In ‘The Octopus Museum,’ Brenda Shaughnessy Sees a Cephalopod Future

This formal strategy allows Shaughnessy to ask direct questions like “What about future people?” — which, in a way, is the question of the book, the question of what we owe not just our children but all of our descendants in the abstract, humanity writ large. But she can also leave the question unanswered, or orbit it elliptically, meditating on it via variations (“Are dead people still people? … Are people’s plans to have children people?”). A poem provides less context for a thought than does an essay; it makes room for the idea in isolation.

In a recent piece for The New York Review of Books, Emily Raboteau describes visiting “Nature’s Fury,” a special exhibition on the “violent weather” of the Anthropocene, with her two children, an experience that filled her and her husband with guilt: “‘Are they too young for this?’ my husband questioned, too late.” They call their 5-year-old son away from an interactive flood map of New York. Later, she reflects: “What strikes me now as irrational about our response isn’t our ordinary parental instinct to protect our kids from scary stuff. It was our denial. Their father and I treated that display as a vision we could put off until later when it clearly conveyed what had already transpired.” “The Octopus Museum” contends with this same feeling, a future-fear so ever-present and overwhelming we almost have to deny it, just to get through the day (“This poem I stole from my fear, my endless fear,” Shaughnessy writes in “Nest,” one of the few poems composed in verse), mixed with an equally overwhelming sense of guilt, a terrible knowledge that this is our fault; we “ruined that delicate world.”

At times this book almost wallows in guilt, in the performance of self-flagellation. “Tell myself the weather ruined my plans, though it’s me ruined the weather’s,” Shaughnessy writes in one poem, and, in another, “I’m ashamed of us all.” In “Sel de la Terre, Sel de Mer,” the speaker addresses an octopod or a jellyfish: “Oh funny, runny little god who lived in the sea we cut to ribbons! Tell us the big story with your infected mouth. Tell us the big story is so far beyond us we can’t possibly ruin it.” “Here,” another speaker tells her hungry, bored daughter, handing her a pencil, “chew on this. … It’s all yours, darling.” It feels like a challenge to the reader: Chew on this, chumps. We made this hell and now we have to sleep in it; it’s “well-deserved.” Are these poems preachy? Do we deserve a poetry that isn’t preachy? And what’s the alternative? Raboteau writes, of her own children, “It’s pointless to question whether or not it was ethical to have them in the first place since, in any case, they are here.” That doesn’t feel quite right either. It’s a feature of apocalyptic living: There’s no right way to be.

If they are often bleak, Shaughnessy’s poems are also very funny. In a short series of epistolary poems, a character named Ned Grimley-Groves, “formerly of New Hampshire” and now living in “Salinization Pod #11298 N.E.,” sends a “Dear Humans” letter to the past: “I won’t withhold everything I’ve learned. I’ll tell you plain. You will miss plastics.” Two pages later, in a new letter: “It’s me, again. Ned Grimley-Groves. I just had a couple more things to say” — among them, “you’ll miss the luxurious wastefulness,” and everything being “ridiculously clean,” perhaps too clean. Mid-letter, he admits: “I’m just kind of losing my momentum here. Is anyone reading this?” (Sick burn on poetry.) Two more pages later, he’s back with another letter: “Hi, hi. It’s Ned, again. Seems to be just me, these days.”

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