With Sudden Joy by
& Ant by Kimiko Hahn
Norton & Company
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.
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..."
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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)
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."
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."