Review: Shannon Burns’ “Oosh Boosh” whimsically illustrates how seriously we need play

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The whimsical title of Shannon Burns’ debut offering Oosh Boosh instructs readers to take playfulness itself seriously. Despite what the title’s homonym might suggest, this book isn’t an amuse-bouche but a satisfying entrée, making for a fitting debut into the literary world for her. She allows us to revel in the power of play, yet the poems also reveal a profound gratitude for the things in her life, not just the stereotypical monuments of poetic worship, such as loneliness or epiphany or alienation or the beauty of the natural world. This work is important, I would assert, without being self-consciously serious.

One of my eyes is receding

for no reason. Douchebag-of-the-increasingly-smaller eye

is what my enemies call me.

Oosh Boosh coverThese are the quirky, cleverly phrased observations of a playful imagination. Burns’ writing is unafraid of elevating the mundane and “unpoetic” in a lineage I identify with Frank O’Hara and the so-called “New York School.” Like the Romantics in their ecstatic response to the world, these poets began to inhabit urban and domestic spaces. The New York School longed to be carefree and informal at times, to open the door to the spaces in which our wondrous lives are somehow lived, the simple music of the living room, the silly ways we speak to one another. Such an influence is unmistakable in Oosh Boosh.

Likewise, an exciting tradition of women’s poetry has emerged, one that features some of Burns’ own influences and allegiances, including the work of her teacher Dara Wier. With Wier, other linguistically playful and daring poets, including Bernadette Mayer, Harryette Mullen, Rachel Zucker and Mary Ruefle, have carved out a powerful contemporary aesthetic. Their voices are unafraid of challenging the often phallocentric legacy of “high” modernism, one of whose hang-ups, according to some, has been a preference for expressions of melancholy. Not so in Burns, who writes:

Oh did you talk to Amber?

What’s the scoop? Did she

have the scoop? I’ve heard

she’s making a lot of money

these days, flying around

giving people the scoop.

She does, at times, sting through the singing, unleash a bite of challenging realities, life’s searching and coping. One devastating poem acts as a modest reflection on the speaker’s own existence in the wake of her father’s passing.

And in my head the control center

it’s a puffy bloody water wheel and no brain

And my appendix on the left side or whatever

And my wig is able to grow.

He saw all these things and thought more

of me and died.

Still, while entrenching her mourning in a black vision of the worthlessness of a living material body, Burns somehow alights with playfulness, which imparts its own lessons on loss. She pleads with her tools of imaginative play to restore her waking life to a meaningful place in which the speaker and her father might both live on. She does not dwell in this house, choosing next to elevate the humdrum act of throwing away garbage.

There is so much trash

in this little trash can it takes

real style now, and effort,

to position something new:

Trash grace. Seriousness.

And these are poems of the home. More than of a few sketch a loving relationship between the speaker and her husband, their domestic games with wordplay. She reflects, for instance, on the behavior of their cat—“Let’s massage/ the cat with applauding”—providing an unfiltered snapshot of the life they share:


married we make a marigold

chain and arrange it around the cat     Look

at this piece of shit

we say and the cat blinks

slowly and is

incomparably beautiful.

As full-length manuscripts go, this book is on the shorter end. Its brevity gives rise to what Edgar Allen Poe, somewhat playfully himself, called a “unity of impression.” He was talking about stories, but I felt this effect on reading Oosh Boosh. Unlike most of Poe’s one-sitting-length compositions, the Burns book made me feel grateful. I have a particular affection for gratitude. It is the opposite of fear, that savage force suffocating this country at present. There is no cowering or cowardice in this text, only a fervent, attentive search for gratitude, a search we should all take more seriously.

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