Contrary to popular belief, language is not flat, passionless, clichéd and dying, and if you disagree, it’s imperative that you read Brenda Shaughnessy’s poem “Epithalament” as soon as possible.
Language must be “weirded” if it’s going to make the ordinary new again and rejuvenate the old ideas. Someone’s bland “I’m sad and exhausted” is Shaughnessy’s “I have no winter left.” Who wouldn’t sit up in their chair, hearing that line? She does weird right. She can do it in just one word. See: the poem’s title. Shaughnessy’s melancholy twist on “epithalamium,” a lyric ode written for a bride as she prepares to wed, is a hint of the dark playfulness to come and just one example of the poet’s gift for compressing complex emotion into as few as five syllables. The title is an arrow, giving its directions sharply. It can wound you, too.
“Epithalament” appears in Shaughnessy’s 2000 debut, Interior with Sudden Joy. Shaughnessy was born in Okinawa and raised in Los Angeles. She speaks little Japanese, and once told an interviewer at Williams College that her regret about this fact led her to “pick apart English…try to beat it up a little.” This is the kind of linguistic masochism I wish for in myself, since I often fall into cozy linguistic habits, thinking the most effective way of communicating “I’m happy” in my writing is to say, “I’m happy.” Well, maybe. But maybe that phrased is exhausted, having fallen out of so many mouths. By saying it, I allow no one to enter into my happiness. I don’t mean to keep people at bay, but I do, using the expected set of words.
There’s an exercise that’s become popular in introductory poetry workshops in which the instructor provides an emotion and the students provide images that embody that emotion. “Epithalament” works as a compelling model for this exercise. Experiencing thinly veiled bitterness? Shaughnessy writes it like this: “I wish you every chapped bird on this / pilgrimage to hold your hem up from the dust.” Reading that, I’m bitter too. But I would only look on with detached sympathy had she written instead, “I’m happy for you. I swear, I am.”
I should specify that this “weirding” can’t be phony. It can’t be clever for the sake of being clever. And if the poem bends backward linguistically, it has to balance itself out elsewhere. “Epithalament”’s syntax is its foundation. It is straightforward, conversational. What’s written could be spoken; this is a plea and there’s no time for self-conscious poetic games, which create barriers. In this poem, the “weirding” lies solely in the unconventional use of language.
And the words know exactly how to crack me open. Shaughnessy writes, “I will crawl towards the heavy drawing / and design the curtains in the room of never marrying you.” Note the word “drawing,” which could indicate both the closing of curtains (the shutting off of that imagined room) and also the act of creation, as in “drawing” a portrait. By shutting herself off from this other person and the possibility of their life together, the narrator also creates something new: a different life. Not one of joy or possibility, necessarily, but a new life nonetheless. There is creation inherent in destruction. Here are “Epithalament”’s final lines:
I am sorry my clutch is all
tendon and no discipline: the heart is a severed
kind of muscle and alone.
I can hear yours in your room. I hear mine
in another room. In another’s.
Shaughnessy can make a single apostrophe a workhorse. The shift from “another” to “another’s” reminds us that these two people aren’t just separated. They are also possessed by other people. The enormity of that pain is compressed into a single punctuation mark.
I like to share this poem, and after a friend has read it just once, I, perhaps unfairly, like to start the conversation vaguely: “What do you think of this?” Most say they want to understand, but can’t yet. They say they are disoriented, blinded. They don’t know who is speaking, they don’t know who’s there. They’re locked out.
I ask, “How did you feel when you read it?” They say, “Sad.” “Lonely.” “A little broken.” They’re in the poem and they don’t know it. They can articulate the connections even as they grasp for something resembling traditional logic. I love that moment in reading, when I briefly believe that I’m lost, only to find that I’m right where I’m meant to be. That trick of perspective. When I find myself in a poem’s universe and can’t remember how I arrived there. I know that somehow, at some point, language touched me lightly on the back and glided me into the room.