Human Dark with Sugar by Brenda Shaughnessy, reviewed by Juliet Cook

Brenda Shaughnessy, Human Dark with Sugar, Copper Canyon Press


I loved Brenda Shaughnessy’s first poetry collection, Interior with Sudden Joy, thus was eager to partake of her second collection, Human Dark with Sugar. However, despite the two collections’ reminiscent-of-each-other titles, I thought they seemed stylistically dissimilar and Human Dark with Sugar did not immediately arouse my adoration or admiration—it was just fine, it didn’t wow or dazzle or thrill or particularly provoke. At least, that was my first impression.


It’s not exactly fair to compare two different collections, but why give into restraint. Shaughnessy’s last book was more interestingly opaque and ornate, whereas her current is more transparent and plain. Interior with Sudden Joy is more like a fizzy concoction crossed with suspicious elixir whereas Human Dark with Sugar is only slightly carbonated like a lo-cal seltzer. Begging the question, who wants enhanced water instead of an extra-special potion? Of course, many people do want enhanced water. Later it occurred to me that perhaps one particularly pertinent difference between the two collections is that ‘Interior’ deals more with the interiority of one particular speaker, whereas ‘Human Dark’ has somewhat more of an exterior focus, dealing with the human condition in a manner that might come across as broader and less quirky, but is ultimately no less relevant.


When I first started reading Human Dark with Sugar, though, I was struck by how much more plainspoken it seemed compared to what I had been anticipating. I suppose I shouldn’t enter into a new reading experience with expectations already in mind, but what can I say? I was anticipating quirkiness, obtuse eroticism, darts, and pleats. Instead I was greeted with what initially seemed like a disappointingly smooth, straightforward surface. In the first poem of the collection, “I’m Over the Moon”, the speaker clearly states, almost as if in explanation:

But my lovers have never been able to read

my mind. I’ve had to learn to be direct.

Upon which part of my mind protested, ‘No! Give me your frilly obliquity!’ In the realm of poetry, I do not tend to be drawn in by what seems overly obvious, universal, or predictable. I wish to form my own interpretations from evocative imagery and carefully-chosen yet peculiar details. I am desirous of quirky specificity.


Despite not being immediately titillated by the suggestion of oncoming directness, I did want to approach this book’s style and content with an open mind. I must admit that my non-enthralled regard continued throughout the collection’s second poem (“Magic Turns to Math and Back”) which informs, ‘So math, not metaphor, works’ and then goes on to speak of formulas and the third poem (“Why Is the Color of Snow?”) which instructs, “Melt yourself to make yourself more clear”. Even though that phrase is somewhat interesting to me, the references to precision and clarity were not boding well for my stylistic preferences as a reader. In tidy accompaniment to such references, the poems’ lines breaks are clean and consistent, the rhythm has a melodious flow, and there is quite a bit of rhyme. I tend to enjoy internal rhyme and assonance, but most of it falls near the ends of short lines here, imparting an effect that seemed a bit too sing-songy for my liking. Of course, the brief quotes presented so far are phrases plucked out of the context of considerably longer works. The first poem also includes some fairly explicit sexual imagery, but for some reason, even that did not pull me in—perhaps at least in part because I wasn’t sure how to contextualize it within the collection as a whole yet.


From the beginning of the book, the poems hint at themes associated with love, loss, the unrelenting passage of time, and some of the difficulties involved with attempting to stake out one’s own personal identity against these backdrops. Such themes continue to manifest themselves and play out as the book proceeds. I found myself wondering why this poet opted to contain such broad themes within the consistent and evenly-paced frameworks which most of the collection’s poems abide by. One theory could be that perhaps certain aspects of love, loss, and time seem so chaotic that the poet chose to exert some control over them by fitting them into neat structures of her own devising. One cannot halt the forward momentum of time, for example, but one can freeze frame certain moments of time into documents, to at least temporarily experience an illusion of control; even then, how long will it last before one realizes the relative absurdity of trying to control something larger than herself?


From the beginning of the book, there are references to order (both natural order and more human-imposed orders) and to the masses; there are allusions to the futility of escaping the order of things and the difficulty of setting oneself apart. Simultaneously, there is a certain sense of longing to do just that—to delineate oneself from the masses, to escape into some sort of distinction. Initially, this having-to-fit-in-yet-longing-to-break-away juxtaposition plays out in a rather generalized sense. As the collection proceeds, longing becomes more specified—the desire to set oneself apart as a woman, the desire to set oneself apart as a romantic partner, the desire to set a present version of oneself apart from a past version of oneself or try to somehow reconcile the different versions against the backdrop of lost love and passing time. Connecting many of these poems seems to be an underlying sense of low-grade horror hinting at implication within some sort of semi-numb, undifferentiated, I-am-replaceable haze yet on some level realizing that sometimes the alternatives to that fake womb may be much more acutely painful. So which state of being will one choose: numbed-out, dumbed-down lack of differentiation or painful individuation?


