready to look the world in the face and give it what for. And so we’re is yanked directly into each poem, living what Shaughnessy lives, seeing the world her way, confronting what she wants to do—and undo.

Consider a Cubist drawing that wreaks havoc with our perceptions, upending something we take for granted and yet keeping it recognizable and real. That’s the perfect Shaughnessy poem, and there are so many. It’s remarkable how the poet can take something as simple as an old bed and unpack some surprising meanings—a hungriness for the world, a rebelliousness desire to do away with the standard order. And yet she never turns the poem into an exercise in symbolism. The bed remains a bed. The poet—and we, the readers, lucky enough to join her—remain embedded in a world she neatly unpacks and makes us feel viscerally. As Shaughnessy says in one poem, “This is real life.” And this is unparalleled poetry.

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