Cyber Corpse 2
Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
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by Laura Rosenthal
Interior With Sudden Joy by Brenda Shaughnessy
Farrar, Straus, Giroux
Mosquito & Ant by Kimiko Hahn
W.W. Norton & Company

Poetry, once the province of the willfully young, seems so middle-aged in America now: vaguely parental, aspiring to wisdom, respectful of Nature. Interior With Sudden Joy is anything but--this first collection of poems from Columbia graduate Brenda Shaughnessy is unreasonable, surreal, and not even mildly pedagogical.

Shaughnessy was born to a Japanese mother and an American father, and she grew up in California. Her poetic parentage is equally complex: she writes like the love-child of Mina Loy and Frank O'Hara. She inherited O'Hara's lyric grace, and Loy's mocking, strangely elevated diction. From the first lines, "I will make something of you both pigment/ and insecticide /...with terrible pride, with gloxinia," these poems show the baroque promise and romantic self-involvement of poetic post-adolescence. "Love me in my strict empire of phantom pain/... I want theater, the domain/ of intoxicated grief... / I have a radium of the soul, a petulant amputation.../ I've devastated toddlers/ in the height of their podlike fashion, in their pink-naped/ heaven..." (Arachnolescence.)

FSG's press release calls her "queer, cool, excited, pissed," and she is all that. She's a girl-troubadour, love poet of an "other kind of homemaking," more raunchy than reverent toward her subject, the clearly feminine beloved: "Czarina! Tell me you're not giving up the rogue/ red rule for a cottage edged with timothy and vague/ whortleroot./...It is too low a land and the dear/ intima of your delicate organs will brush/ desperately against your blue inner skin./ I would volunteer myself, if I weren't such a trollop/ on queue for the strappado.". The voice in these poems can also be promiscuous, infantile, and insecure. "Give me five years, lovers, I will give you the ancient torture/ device constructed of kisses..." Of herself, she observes that "A baby so cynical in his wrongbody is not/ lovable, but past love. I am," ; and she confesses, "having no effect on myself, / a mirror erases me. My own touch/ feels like porn in a glass case/ in a museum still being designed."

Though these elaborately coded confessions are anything but obvious, there is really no question as to Shaughnessy's debt to 1950's New York avante-gardes. Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning's canvas, Interior With Sudden Joy (painted 1951), provides the book's title and cover art, and the poet thanks Tanning, a woman who in her own youth fascinated the artist Max Ernst, for her "immeasurable influence" on these works.

About the future, Shaughnessy is both pithy and frivolous, a tricky combination, in "Fortune": "Luck today will be skill tomorrow. If only your fear/ held now gorgeous in its white cotton frock/ could become small and frayed in the next millennia." Her "Perfect Ending": "Be anti-grandmother in your little black box.../ Connive everyone you are qualified,/ a fine fattened pig/ with your degree in Endstopography,/ your success in plant school." Edgy and erotic, characterized by bravado and odd beauty, Interior With Sudden Joy is a dazzling first book.


If Kimiko Hahn's poetry is middle-aged, it is not because her poems are stuffy or complacent, but because she is middle-aged, and Mosquito & Ant, her sixth book, struggles with those issues. "I am looking for clues/ on how to stay a woman, not/ a middle-aged woman/...but a woman since/ I've earned that title/ over years..." Marilyn Chin says of this new collection, "Every forty-ish woman will recognize herself in this poet's self-portrait." If that woman has a husband, some children (two daughters), a job (Hahn teaches at Queens College/CUNY), and continuing sexual desire in spite of it all, perhaps it's true.

The title of Mosquito & Ant derives from a calligraphy called nu shu, a secret script used by Chinese women in writing to one another, and it signals Hahn's engagement with the cultural heritage of her Asian mother. Unlike Shaughnessy, who refers to her multi-cultural origins only obliquely, this legacy is central to Hahn's work, perhaps it is because it is a legacy her children will also inherit. "Your oldest daughter/ asks what her name means/ and perhaps you think of/ a day you asked your mother the same."

Marriage and motherhood are conditions fraught with questions of identity: who am I -- a wife, a mother, a woman? Am I still the same girl "I was when I thought/ I was the ugly daughter..." . "She became a sink./ She became a blind./ She became a styrofoam coffee cup./...She became the mother who was at work at work,/ at work at home/ at work at the shore/ so her children never saw her/ without a pencil tucked behind her ear." (Becoming the Mother)

Does growing up mean giving up on the addled inspiration of youth? Even as maturity provides Hahn with the insight that "the spirit nestles in the mundane/ not the fantastic," still she wants as a poet "to go where the hysteric resides,/ the spinning a child knows/ when she twirls around till air and earth/ are inebriated..." In fact, these poems are often about wanting; I want and I need crop up over and over: "I want to return to the high chair/...I want to see my mother's face become radiant" ; "...I need the taste of plum/ on my hands, my chin, his lips" ; "I need to return to the Chinese women poets./ The flat language/ of pine and orchid/...always wanting."

In Mosquito & Ant, Hahn does return to the mode of those women poets, writing poems in the form of correspondence with a woman friend: "Dearest L, my lovely older sister,/ I suggest to you what to say/ to a former lover?/ With two children my own longing often/ feels alien..." These poems explore Hahn's identity as a poet, as an individual who exists beyond the roles of wife and mother, and at times they echo the meditative, classical mood of her "Immortal Sisters": "I send these words to you/across the frozen continent,/ through waning light/ and steam rising off rivers."

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