This conflict is effectively illustrated within “Parthenogenesis,” the fourth poem in the book and the first piece to intensely pique my interest. This piece explore the theme of self-control and of fitting in versus setting oneself apart within a female-centric context that resonated for me more than the somewhat more generalized context of the poems preceding it. This piece also makes use of more startling imagery and jarring juxtapositions and does so to powerful effect. The poem begins as follows:

It’s easy to make more of myself by eating,

and sometimes easy’s the thing.


To be double-me, half the trouble

but not lonely.

The piece then continues to create a tone of numb giving in and fitting in and dull gluttony; then suddenly takes a startling twist in the following jarringly juxtaposed couplet:

the feeling of being a natural woman,

like a sixteen-year-old getting knocked up

From there, the piece offers up some increasingly extreme visions of alternatives to overeating (i.e. mindless consumption i.e. buying into the natural order of things), alternatives like starving oneself, aborting oneself, eating glass, cutting off pieces of oneself.


In a way, this poem seems to be provoking a reader to consider the choices of either an easy, lazy mode of existence or else a painfully extreme mode of existence—but both of those modes seem to be rooted in self-immolation (either self-effacement or self-destruction); both of those modes seem to be dysfunctional and yielding of unhealthy results. Isn’t there a third choice, a reader might wonder.  An option that does not revolve around distracting oneself with overindulgence or adhering to extreme versions of punishing self-restraint? A choice more akin to normalcy? Well, the voice of the poem has considered that, too, and has this to say about the matter:

Sometimes I put in just the right amount,

but then I’m the worst kind of patsy, a chump


giving myself over to myself like a criminal

to the law, with nothing to show for it.


No reward, no news, no truth.

It’s too sad to be so ordinary every day.


Like some kind of employee.

Being told what to do…

The confusion of voice(s) in this piece seems to be the dilemma of a person who does not want to concede to ordinary truths; who wants to somehow rebel or set herself apart, but who can only seem to do so through self-destructive means. Maybe the voice in this poem is positing that there is ultimately no satisfying escape from the futility of ordinariness, from the ordinariness of the human condition, from the overall absurdity of existence, ultimately ending in the oblivion of time’s passage no matter how one might choose to assert herself.


Some might read “Parthenogenesis” as an eating disorder poem, but I read it as reaching beyond that into the realm of order/disorder and function/dysfunction. Perhaps even serving as a disturbing anti-consumption piece—disturbing especially because there is no satisfying solution even if one tries to manage a healthy balance or negotiate a middle ground.


At times while reading this collection and considering the themes it repeatedly explored, I found myself wishing that the language and structure of the poems conveyed more of a sense of urgency or dissonance, rather than being presented in such a straightforward and fairly traditional format. The short line lengths and non-surprising line breaks led me to read these pieces with a slow and careful pace that sometimes did not seem to mesh well with the thematic concerns. Perhaps the structure of these poems is trying to enact its own statement about the futility of attempting to contain oneself within ordinary and expected formats.


Despite language usage that sometimes seems overly obvious, many of these poems do include an underlying resistance against the obvious. In ‘Parthenogenesis,’ the speaker would rather starve herself than give in to normal eating habits. In ‘Old Bed,’ the speaker would rather deprive herself of sleep to the point of hallucination than succumb to normal patterns of sleep—and her description of the bed and resistance to sleep in this piece also seems to speak of a culture that has become overly reliant on medication, whether self-medication or societal-sanctioned remedies, as in:

This pink, synthetic honey spoiling

the tea of my life, already steeped into a stupor…


It’s like a fad now faded, trendy and cheap.


Sleep: if everyone put a spike

through their heads and wore paper pants


to work I’d be the one to say ‘No thanks.’

I’m not so insecure that I need


to be ridiculous, to dream, to belong

to the smiling group, like anyone.


