A Review of Incommunicado by Keith O’Shaughnessy

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book review

Melissa Adamo

A Review of Incommunicado

by Keith O’Shaughnessy

Grolier Poetry Press, 2011. 83 pp.

ISBN 978-0-9834513-0-3, USA $17.50




    Keith O’Shaughnessy’s first full length poetry collection, Incommunicado, dances off its pages through its lyrical language. It was this dance that was alluring for Ifeanyi Menkiti, owner of the famous Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square, who essentially created the Grolier Discovery Award for O’Shaughnessy’s book. Menkiti first introduced himself to O’Shaughnessy through fan mail, praising his work and asking to see more. After O’Shaughnessy obliged, Menkiti eventually awarded Incommunicado the first ever Grolier Discovery Award, telling O’Shaughnessy, “I’m creating a prize, and you’re winning it.”
         It is clear why Menkiti fell in love with O’Shaughnessy’s words and why he wrote that the poems of Incommunicado “dare the reader to drop everything and join the dance.” The poems explore language and art, communication and humanity in a way that seems fresh yet familiar. The first poem of the collection, “The Plaza Opens,” reveals O’Shaughnessy’s flair for playing with paradoxes and delving into dichotomies. He writes:

           Into a broken statue’s empty arms,
           gesturing, absently,
           at the ever presently not there,

           a disintegrating fragment’s unseen hand
           muses, blankly,
           on the unfinished without end.

    The poem reveals the setting of the book while also showcasing O’Shaughnessy’s flawless writing style; the poem is one syntactically complex sentence, yet it’s never confusing or unclear. While the poem provides a backdrop for the book, it also paints life into the setting itself by blurring opposites, as in the phrase “presently not there”— something O’Shaughnessy does throughout the collection. The statue may be broken with empty arms, but its beauty lies in its brokenness. It may gesture and muse blankly and absently, but it is still gesturing and musing, thus remaining active. Incommunicado uses such remarkable images and subtle actions throughout the collection to reveal the importance of filling in emptiness with art and language. The book is a constant reminder that beauty is birthed from blank pages and bare stages.
         The overall structure of the collection sings stories of particular characters: the café singer and the bullfighter, who had an affair which ended in the singer’s suicide, and the old street singer, who is actually the bullfighter in the present since he had given up fighting after his lover’s brutal death. Other characters include a café waitress and a flamenco dancer (two women with whom he also might have had affairs), a second singer, and the exiled American writer—a stranger, just as we are, in an exotic place, who represents the impossibilities of language, partly because his letters are never read by other characters. The six poems entitled “Incommunicado” throughout the collection are, in fact, the writer’s letters, each of which repeats words and ideas over and over as the writer tries to communicate endlessly about the very art of communication, despite the fact that he knows he cannot capture his feelings. “Incommunicado I. First Draft” opens with, “There is nothing left to say/ but what it is to be elsewhere,/ how it feels to be otherwise.” O’Shaughnessy gives us these tragic characters so we can be elsewhere and feel otherwise without leaving his pages.
         O’Shaughnessy also makes a world (a creation entirely of his own imagination, as he did not base the work on a particular city) for all of his characters, which centers in a Mexican plaza. The plaza itself almost becomes a character since we begin to familiarize ourselves with its features: the fountain, the market, the café, the statue. Therefore, because readers get to know the place and the people of the book so well, they might not even realize that the location is invented. This realistic quality is further helped by O’Shaughnessy’s consistency in language describing the place and people. His overall style may be syntactically complex and his poems might explore paradoxical elements of life, but his vocabulary possesses a quality of disarming straightforwardness and simplicity. This freshness of language helps to keep readers engaged, allowing them a sense of direct contact with the people and places of the story.
         Additionally, the use of this imaginative setting and the fact that, as Menkiti says, “[his writing is] very much his own voice, something that has taken possession of him,” make his work a bit of an anomaly in contemporary American poetry.
         In “Message in a Bottle,” O’Shaughnessy writes, “the writer hears only the spaces/ between the lines, where every language is speechless,/ all music unheard of. . . .” Here and throughout the collection, the poems ask us to hear the music not just in songs, but also in words and in silences. Incommunicado uses wordplay and imagery to show us how to be comfortable with all forms of expression, even if that form does not exist at all.