DECEMBER 19, 2019
IN A WORLD RIFE with gun violence, environmental destruction, divisive politics, and racism, two poets address our time in different, but equally affecting, ways. Stirring with heartbreak and urgency, Brenda Shaughnessy and Deborah Landau have written collections that investigate what it means to be alive and raise children in our current dystopia. While Shaughnessy creates a sci-fi world where animals rule and wonder where we went wrong, Landau stands directly in the present moment of shootings and neo-Nazis on streets. Shaughnessy builds her poems with long block stanzas, while Landau’s short lines move along the page at a clip. Both are works of fear and love, calling us to pay attention.
Brenda Shaughnessy’s fifth collection, The Octopus Museum (Knopf), is wildly inventive and sharp to an edge. In it, the award-winning poet’s work catapults us into an imagined future: octopi rule mankind after we have destroyed their oceans and our own civilization. They keep us as museum specimens (perhaps for our own good). Readers are led through five sections of exhibition-like spaces displaying the pinned-up dreams of humans, the before-time, and what was lost. The museum asks questions: How did humans fall? What are the deaths, rebirths, the irrecoverable things? It’s a museum that’s not finished. We are still reeling in destruction.
Largely evoked through prose poems interspersed with letter poems and studies, the museum is crowded with human mistakes — racism, sexism, violence. But Shaughnessy’s humor offers a respite. She presents a book of surprisingly funny post-apocalyptic poems. “If you want to know what we could have done differently to prevent the situation we’re in now, I have one world for you: everything.”
Without her wit, the investigation might be too much to take. Apparently, we humans did not see that “the COO (Cephalopod Octopoid Overlords) were taking over. While we were still marveling at the cuteness of YouTube videos.” But now they have, and “[t]hey don’t understand our racism. They change color and blend in.”
In the museum, we see people have ruined things — plastic in the seas, the Pacific Garbage Patch, hate. Beauty has been submerged in the ocean. “We need an old-fashioned plume of ink, all new alphabet, to blot out our lies, all the times we were too tired, unkind, and stupid to tell the truth.”
This brilliant and tightly crafted collection acts both as a warning and an investigation into where we are now. Some poems are clinical, others coy, but Shaughnessy’s idiosyncratic female perspective consistently emerges. “My shell has become relatively substantial — proportionate to the amount of danger I’m in. I’m a woman. A mother. I am very soft and have so much to protect. Many women and mothers, even the old and weak, have the strongest shells.” It’s a shell, “made of me. Thick-middled, silver-streaked, motherfucking furious me.” What of the men in the post-apocalypse? “I don’t know about men’s shells. They won’t tell me and I don’t care enough to care. Maybe I blame them for all the years of cluelessness and rampage. Or I’m ashamed of us all and prefer to think mostly about my daughter, how she’s getting by.”
Shaughnessy, born herself in Okinawa and raised in California, turns the spotlight toward her young daughter. She runs through these pages, a girl-streak noted in side-eye. She is inheriting all this, along with the other children. That’s the real weight.
The stirring collection ends with a memory in “before times: of a human family running away … Pennsylvania/airport/Atlantic/evacuation center/relocation camp/as yet unknown.” The human refugees let pieces of their life fall by the side of the road, “useless things cut out by survival’s swift knife.” As pieces drop off, one family member carries the other until it’s the seven-year-old girl carrying them all: “She knows where she’s going. How does she know that? She runs ahead and carries us, her heart pounding and breaking with the weight and strain of all of us in there.”
It could be the girls — the daughters — that save us all. Or, Shaughnessy conjures, it needs to be us as readers stepping up to help before it’s left to the children.
Another daughter prominently runs through Deborah Landau’s powerful fourth collection, Soft Targets (Copper Canyon). Here, people do not grow shells to cover their soft bodies but instead become increasingly vulnerable. We are not projected into a futuristic landscape but are rooted squarely in the here-and-now of a life of terror and the threat of danger. The result is a collection vital, beautiful, and complex — an important read for our times.
Landau, who is based in Brooklyn, begins her book on the F train with a stripe of fear that someone could be smuggling a bomb. We are suddenly too aware of the “jugular / there’s a soft target // and night is a soft target / all of us within it.” We then travel through a series of interlocked poems to Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, where police officers line the streets. “I’m a soft target, you’re a soft target / and the city has a hundred hundred thousand softs.” As we investigate the perils of the mass-shooting era, her poems manage to be both cerebral and sensual. In them, we move vividly through a vulnerable body traveling through uncertain space, navigating how to live while domestic and global terrorism is taking lives around us. “Much trouble at hand, yet the lilies still.” Landau asks the essential question, how do we hold knowledge of pain in one hand, beauty in the other, without guilt?
While Shaughnessy catapults us to an imagined future, Landau draws deft connections to the past. After seeing the neo-Nazis on TV (“I don’t know / what’s so neo / about neo-nazis”), Landau reflects on her Jewish roots, Nazis marching by her Oma’s house decades ago in Frankfurt. “Pulse, you know it / and History knows. / Over and over it sics / itself upon the soft.” We see the cycle of life-theft, how terror follows us both down the block and across generations. Meanwhile, Landau works her own wry humor, making the difficult palpable: we “bat away death with berries and flax.” Still, threat looms around all corners.
When Landau’s daughter appears, she, too, “is a soft target / in a fuchsia crush she’s come / bare and guileless, fair and free, / funneling forward without a helmet.” She is both a child to protect and someone to guide us into the future. With her visceral language, Landau holds our ears as she grips her child’s hand: “So I told the sky it should stay blue / told my daughter she should stay breathing / told my love he should and we would / as the monster storms showed their teeth.” We are baring our teeth too, angry and afraid, calling upon all the resilience we can muster.
“Can we live this way?” Landau asks. “I think someone has done grave injury. / I think person or persons — / I think we’re losing by default.” Still, the collection ends with hope, the poet asking, “bring me a souvenir from the desecrated city / something tender, something that might bloom.” Shaughnessy and Landau are in full possession of their powers, using language to name and mobilize, calling forward to the next generation of women. These collections offer a wake-up call, reminding us that we must change to survive.
Sarah Herrington is a writer and teacher. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Poets and Writers, Slice, and Tin House. She was selected as one of eight emerging women poets by Oprah Magazine. She divides her time between Los Angeles and New York.