The Splash of Easy Laughter
by Shoshauna Shy
31 poems, 46 pages
Publisher: Kelsay Books
To order: Amazon
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Poet and flash-fiction writer Shoshauna Shy is the author of four previous poetry collections including ‘What the Postcard Didn’t Say’ (Zelda Wilde Publishing, 2007) which won an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Library Association. Shy works for the Wisconsin Humanities Council in Madison and has helped create, coordinate and facilitate poetry programs for the Annual Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison for a decade. She is also the founder of the Poetry Jumps Off The Shelf Program and the Woodrow Hall Jumpstart Awards which can be found at www.PoetryJumpsOffTheShelf.com.
The domesticity of the weekly wash hung out to dry matches the bright-coloured breezy nature of Shy’s poetry in which she writes about childhood, adolescence, marriage and children drawing her material from a fully-lived life. Of particular interest is the opening poem in which she imagines herself in the guise of a girl-to-be choosing her parents. It is not too dissimilar from Laurence O’Brien’s opening poem ‘Walking Distance’ in his volume ‘The White Hydrangeas’ which I reviewed last month for Quill & Parchment where O’Brien goes back in time and sees the old, vacant high school where his parents first met four years before he was born. Both poems are striking in their originality.
The title of the collection is indicative of Shy’s inventive use of vocabulary. The word ‘splash’ in this context is an example of what I call displacement. In the usual run of things we might refer to a splash of colour or a splash of paint but a splash of easy laughter is another matter altogether and it stays in the mind simply because of its unusual placement. We will encounter other such displacements as we progress through the collection. In ‘Why I Chose My Parents’, for example, she describes her father as having ‘a smile wider than Nebraska’; in ‘Footloose Five Years’ she writes about ‘men whose intentions / came apart at the seams’ and in ‘Walking through the Church Where My Husband Almost Got Married’ she makes mention of ‘a collection of cousins / rimming a waiting pew’. In all these cases, there are words and phrases that stand out from the rest of the sentence because we do not expect to find them in the contexts in which they appear.
Shy writes with considerable precision, grounding her poems in specific places: Illinois, San Diego, Nova Scotia, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Nantucket Sound, Wichita. Various articles of clothing are draped throughout her texts rather like identity tags: A-line skirts, Hush Puppies, corduroy jumpers, a plaid kilt with wide shoulder straps, cable-stitched sweaters, duffels and jackets. Again, they serve to place each poem in its context. Another basic essential of human life, food, is also often mentioned: Kellog’s Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, homemade caramel, cook-all-day stew, braunschweiger sandwiches and salads with cranberries. Like music and perfume (also mentioned in places) these phrases appeal to the senses and turn the poems into living, believable entities in their own right.
Given that the cost of living is currently soaring and many are having to make a choice between heating their homes and going without food, Shy’s poem ‘The Suggestion of Slivers’ struck me as being particularly relevant at the present time. Here are the opening and closing lines:
In this land of pampered abundance
bushes take turns blossoming politely
shop windows shine
all colors stay vivid
What mistakes we make we can mop up
without muddying our hands…
Which is why weekly
I let the Frigidaire empty
and watch our children forage
through the remains:
brown rice leftovers
berries bruised in storage
the heels of bread
I want them to know barrels do have bottoms
and this is how they taste
In poems like ‘The College of Mothers’ and ‘After the near-Miss with the 40-Ton Semi’, Shy captures the drama of the moment delivering her words with breathtaking economy so that some of the most powerful passages inhabit spaces that become ‘small enough to squeeze between a consonant and a comma.’ The trials and tribulations of marital relationships are also handled sensitively and in a matter-of-fact manner that betrays no hint of sentimentality. ‘The Photo of Us Before You Told Me You Were Leaving’ is visually expressed in three columns across the page. For the most part, each column comprises just one word, placing a real emphasis on its impact. Each column is concerned with a different part of the body: the hands, the arms and the face. The way they are written they suggest the hopelessness of gesture, the absence of any chance of connectedness and a lack of facial recognition. The spaces between the three rows are indicative of the extent to which this relationship has fallen apart:
Shy has a way of getting to the essence of things. This is poetry that cuts to the chase with words that are well-chosen, precise and memorable. Like the washing on the line, they have a sparkle and a freshness to them, as well as a pleasing texture.