In her new collection, Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy presents emotions at their most bare in experiences both familiar and alien—and alien sometimes in a literal sense as the speakers regularly shuttle to and from the Andromeda Galaxy, the galaxy closest to our own.
At the heart of this hefty collection is a wish for more lives, the ability to see paths not taken, to be two people, to live in an entirely different galaxy where what is wrong in this one doesn’t even exist. Yet ultimately there is also a realization that, in fact, we do live multiple lives because the person you are at 25 is different than the person you are at 24, and that is not a weakness to lament, but rather a means of affirming the one life here in the Milky Way.
In the title poem of the book’s first section, “Liquid Flesh,” Shaughnessy examines the sense of two selves that comes with being a mother, a very down-to-earth complication. The speaker feels the title “mother” as a “kind of housecoat” that is “Something / cunty, something used”. Feeling overtaken by this new identity, the speaker reflects that: “My belief in the fluidity / of self turns out to mean / my me is a flow of well water, / with the well, or the bucket, / a hole dug and seeping”. Having to maintain multiple selves, and currently trying to conceive of a self outside of “mother,” becomes draining, the first sense of liquidity—a self that flows and leaves nothing. But this also means for the speaker, the self flows into the new baby, their bodies both “this sack of liquid” and indistinguishable from each other. So liquid comes to mean multiple things, the literal liquid flesh of a mother making food from her body, the flesh feeling like liquid, and “the self”—whatever that is— at once flowing and fixed. “How can anyone hold onto a self?” the speaker seems to ask.
Though “Liquid Flesh” ends on a note of conviction in embracing motherhood and its mantel, the poems throughout the book do not remain so secure. Poems such as “Why Should Only Cheaters and Liars Get Double Lives?” and “I Wish I Had More Sisters” consider ways one can try out different paths in life since we all only have one, whereas other poems consider how we really do have multiple lives, such as in one short series of poems with titles like “To My 23-Year-Old Self,” “To My 24-Year- Old Self,” and so forth. Whether erring on the side of too many selves or not enough, in essence the poems are trying to understand how we can wholly exist in the world we find ourselves in.
These conflicts come to a climax in the final and title poem of the collection, a 20-page balancing act that is at once an apostrophe to the speaker’s son Cal (who, not so coincidentally, the book the is also dedicated to) and a series of direct attacks on the people who have caused him and the speaker to suffer after they underwent a medical trauma during Cal’s birth, namely inept doctors, absent friends and family members, and, most viciously, the speaker her self. All of the poems in the book express emphatic, resonant emotion that is honest and direct, but they do not compare to the directness of this final poem.
Here, too, Andromeda is forcefully put forward as an alternative world, practically a utopia, where child and mother can exist free of pain. The poem begins with the declaration: “When we get to Andromeda, Cal, / you’ll have the babyhood you deserved”. This becomes the conceit that holds the poem together, the speaker explaining to Cal what their lives will be like in Andromeda and how it will be different from the trauma they experience on Earth. By the end though, the speaker comes to realize that Andromeda is actually within them: “and our Andromeda, that dream, // I can feel it living in us like we / are its home”. After traveling through a multitude of struggles, the speaker, not unlike Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, has found that Andromeda has been in her grasp all along.
Though this is a collection that deals head on with difficult and somber topics, it should also be noted that there is still playfulness in the book. With simple rhymes and poems that end like punch lines, there is a light touch to the language that keeps the collection afloat. Even at the peak of emotional drama in “Our Andromeda” there are familiar, easy rhymes that add effortlessness to the scene:
You were hardly alive, hardly you,
horribly slim-chanced. I blacked out
hard but heard you were blue.
That voice that told me what to do
came from Andromeda. It’s the only truth.
There wasn’t a soul in that hospital
room who told me a single thing anywhere
near as true. It was Andromedan
love that delivered you.
Despite the difficult topics, the playfulness of the poems’ structure makes this also, counter intuitively, a fun collection to read.
Our Andromeda, like the speakers within it, lives many lives. At once playful and quirky, deeply somber and troubled, and ultimately hopeful, this collection takes the reader throughout the universe, but ultimately finds the best of both galaxies right here on Earth.