back from the self-chamberbox

4 New Poems by Brenda Shaughnessy

May 4, 2016  By Brenda Shaughnessy

Often we use words like “brave” to describe poems that take tremendous emotional or psychological risk, whether imagined or recalled (though most often some intermittent shade between the two). The false consciousness lurking in such praise, of course, is the illusion that a poet, or any writer, is really writing from a position of strength and invulnerability to begin with; that they have made or continue to make a conscious choice that leads them to confront, to formalize, to speak to what the rest of us might shrink from. This the exact type of slippery fog that I find the poems of Brenda Shaughnessy, whose new book So Much Synth is released this week, brilliantly burn away. Indeed, Shaughnessy’s poems come often at a visible cost for poet and speaker alike: to describe the complexities, traumas and incompatibilities of queer inner life (as much as her familial one) amid the cold noisy backdrop of a busy world. In the first poem, “Why I Stayed 1997-2001,” an abusive relationship is pivoted at from many, even contradictory, angles. And it is my sense, that here as in all of her work, what she is doing is not easy or artful compensation for pain confined to the past tense, but rather she is undertaking the inexorable work of anguishes that live on inside our creative lives, and our creations too.

–Adam Fitzgerald, Poetry Editor


Why I Stayed 1997-2001



Each time we moved to a new apartment,

and we did three times, I knew

I shouldn’t, that I should


leave while I had the chance, but each

time we moved to a new apartment

we were desperate,


had been kicked out or priced out

and we only had one bed,

no savings, just friends


some of whom knew that you fractured

your hand punching through a wall,

inches from my head,


and some of whom were aware

that you threw things at me

when I said things


you didn’t like, as if my words were

things I threw at you first.

It made sense to you.


I can‘t remember the bad things

I said—my self-serving

memory enraged


you and why not: I always

remembered the bad

things you did.


And, yes, I do remember

everything you threw:

a chair


over our heads at a bar (Liz was

there,) a mirror like a frisbee

aimed at my knees,


a carton of fried rice that splat

on the shade of our only

nice lamp, oil stains


patterned it with tiny bugs.

Also, you threw

me against a


wall, but you always said it was because

I made you so mad because

you loved me so much


and didn’t want to lose me

that you’d lose control

instead and later


beg me to stay, that if I left you

it meant you would never

be loved and I couldn’t


bear to have you think that

about either one of us.

I wasn’t someone


who’d let herself be hit; I’d never

take that from a man. A man

would be a criminal


if he did what you did.

But you had been

hurt and all that


pain and anger needed more

time and I made you so

crazy, I was so


stubborn and good at mean

words, what else were you

supposed to do?


You liked to raise your fist pretending

to hit me and then

half-smile when


I winced or cringed. It was important

that you had never actually hit me,

never punched me


with a closed fist: you’d only grabbed me

and choked me and flung me and made

dents in the wall next to me,


and narrowly missed me, but we knew you

meant to miss, never truly

meant to clobber me


on the head with something heavy,

something light, maybe,

like a book I loved.


When a woman you love hits you

on the head with a book

you love, is that love?


I was so ashamed and afraid someone

would find out about us, then I was

afraid and ashamed


people already knew but didn’t know

what to do. Did I really think

this was a secret?


Not from the cops we called during two bad

fights or from Peggy who let you stay

with her rent-free that month


I kicked you out. You two had a blast.

But I couldn’t pay the rent

on my own,


so you moved back in, triumphant,

Peggy still in love with you,

and you gloated about


how much money you’d saved.

Surrounded by friends,

who could I tell?


Why would I tell anyone who didn’t

already know us well enough

to already know?


If everyone knew, none of us said so.

We talked, all of us, almost

constantly, intimately,


so how did we keep ourselves so quiet?

You and I, together in this,

were alone with this,


alone among women who loved us.

The two of us never more alone

than when together.



How It Is



It isn’t every day I can wrap my mind around it.

It being just what you’d think it is.


Not a thing or a condition of being but an extended

body holiday,


its movements are like dance but really more like fire


or cross-signals cut before anyone got there.

A flow-through mind,


a frank season so in love with some poor sister,


the long star rattling its universe like a snake.


If only I could gather eyefuls and throw them

curvingly with some accuracy at what I couldn’t bear


to see before. Not just inside the body but inside

the insides, all the way in


till loved precious cells are cold neutral space again.


Can I get a witness? Can I get a witness

that way, if it were not so unreliable?


It again. It is always so unreliable.


It doesn’t know what it is and is all right with that.


Isn’t that strange?


It surely isn’t me. I wouldn’t be all right with not knowing.


Not it. That narrows it down I suppose. Not it.


Just keep saying that, eliminating. What’s left


will will its way into it. Will scare me to pieces

which it will then not pick up


but leave for someone else to deal with. As I am

doing now with this mess here.






Bring your own bread,

your breath, your own

mouth, open


all night. What wouldn’t

I give to fill it?

I can’t see


my breath yet catch it

again and again

like a magic coin


I use to buy myself

back from the self-



that dank fromagerie,

again and again.

In its dark robe


worn open, the night—

blind prince

of the black cat,


has a page for us all.

What wouldn’t I give

to fill it?


Such is the dreary

unwritten history

of hunger,


of what to say to stay

alive. We don’t

write it down.


We can’t keep it down.

Why bring it up?

Burn it all down.


Make it new. A real

writer makes do.

Famous last words.


Not even ink makes

the best ink; wine

better spreads a stain


and the mouth is

already wet—the better

to contain a fire


or catch a fish

or tell a story sharpening

the point of the last


meal—that incredible

question, star of dread.

My own words,


eaten like a cheese

requested for the death

of it, ending my sentence,


and the one after it.

There’s always one after it.



Living Will



If I make a decision now, but die

before enacting it, does my last decision stay

in limbo, alive without a body?


Or does it die with me, becoming no decision,

undoing my last choice on this earth as if

I had already died before I died?


And what if my last decision was: I would like to die.

Does that make a point or abandon it: my life

a question with no mark, answered before asked?


And if so, and I was already, in this way, dead

before I made my last decision,

how long was I dead before that?


Wanting to die, deciding or not to die, already lost

and gone, irrelevant not only in the last moment

but having diminished all along,


not knowing when the diminishment began.

Perhaps it never began; I was always

lessening, losing, disappearing,


from my first breath, imperceptibly at first.

Then, not at but near the end: canceled in totality.

It would be good to die


before comprehending this, because to know

life was like that—who could live with it,

even for a moment, knowing.



Brenda Shaughnessy
Brenda Shaughnessy
Brenda Shaughnessy has written five poetry collections, including So Much Synth, Human Dark with Sugar—winner of the James Laughlin Award and finalist for the NBCC Award—and Our Andromeda, which was a NYTBR 100 Notable Books of 2013.

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