Book Review

Keith O’Shaughnessy, Incommunicado, Grolier Book Shop, 2011

by Claire Hughes

O’Shaughnessy’s first full-length book of poetry, Incommunicado, is a vivid, strikingly descriptive collection. Through images both authentic and stirring, he is able to capture seemingly indescribable phenomena: “As the glare / of the light off the white / of the sand burns the sky /blood-red, the glaze of the dew / on the dust boils off as steam / into the humid breeze” (“Carnaval”). O’Shaughnessy’s use of clearly defined, concrete images is what makes his poems so accessible. Even more compelling is the way that Spanish words are integrated into his poems.  For example: “In a tornado of flamenco, / a bailaora in a green silk sash / swings round” (“Carnaval V. In the Dance Hall”). 

The collection flows naturally from the opening of a festival, the events that occur throughout, to the ending of the spectacle, incorporating a variety of characters—such as a bull-fighter, street singer, and flamenco dancer—in an intricately designed dramatic sequence.  Many of his poems suggest events or figures popular in the Spanish-speaking world (“La Feria,” “Carnaval,” “Before the Bullfight,” “Los Revolucionarios”).  In particular, a handful of his poems refer to the performances of bullfights.  “Aficionado,” for example, tells the story of a bullfight through the eyes of the bull: “I charge the cape and drive these horns into its silk, / tearing at a blur of color in the air. / My head thrust about wildly in anger and shame / to cheers that mock me cruelly.”

The poet’s unique use of speech interwoven from two languages reflects the inability of people to communicate with one another suggested by the book’s title—paradoxical content for poems whose words flow so effortlessly and describe scenes in such vivid detail.  O’Shaughnessy characterizes this quality in his poem “To a Flamenca, in Ardor” with the opening lines, “The word flamenco is a figure / of speech, but is also a figure / of dance, which is likewise a form /of music.  Each of these is a form of expression, a way of speaking, / beyond words.” 

Incommunicado itself frequently engages methods of communication and expression other than that of language, in particular dance, music, and even the violent choreography of bullfighting. Ironically, throughout this meticulously patterned and evocative collection, O’Shaughnessy creates a poetry that captures a wide range of human experience that lies, ordinarily, beyond language.

Claire Hughes is a writing major at Loyola University in Maryland. She has a strong interest in poetry.