Julia Reidy on Brenda Shaughnessy's "The Octopus Museum"
Updated: Jun 10
Brenda Shaughnessy’s apocalyptic poetry in her fifth collection, The Octopus Museum, explores present-day humanity amidst a post-climate disaster world. Shaughnessy, from Okinawa, Japan and Southern California, uses this dark collection to frame present society in a dystopian manner. Rather than looking to the past for a nostalgia of normalcy, both humans and cephalopod overlords examine the Pacific Garbage Patch, the objectification of women, and systemic racism as mysteries of a strange and equally dark and dystopian past. In her poem “Are Women People,” these alien researchers fail to understand why young women are not technically people and why people of color need to be so vigilant about renewing their identification.
Taking into account the current human condition of division, racism, and sexism against the backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating environment, Shaughnessy’s work creates a bridge that connects our present ideas, values, and emotions and shoves them into the incredibly bleak darkness that is Shaughnessy’s futuristic landscape.
In her final poem, “Our Family on the Run,” Shaughnessy's archetypal depiction of a post-apocalyptic struggle stands out in the way that she manages to ground this chaos in the logistical and practical planning that her special needs son requires. The questions of identity and agency that appear throughout her work are centered in this piece in particular.
In this poem, the manic, dystopian archetype of a family navigating the incoming apocalypse is juxtaposed with the practical and grounded realities of Shaughnessy accommodating the needs of her son on their journey—her son Cal’s wheelchair evoking questions about agency and autonomy. She writes, “He had his choice and he made it. // How strange that the color of his wheelchair ever mattered enough to anyone to // offer him that handful of options.” Cal’s wheelchair gives him a sense of autonomy and agency in the world around him but also creates logistical challenges in this rapidly changing environment.
Shaughnessy’s voice in The Octopus Museum is dark, yet at many points humorous and light-hearted. She creates a believable world within a bizarre concept, through the use of characters that are both life-like and amusing—such as Ned, an elder who tries to correspond with other humans through a series of letters in which he reflects on the minutiae of the past when humans ran the world.
The Octopus Museum
By Brenda Shaughnessy
Julia Reidy is from Woodstock, Ga and recently graduated with a B.A. in English from Villanova University.