A Night in the Octopus Museum with Poet Brenda Shaughnessy

During her Notations lecture in the Lower Gallery at Zoellner Arts Center, poet Brenda Shaughnessy posed a question the audience could not answer: what would the world look like if it were taken over by octopi? Shaugnessy’s fifth poetry collection, The Octopus Museum, explores such a world. She admitted that she didn’t plan for the collection, but rather, that the pieces she was writing created a culture around one another that prompted her to classify octopi as aliens of the deep due to how far we (meaning ourselves and the octopi) have diverged across millions of years of evolution. Shaughnessy’s alien octopi learn to navigate land, develop their own intelligence, and conquer the world as we know it.

The collection is organized into the museum’s five “galleries”: “Gallery of a Dreaming Species”; “Special Collection: ‘As They Were’”; “‘To Serve Man’: Rituals of the Late Anthropocene Colony”; “Found Objects/Lost Subjects: A Retrospective”; and “Permanent Collection: Archive of Pre-Existing Conditions.” The poems within suggest that the octopi-induced climate catastrophe may be justified considering the harm we have inflicted on this planet and the fear we have instilled in one another. Shaughnessy artfully captures the struggle of surviving in a world plagued by the pain that comes with the harsh realities of our current society—pollution, school shootings, and the threat of nuclear war, to name a few.  Shaughnessy reflected on how writing about destruction, even on such a grand scale, can bring you back to those moments that made you feel utterly destroyed. Even though she described herself as someone who likes to go around life, rather than through it, her poems do no such thing—they illustrate the authenticity and poignancy of human experience.

The first poem she read, “Identity & Community (There Is No “I” in “Sea),” was based on a trip she took to Hawaii. She recounted being so excited to run into the ocean, to dive into the vibrant blue waters, and to allow herself to be submerged in the waves. Getting to the coastline was her main priority, but she found herself frozen at the water’s edge and paralyzed with fear over getting in the water. The poem expands on this by tapping into a common fear: solitude and loneliness. Each line follows the alienation that comes with being trapped at the edge of an unknown shore, the water seemingly impossible to enter. After she delivered the final line, the room remained silent. I imagined every one of us to be back at our own shore, toes at the edge of the water and contemplating stepping in. 

The following poems she shared touched on other messy and utterly real parts of life: being middle aged, surviving a family holiday, navigating sports as a woman (did the US Women’s National Soccer Team “fix” everything? Shaugnessy offered a resounding “no”), and having your heart broken. She even found time to make us laugh with her reading of “Our Beloved Infinite Crapulence”—which was filled with ridiculous made up names for awful sounding perfumes—and this brilliant, three line poem that hilariously discusses a great disappointment: 

“The Dessert I Didn’t Have”

Grilled peaches on shortbread with raspberries and 
black pepper ice cream.
We’re all out, said the communicative waiter. 
That was twelve years ago. 

My favorite poem of the night was the last one: “Blueberries for Cal.” While she was away at a writer’s colony, Shaughnessy felt immensely guilty for leaving her family. Her thoughts kept coming back to a birthday party she threw for her kids and how, amongst all the regular sugar-laden and junky snacks kids love, she’d put out a huge bowl of blueberries. No one touched it except for a little boy named Henry, and little Henry shoveled those blueberries down by the handful. Shaughnessy recounted watching him and just being glad that they were there for him to enjoy. With that image in her mind, she wrote this poem for her son Cal and for everything she wishes she could give him—a world outside of his wheelchair where he can walk and enjoy blueberries. This poem hurts. But, in that hurt, there’s also so much love. 

As many of her poems demonstrate—and as Shaughnessy herself stated—what we live through can be our most powerful material. This sentiment also carries into her other collections. For example, So Much Synth (2016) revisits the complexity of feminine adolescence and Our Andromeda (2012) explores questions of the universe by employing the complex medium of our frailty as humans and how it affects our identities. Human Dark With Sugar (2008) redefines timeless themes in poetry (love, loss, pain, and rejection) through modern rhymes and rhythms that alter our perception of these timeless themes. With such a diverse body of work, Shaughnessy admitted that she does not always know what she is writing about when she begins writing. However, that process—being willing to do something on the page—has led her to immense success. Shaughnessy recognized that the unknown can engender fear in failure; we are all only human. Rather than be engulfed by that fear, Shaughnessy challenged us to embrace it on the blank page. Every poem or piece of writing or mode of self expression requires new skills, and only you can decide to take the risk and use them. The Octopus Museum was one gigantic risk, and that risk paid off as everyone in the audience truly felt the power of her words. 

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