Reading Pamela O’Shaughnessy


                                                           Reading Pam O’Shaughnessy 


Reading Pam O’Shaughnessy, one quickly discovers an erudite, intelligent, thoughtful and funny—yes—funny poet. This underlying humor is found throughout the works, sometimes absurdist, as “In California,” which is about, as Pam herself wrote “…an early ships captain who sets himself ashore to die in California…he’s reincarnated as a mushroom,” or ‘How I Wrote My Poems by Raymond Roussel,” an precursor to the Surrealists, whose mental games wind up getting the best of him. This strain of playfulness doesn’t undermine the work, rather, it adds humanity and texture to a form—poetry—that often takes itself too seriously. To be sure, this is a dark and absurdist humor, rooted firmly in the Surrealist feeling of juxtaposition, an unreality firmly rooted in the real, and many of the poems deal with power and control—the ability or inability of the subjects (most of the poems deal with characters) to affect their world.

Take “Pig-Footed Bandicoots,” which recasts the true story of Krefft, an Australian scientist who discovers and eats the last (two) of a species:
Famished Krefft pounced and devoured

the last of the species
raw. True story.

They rise plumply
on tiny fluffy wings to heaven
eyes locked on each other
as they leave the planet tonight

Krefft smeared, antic, under the moon—

There is an aspect of the tragic and the insane, the adverb-laden chain email sent by a co-worker, or the conspiratorial chatter of a bar “Didja hear about Krefft? Oh, man.” But Pam gives it to us artfully, the last of the Pig-Footed Bandicoots, gazing at one another as they ascend to heaven, while Krefft, caretaker of the earth, goes mad. There’s humor and pathos and a moment of discovery in the poem: the protector destroys the protected, takes on a final form of the scourge of the Bandicoots (for what else but a human, it’s suggested, would have resulted in their demise).

There’s also “Bud’s Cruel Mother.” Though Bud never makes an appearance, we experience the madness that the mother brings on the roofer, who, as a dedicated employee, does as he’s told:
all day and night he nailed
every inch of asphalt shingle
pchoo pchoo pchoo
next day he was nailing 
with his mouth pchoo
while he crawled the roof
looking for gaps
the nails kept shooting
from the store in his throat
Again, there’s a subtle take of the absurd combined with humor: the image is clear and horrific, but at the same time, showing a person who has gone above and beyond, simply because of…what? Bud’s cruel mother? Outside of the poet telling us that she’s cruel, there’s little indication that she is. Bossy and domineering isn’t the same as cruel. Pam plays with the idea here. Simply by adding the word “cruel” we want to identify with the roofer, however, as the poem goes on, we’re compelled to reject him, viewing him as pathetic. The come-on that Bud’s mother presents at the end of the poem:

here’s your water
let’s see if you earned it
she poured it over her head
looks like a leak
looks like a gap
one thing still moving
you thirsty or not
mouth full of nails
It’s a come-on straight out of a Coen Brothers film, other artists equally aware of their medium and antecedents. We’re left at the moment of decision, the mad roofer, his mouth full of nails, and the desperate mother, cruel finally in her expectation. The likelihood is that he’ll spit the nails at her, filling all “the gaps” while the expectation is straightforward sex, which heightens the situation.
The centerpiece of the poems presented is “”How I Wrote My Poems By Raymond Roussel.” Roussel was a real person, an artist well-regarded by the Surrealists. Like the Surrealists, he was a systems builder, attempting to reign in the destructive power of the Dadaists, who showed little but contempt to their bourgeoisie patrons (read: customers). Roussel was an experimenter, and after he died, had a book published entitled “How I Wrote Certain of My Books” which had to do with his thoughts on literature and art. In O”Shaughnessy’s poem, we have Roussel exploring the “Infinite Monkey Theorem” with himself as the test subject. The poem takes place entirely inside Roussel’s brain: he is both the monkeys and the methodologist, who vainly attempts to contain, by way of increased constraints, the level of freedom the monkeys have in creating their work. The first part, Three Short Transcripts reads as intended: fully absurdist experimentation, then the poet rescues us from Roussel’s…mind (id seems too simplistic a description) in the second section. The poem itself becomes a playful but dangerous interchange of Roussel with himself, replete with a blog, watching his own work unfold but losing certainty of who is the real Roussel. Does the poet suggest that the failure of the project underscores the failure of these types of experiments? That, because of the experimenter whose rules and constructs force the work into a conscious, directed effort thereby losing the organic (and thereby freer) nature of the experiments, all the while claiming to be cutting edge. By exerting, or, as in Roussel’s case, failing to exert control over the test, we will wind up in places that we don’t want (something gentler and similar happens in “The Mermen of Murmansk” and “In California”: the will for desire forms itself in unpleasant and undesirable ways)? Ultimately, O’Shaughnessy is behind both the monkeys and Roussel, delivering an incisive and humorous post-modern spin in a delightful way. By engaging Roussel, we become Roussel the same way that we enter a funhouse: we exit, sometimes not fully knowing what to do with the experience, but knowing that we experienced something.

So it is with the work of Pamela O’Shaughnessy. She is a poet who has found the beauty, humor and pathos in the world and is able to convert it into eminently readable—and enjoyable poetry. I urge the readers to take some time to go back and re-read the work presented, look at the care taken with the lines, with the breaking of syntax that allows these lines, these absurd characters to come to life.–Brendan McEntee
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