For Girls & Others (Bloof Books 2007) is Shanna Compton's latest book, published by her own new micro press. It neatly follows her previous collection, Down Spooky (Winnow 2005), with its combination of humor and skew in the service of social and political consideration. Like Down Spooky, the work is a friendly yet serious involvement with language's personal extent.
By "language's personal extent", I mean that arch meeting ground of our intentions and confusions. I understand poetry as a possibility for nearly and closely sharing our words, thus our worlds. Poetry is where boundaries fluctuate and demand attention. Shanna Compton exercises a particular attention that combines the political, the social, and the personal.
Girls consists of three sections, each working discretely yet tying together into a whole. Methodology does the tying. Shanna stresses the use, reuse, and recontextualizing of work from myriad sources.
That recontextualizing asserts the writer's vantage. Shanna, the poet, exists as filter for these meaningful words of wisdom that have come to her. Her sources, as she explains in the book's notes, include a range of publications from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. These sources suffice with definitive advice and cultural adjudication. Welcome to the crux.
I see a transfiguration of meaning in Shanna Compton's poetry. The statements that we make and the ones that we hear perform ghostly deeds. Aren't we sometimes startled, when we're awake, by the words that we hear? The miserable claims underlying our dearest propositions can be smoked out, finally. That's Poetry, or, at least, it is the friend that I know as Poetry.
I note a telling trickiness that discloses radiance:
"A vigorous strength
can belong to a real lady
& her natural waist."
The lines above come from the first poem in the book, and before that from a 19th century health manual for girls. Doesn't "her natural waist" sound so unnatural? From our distance now we hear a different tune than was played to the intended audience for such advice. I am fascinated by the work of this appropriation.
The motive isn't satiric, though humor surfaces throughout the book. Sometimes, like with Flarf, the effect is as of a kindly mugging. Other times, a sad, plain-spoken directness confronts the disabled articulation that bedevils our common speech. In all cases, the metric remains tender and domestic. Read domestic as meaning our less public intensity.
"All night the cervix of Our Lord
glistens & slurps with an enlarged pink
fiddling sound. We're ready to ascend."
The title of the poem from which those lines escape is "Awful White Wine" (one of many great titles in this book). I find an awesome hilarity in such verbal activity. The intersections are marvelous, Juan de la Cruz meets cable tv, or something just as proud. It's a Steinian conglomeration of sudden effect.
I want to point to a poem that I found less appealing, to highlight the strengths that I see in Shanna's work. The poem is called "We Know She Knows About Her Elephantine Legs". It's an exercise in Flarf, letting the voices of the endeavoring Internet speak their mind. I feel the author's direction in this piece, however. Too easily, I get it.
The poem is about Hillary Clinton and her pantsuits. That's a topic. Topics are small. I think the comments that Shanna mined never reach escape velocity. The result is something pointed. I appreciate the viewpoint but find the poem wanting in several senses. It wants to be a poem, not a comment.
This poem lacks the surprise of an enlarged pink slurping sound. It's that simple. It is a poem directed towards a conclusion, one which has a polite period to mark the closure. It is not a bad poem, just one that follows the map too carefully. I consider it an exercise. I do not begrudge the exercise.
I enjoy the comprising embrace in Shanna's poetry. Humor is good, tenderness is good, shifting is good, as words dangle unexpectedly. She has a sensitive ear to the world. The danger in her poetry seems like your best friend, which it is.
A poem touching upon the confused emanations that we have coalesced into something called Hillary Clinton certainly belongs in the repertoire. I think, though, that the engagement wasn't so free as could be:
"she may sock away the profits, i.e.
the impregnable fortress of Realism."
That's pretty keen stuff. Hillary Clinton is a warped and morphing confusion as we work through the dynamics of life in the world that we see today. Nothing is really trustworthy till we get the words right. That's the shifty thing in which we revel.
"A married woman seems to be
her own improvidence
or impulsive generosity."
I'm hitting here on the political movement of Shanna's work. Hillary is political, but not in the sense of Red versus Blue (that's just contraries). No, the political interest is in the cultural miscarriage:
I am not so astute as to make any good definitions of ourselves and the impasses we create. I'll just nod at the motions that I see, the politics that define daily living. Shanna's work carries well into these provinces. That she is kindly, calm, and playful should not distract the reader from the salients she points to.
I just skim here, in presenting Shanna's work. I think this is a goodhearted, striving work of possible adventure. Reading isn't an injection, is it? In your effort, I hope that you enjoy the ride that I find here.