Brenda Shaugnessy’s powerful third volume of poems, Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), has been considered as a collection many places, including here and here. After reading (and rereading) the book, I encourage you to read these responses. Shaugnessy says the book “has to deal with the notion of alternative realities, alternate selves, doubles, twins, sisters…. What if this didn’t happen? On Andromeda, our sister galaxy, it’s possible that we could have been the same exact doubles of ourselves.”
Over at Bookforum, Monica Ferrell says this about the book’s title poem: “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 to be a refuge of possibility, an elsewhere.” I want to focus on one of the book’s many memorable poems, which you can hear Shaugnessy read here. “Visitor” can be read as a poem “about” writing or “about” the mesh of desires, strivings, failings, expectations, and proximities bound up in communicating more generally. It tracks the speaker’s processes of communicating with her “visitor,” who may be an “alternate self,” the reader, or someone else.
I am dreaming of a house just like this one
but larger and opener to the trees, nighter
than day and higher than noon, and you,
visiting, knocking to get in, hoping for icy
milk or hot tea or whatever it is you like.
For each night is a long drink in a short glass.
A drink of blacksound water, such a rush
and fall of lonesome no form can contain it.
And if it isn’t night yet, though I seem to
recall that it is, then it is not for everyone.
Did you receive my invitation? It is not
for everyone. Please come to my house
lit by leaf light. It’s like a book with bright
pages filled with flocks and glens and groves
and overlooked by Pan, that seductive satyr
in whom the fish is also cooked. A book that
took too long to read but minutes to unread—
that is—to forget. Strange are the pages
thus. Nothing but the hope of company.
I made too much pie in expectation. I was
hoping to sit with you in a tree house in a
nightgown in a real way. Did you receive
my invitation? Written in haste, before
leaf blinked out, before the idea fully formed.
An idea like a storm cloud that does not spill
or arrive but moves silently in a direction.
Like a dark book in a long life with a vague
hope in a wood house with an open door.
The speaker is “dreaming of a house just like this one / but larger and opener to trees, nighter / than day and higher than noon.” Perhaps she is dreaming herself into “Visitor” or a different poem, or even a house “like” the one in which she writes “Visitor,” or a different house, or a dream-house. The visitor is “knocking to get in,” and “hoping” for refreshing nourishment (“icy milk”), gentle simulation (“hot tea”), or “whatever it is [they] like”: beverages the speaker, in her role as host, can serve, would like to serve, or is expected to serve. Drinks are also a metaphor for the contained expansion of “each night,” which “is a long drink in a short glass.” When night is consumed as “blacksound water” it is “such a rush and fall of lonesome” that it cannot be contained by “form” (perhaps poems, perhaps “Visitor”).
The invitation “is not for everyone,” particularly those who might arrive before or after night. The speaker notes the house is “lit by leaf light,” and compares it to a book, which is where this poem appears. The “bright pages” (or leaves) are “filled with flocks / and glens and groves.” They grow. They are alive, flourishing in the dark. The pages “took too long to read” but only “minutes to unread.” Forgetting quickly dusts away specifics.
The poem opens for me in the next line. The speaker suggests that she hopes for nothing but company. She is frank, possibly embarrassed: she “made too much pie / in expectation” of the visitor’s arrival. Though she does not explain why, this assertion or admission suggests a problematic expectation that the speaker/writer perform the gendered role of perfect, giving host. (Like others writing about poems in this collection, I make assumptions about the speaker’s gender based on the writer’s gender–a topic worthy of a separate blog post. No matter who the speaker is, though, this poem suggests many things about many roles.) This poem also enacts its spirited and flickering hopes of giving, connecting, and rigorously inquiring into the construction of self and the act of writing. The poem-invitation, which may not be a specific poem but the idea of poems, and therefore the idea or ideal of communicating and connecting, was “written in haste, before / leaf blinked out, before the idea fully formed.” The speaker “was hoping to sit with [the visitor] in a tree house in a nightgown in a real way.” This admission is both a critique of the speaker’s hopes and the reader’s expectations of the speaker, her poem, and poems. The realness of the sharing, the vague fantasy of a tree house, and vague innocence of a nightgown (note both indefinite articles) are ideals, disappointments, admissions, realities—a charged tangle from which poetry can emerge, and in which poetry can intervene.
“An idea,” the speaker notes or notices, “moves silently in a direction,” which is also indefinite and unspecified. This “idea” may be a revision of the poem’s other ideas, or may have crossed, joined, or expanded those ideas and expectations and, like many of the poem’s images, morphed into other images. (But as Shaugnessy says in the interview above: “The poem isn’t an idea. The poem is a physical action.” The poem is movement.) The poem’s final sentence likens this idea (which is also “like a storm cloud”) to a “dark book in a long life with a vague / hope in a wood house with an open door.” This is the gesture and invitation of poetry, of communication. Like the storm cloud, it is not always clear who makes the gesture, what it means, or where it leads. Nonetheless, the door is open. Something like recognition—imperfect, sidelong—is possible. As another poem in this collection, “Miracles,” asserts: “We can read us. We are not alone.”
Image: Hubble’s high-definition (partial) view of the Andromeda Galaxy courtesy of NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams, and L.C. Johnson (University of Washington), the PHAT team, and R. Gendler. January 2015.