Brenda Shaughnessy, Human Dark with Sugar
Publisher: Copper Canyon Press
2008, 77 pages, paperback, $15

brenda shaughnessy’s second book of poems, Human Dark with Sugar, winner of the James Laughlin Award, glistens with humor and heartache, sharp femininity and sexuality, anger and clever depression. Shaughnessy engages her sweet and her dark elements in poems whose images thrill the reader in a world of human recognition. While her statements may be dramatized, her notion of love as revision is easily relatable. Her poems float through a landscape of raw toughness tinged by the shades of self-doubt and vulnerability.

In “One Love Story, Eight Takes,” Shaughnessy tackles the stunning complexity of any given love story. She discusses “the story” and finds eight distinct ways of telling it, each image-laden and fiercely voiced. She speaks unexpected truths like, “Because nothing is truly forgotten and loved.” The end of the poem presents its impossible crux; there are so many ways of telling this story, and yet “there is a wrong way to tell this story.” Shaughnessy leaves her reader with her notion of revision:

To see you again, isn’t love revision?
It could have gone so many ways.

This is just one of the ways it went.
Tell me another.

Shaughnessy’s ability to hold her reader in a grip of strangling emotion twinned with near laughter is her most striking gift. She finds moments to shock and moments to soften the reader within a single poem, or even within a single line. She pulls off lines like, “I bought a dress that was so extravagantly feminine / you could see my ovaries through it.” Shaughnessy leaves her reader with a picture of reality amidst the absurd. She captures how we flounder in our self-centered lives, and yet how we persevere with sharp wit and an honest insight into our own ridiculous tendencies and relations.

–Molly Tustison