Reading Hilton Als's review of Brenda Shaughnessy's new poetry collection, Our Andromeda, left me full of shock and wonder. The collection details the birth of her son, Cal, after a difficult labor that left the infant with multiple disabilities. In the middle of National Poetry Month, I finally purchased the book and read it in the kitchen, gobbling up poems between boiling pots of water, setting the table, wiping down counters, and ordering my children to help with these tasks. One foot balanced on my thigh, I stirred a pot, laughing and crying as I read the breathtaking/heart-breaking poems.
I met Brenda in 1995, when we both attended a poetry conference led by Billy Collins in Galway, Ireland. She was a graduate student at Columbia, I was a newlywed. I'd scrimped to get there. Brenda and I connected over pints of Guinness, salmon plates, and hikes through the Burren (I published a poem about it in Spoon River Quarterly--Brenda's the one with the "Japanese eyes"). On a rocky ferry ride to the Aran Islands, we stood out on the deck, and Brenda and another woman, Elizabeth, (pictured here with Billy) sang "Closer to Fine" by The Indigo Girls so beautifully that a school of dolphins started trailing our boat. I swear to God. We wore rain ponchos and braved the mist.
Though we fell out of touch after the trip, I always had fond memories of our time there, and I knew exactly what she meant when I read this poem: "Billy Collins, have you any idea how important you were to my twenty-five-year-old self? You weren't Poet Laureate yet, You were just a teacher I had in Ireland. You were expansive and you believed in me."
In the title poem, "Our Andromeda," Brenda imagines life with Cal in another constellation, where he'll "get the chance to walk without pain," and where all the "doctors are whole-organism empaths." She blames herself for his condition, "I wasn't careful enough" and "I joined that cult of expectant mothers who felt ourselves too delicate and optimistic to entertain the notion... of something going wrong with the birth of my child." She indicts her friends who failed to provide the support her family needed, "Why on earth would it be the closest, dearest friends to shit the most toxically on a sad new family struggling to find blessing where blessings were? I wondered." Yet in the final stanzas she returns to hope, exultant, stating that Cal is a "joyful boy who may never talk who ruthlessly teaches the teacher the truth about where children really live." He's a "tough, funny beauty of a boy who holds my hand and blinks his eyes until I'm excruciated, mad with love." She says, "I cannot beat my own heart anymore. Cal, shall we stay? Oh let's stay. We've only just arrived here, rightly, whirling and weeping, freely, breathing, brightly born."
Brenda, thanks for sharing your story, your truth, and your inimitable way with words.