This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Though CDs were the primary media in music sales by the time I was a teenager, I am old enough to have enjoyed the tail end of the mix tape era. When I started buying my own music in late grade school, all I had was a tape player, so I was forced to buy tapes. I didn’t get my first CD player till I was 14, and immediately signed up for one of these preposterous CD clubs. When I was 16, I made an older friend who made me mix tape after mix tape of music that has since shaped my life: The Smiths, The Cure, Suzanne Vega, Depeche Mode, Tori Amos, and countless more. I sent her some of my own, not nearly so good. Soon, it was easier and more reliable to make mix CDs. All the same principles applied to burning a disc as making a tape–you still had to worry about song order and length–but the romance was gone. I just sent that same friend a playlist on Spotify, and while the sentiment and nostalgia are strong in that gesture, it’s not a thing she can hold in her hands. She can’t push it in the tape player, push a heavy button that clicks satisfyingly into place, and hear a bad recording of a song that says something about our friendship.
Brenda Shaughnessy’s new collection from Copper Canyon Press, So Much Synth, is a mix tape of sorts, a collection of love songs and break up songs to the girl she was in adolescence, to the world that made her that girl, that buffeted her through those transitional years until she reached an adulthood that still bears the wounds and glories of having once been an adolescent. There is a series of poems in the collection’s middle that riffs directly on the charm and trouble of making a perfect mix tape (“such a delicious pain in the ass to make, / on a double deck if you were lucky”), and even offers us some sample playlists from Shaughnessy’s early teens, annotated with reflections on the internal and external realities that shaped them.
These poems directly lead into the book’s major work, a twenty-eight page poem titled after a Duran Duran song–“Is There Something I Should Know?”–and interspersed occasionally with lyrics from songs by a variety of ’80s musicians. This poem is a phenomenal exploration of Shaughnessy’s “700 days,” the two years from when she began puberty till it was mostly over. In the book’s acknowledgements, Shaughnessy dedicates this poem to her very young daughter: “Simone, I want the world to be safer for you. Your 700 days are years away, but I wrote about mine hoping to put words out there to protect you… I wrote ‘Is There Something I Should Know?’ hoping to change things for you.” The poem is as much an effort to reach back and mother herself at that brutal age. The poem walks slowly through the unique torments of adolescence, such as the loss of childhood freedom and the new social pressure to have a clear identity:
is all absolutes: if bad, one must be the very worst
to avoid being mistaken for average.
To be ordinary was just being invisible,
and surely slow naked death by ants hurts less than that.
The mingled confusion, excitement, and shame of getting her period and entering womanhood:
Basically, all the stories I’d read or heard about
what it was really like to become a woman
made me rather expect a kind of slow, gorgeous
liquefaction after which I’d emerge a cross
between Jessica Rabbit and Denise Huxtable
Or the dawning awareness of her new body as public male property:
What I learned at fourteen was that there was never a short
supply of boys twelve years old, men of seventy,
every age in between, who were interested and willing
and didn’t even need to be asked to give an opinion
on my fuckability.
The themes of this poem are picked up and inspected throughout the book, as when she discusses body image in one poem:
Like I learned: no dress could ever be
beautiful or best if it had me in it.
I was a stain in a place we couldn’t fix.
Or when she looks at the ways childhood wounds reached forward to provoke a deep emotional neediness in her early 20s:
and the sad way we’d both
been both ignored and touched
Brenda Shaughnessy writes in So Much Synth with the bare emotional awkwardness of the teen who squirms on her pages, but with the control and skill of a mature poet looking back from the distance of decades. The book testifies to the horror of being an adolescent in a body–the particular contradictions that so often govern this transition for young women–but also, in the midst of those horrors, the bizarre ways in which euphoria periodically broke through the clouds at that age and made us feel like we were walking on them instead. So Much Synth is saturated in the pop music of its era, the weird and wonderful 1980s. Put on a mix tape, read this collection, and be glad you’re on this side of puberty.