I don’t need a cult of sleep to tell me to die

every night. I don’t trust the world…

Again the resistance to normalcy or to what a misguided society now tries to prescribe as normalcy, to complacency, to giving in. This speaker does not trust the impulse that seems to seek to turn us into zombies, into sheep, into sleepy teams, embracing what everyone else unquestioningly embraces because it’s very ubiquity has come to make it seem like some sort of collective unconscious—but is it really? Or is something more insidious than that? Something more akin to a carefully-constructed, corporate-plotted drug commercial posing as reality? And even if one somehow recognizes this, how does one resist the easy fix?  How does one speak against it and have a chance of being heard when so many people are automatically buying into the ‘sleep drug” that is advertised to us so ubiquitously that it begins to seem acceptable and normal and like the natural order of things.


The next piece, “Spring in Space: A Lecture,” states:

The message is: there is never enough,


Though we celebrate the hoax of boundlessness.

Yet another indication that in spite of the adherence to straightforward structures and relatively obvious language, the voice of these poems is not willing to blindly accept the status quo. On some level she recognizes it as a hoax, an illusion, a farce, a comedy of manners—and she repeatedly points this out, but of course recognition does not equal escape. She seems to be stuck when it comes to the matter of how to move beyond traditional structures, if such progression is even possible. As evidenced in the very structure of these poems, the boundaries seem so constricting, the acceptable parameters so very narrow (and part of me wants to scream, ‘So forsake acceptability then!’)


Seemingly weak lines like “Love is the source, of course” crop up here & there—and I’m not quite sure if they’re meant to be taken seriously or to poke fun at aphorism-istic self-help speak or maybe it’s something in between. After all, many of us persist in believing that ‘love will conquer all’, but this book’s poetry sometimes casts even that commonly held hope into doubt.


Appearing in the center of the collection, the long poem “Replaceable until You’re Not” deals with a serious romantic partnership and some of the repercussions of its demise. This includes the strangeness of feeling stuck in time and mentally stilted because one can imagine a certain version of herself residing in a past partner’s memory—and even if she has moved on to an extent, that version of her will remain suspended, unable to progress, as in:

I’ll always be the same woman you loved,

              this woman I no longer am,


I’ll be her and re-be her

             because I can’t replace myself.


Hers is the body you loved, she was yours,

              this future corpse;


no matter how many lovers she, her body, and I have,

              only you know the curvature that stops your heart…

The subject matter traffics in some pretty complex and thought-provoking terrain suggesting even our own preservation in time is beyond our control for it is at least partly based in other’s perceptions of non-comprehensive versions of us that may remain stagnant and pinned in the past no matter how we choose to proceed in the present and future. How do we reconcile these past/present/future incarnations of ourselves? How do we choose which versions to embrace? Is there a productive way for these versions to co-exist or is it inevitable to feel as if one is almost perpetually shedding skins and losing something that can never be regained?


No matter how time progresses and shifts and changes us, older versions of us will exist in other people’s minds, in other moments in time, (just as older versions of other people are preserved within us). Sometimes considering these other versions can be quite unsettling and other times, perhaps such versions are worthy of small celebration on their own terms. The poem “This Loved Body’ offers up such a celebration in prose poetry sections of lush, vivid imagery that specifically celebrates the details of a lover’s body. It is not entirely clear whether the speaker is celebrating a present lover or a past lover—and maybe it doesn’t matter that much. In terms of both style and tone, this poem feels like a departure from much of the rest of the collection, but be that as it may, it as an evocative celebration of a passionate interlude in time and the detailed impression another individual has the power to impress upon one. Whether extending from the past or the present, this piece imparts a certain sense of positivism about the power of love and unique human interaction even in the midst of all this numbness and interchangeableness and non-delineation. The language in this piece seems rich enough to suggest that perhaps certain special connections can save us from the ordinary after all. Even if something so powerful is not always able to sustain itself, some of its details will continue to exist within one and isn’t that worth something?


Overall, although the styling and the surfaces of most of these poems does not initially thrill, but further consideration of their underlying layers and of their thematic concerns provokes complex thought processes and is worth a read and then maybe a careful reread.


Juliet Cook is a poet and the editor of Blood Pudding Press. A few of her recent publication credits include ‘DIAGRAM’, ‘OCTOPUS’, ‘ditch’, ‘blossombones’, ‘Sein Und Werden’ and ‘Prick of the Spindle’.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and currently has a poem representing in Sundress Publications Best of the Net 2007 Anthology.  Her various print chapbooks can be acquired via Blood Pudding Press at  Her first e-chapbook, ‘Projectile Vomit’, will be published soon by Scantily Clad Press.   Another print chapbook, ‘Heart Urchin’ is forthcoming from Trainwreck Press.