This collection of bold and scathingly beautiful feminist poems imagines what comes after our current age of environmental destruction, racism, sexism, and divisive politics.
Informed by Brenda Shaughnessy's craft as a poet and her worst fears as a mother, the poems in The Octopus Museum blaze forth from her pen: in these pages, we see that what was once a generalized fear for our children (car accidents, falling from a tree) is now hyper-reasonable, specific, and multiple: school shootings, nuclear attack, loss of health care, a polluted planet. As Shaughnessy conjures our potential future, she movingly (and often with humor) envisions an age where cephalopods might rule over humankind, a fate she suggests we may just deserve after destroying their oceans. These heartbreaking, terrified poems are the battle cry of a woman who is fighting for the survival of the world she loves, and a stirring exhibition of who we are as a civilization.
In her fifth collection, Shaughnessy (So Much Synth), who is married to PW's director of special editorial projects, imagines a dystopian future in which octopuses reign, while humans receive their just deserts for centuries of environmental devastation. This new ruling class is dubbed the COO (Cephalopod Octopoid Overlords), and enforces strict rations ("farm-fresh slowpoke foam" and "Soapish fish braised in its own frothing broth"). Shaughnessy's conceptual work is clever as always, but even more extraordinary is her talent for crafting musical, expressive lines that triumph in their complexity and grace: "Once a wild tentacled screaming creature every inch a kissed lip of a beloved place/ a true and relentless mind, all heart if heart is a dumb hope of reusable pump." In the politically charged poem "Are Women People," the COO sifts through cultural and legal detritus to determine who was and was not given status of personhood: "Children are, at the very least, future people, but anything could happen. They could be female, and a good half of them do end up as such." Suffused with a melancholic nostalgia for what once was and what might have been, the poet turns to her inability to protect her childrens' innocence, saying of her daughter "I hope she can learn to like lizard blood and shoelace chewing gum, because that's what's coming." With an unparalleled ear for language, Shaughnessy excels at making the tragic transcendent.