Shanna Compton's Down Spooky is an exemplary first collection: pungent, hilarious, sharp as a tack. I kept thinking back to the early poems of Gregory Corso; Compton's poems have the same kind of humor and bite. Moreover, Compton is unique among female poets-- she clearly has feminist concerns, but presents them in such a way that the thoughts and feelings that underlie feminism (desire for justice, resentment at inequality, frustration with convention) are laid bare in a way that anyone could identify with. It's always hard to resist a poet with a great sense of humor, and Compton is such a poet. Among the funniest poems: Under This Umbrella... is funny and erotic, Contraposto (which begins "To my dear and loving head wound") is funny and poignant, Laundry is funny and knowing, Elegy for a Fictional Strongman is funny and sad, Voluntary Cinderella is funny and corrosive, Hooray for the Differently Sane is funny and anti-moralistic. And so on. The most salient thing about this collection is how entertaining it is. Not that it isn't art; it is art; but it is also capable of giving immediate, unmediated pleasure. This is a profoundly human poetics, that any sensitive person with a sense of humor and a taste for the absurd could enjoy.
Compton’s diction is frequently conversational. This gives the poems a tossed-off quality, a kind of casual grace. It also tends creates a nice balance between the line as agent of poetic enumeration and the sentence. This passage is from Laundry:
Laundry on a line is beautiful.
If the laundry is beautiful
and the soap is beautiful
and the laundress herself is beautiful
then the word beautiful is put to good use.
Repetition creates a kind of reverse anaphora, a repeated end-rhyme. It sounds like someone talking, and indeed this is a poem that sounds incantatory when read aloud. It also has a kind of syllogistic logic, but filtered through a down-home sensibility. This combination of intellectual sophistication and plain-spoken earthiness is unique to Compton. Without seeming pretentious, she uses poetic devices extensively. This is also seen in Under This Umbrella Is Another Umbrella:
I bet under her skirt is
another skirt, a sort of petticoat
& then a slip & stockings
secured by a garter belt with
flexible buttons & rubber grips inside
the top elastic & under her
coat is a sweater & then
a shirt & then an undershirt
& then a bra & then
Compton’s use of a run-on sentence is classic— it builds (in this case humorous) tension, while also showing control and restraint. The “meta” aspect of this is right on the surface; in the context of the poem, the “I” is a man thinking about a desirable woman. Her assumed layers of clothing become a synechdoche for her unavailability, her aloofness. The man thinks about his non-amour through the metaphor of clothing that she may or may not be wearing. The clothing is not actually clothing, at the same time that it is. Yet the whole construct seems very natural, almost inevitable. We can look into the levels and layers at work, but it is equally pleasurable to stay on the surface.
This quality, of an attractive surface covering equally compelling depths, is rare. Poetry tends to present one or the other: to make a broad generalization, Centrist poetry gives us the attractive surface, post-avant gives us the compelling depths. Compton, like few others, gives us both. She does so in such a way that we can revisit Down Spooky repeatedly, without getting bored or wanting more. Down Spooky is a complete, well-balanced poetry product.