All Possible Pain

Brenda Shaughnessy

copyright ©2012 by Brenda Shaughnessy

Feelings seem like made-up things,
though I know they’re not.

I don’t understand why they lead me
around, why I can’t explain to the cop

how the pot got in my car,
how my relationship

with god resembled that
of a prisoner and firing squad

and how I felt after I was shot.
Because then, the way I felt

was feelingless. I had no further
problems with authority.

I was free from the sharp
tongue of the boot of life,

from its scuffed leather toe.
My heart broken like a green bottle

in a parking lot. My life a parking lot,
ninety-eight degrees in the shade

but there is no shade,
never even a sliver.

What if all possible
pain was only the grief of truth?

The throb lingering
only in the exit wounds

though the entries were the ones
that couldn’t close. As if either of those

was the most real of an assortment
of realities—existing, documented,

hanging like the sentenced
under one sky’s roof.

But my feelings, well,
they had no such proof.

Notes on the Poem

Somehow, Brenda Shaughnessy's calmly stated poem "All Possible Pain" has the power to startle the reader. How does this unforgettable selection from Shaughnessy's 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize collection "Our Andromeda" manage to do that? The evenly laid out couplets comprising the poem set out moderately and even matter-of-factly to describe as if commonplace an encounter that one might normally find a little unsettling. While maintaining that simple two-lines-at-a-time pace, we abruptly face: "and how I felt after I was shot." That gut punch of a line leaves the reader scrambling to grasp how literally or figuratively to register it. But the poem proceeds apace, and that continued dispassionate tone is more unnerving than if the poem changed explicitly in intensity. Is the clue in these lines? "Feelings seem like made-up things, though I know they’re not." and "the way I felt was feelingless." and "But my feelings, well, they had no such proof." How then ... is the reader meant to ... feel?

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