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  • Raymond Obstfeld

Poem #2: Brenda Shaughnessy's "I'm Over the Moon"

Updated: Nov 15, 2019



Logline

“I’m Over the Moon” is a blunt, incisive, witty, sometimes raunchy exploration of the harmful consequences of our culture’s celebration of the illusions of Romantic Love.


"I'm Over the Moon" by Brenda Shaughnessy

I don’t like what the moon is supposed to do.

Confuse me, ovulate me,


spoon-feed me longing. A kind of ancient

date-rape drug. So I’ll howl at you, moon,


I’m angry. I’ll take back the night. Using me to

swoon at your questionable light,


you had me chasing you,

the world’s worst lover, over and over


hoping for a mirror, a whisper, insight.

But you disappear for nights on end


with all my erotic mysteries

and my entire unconscious mind.


How long do I try to get water from a stone?

It’s like having a bad boyfriend in a good band.


Better off alone. I’m going to write hard

and fast into you, moon, face-fucking.


Something you wouldn’t understand.

You with no swampy sexual


promise but what we glue onto you.

That’s not real. You have no begging


cunt. No panties ripped off and the crotch

sucked. No lacerating spasms


sending electrical sparks through the toes.

Stars have those.


What do you have? You’re a tool, moon.

Now, noon. There’s a hero.


The obvious sun, no bullshit, the enemy

of poets and lovers, sleepers and creatures.


But my lovers have never been able to read

my mind. I’ve had to learn to be direct.


It’s hard to learn that, hard to do.

The sun is worth ten of you.


You don’t hold a candle

to that complexity, that solid craze.


Like an animal carcass on the road at night,

picked at by crows,


taunting walkers and drivers. Your face

regularly sliced up by the moving


frames of car windows. Your light is drawn,

quartered, your dreams are stolen.


You change shape and turn away,

letting night solve all night’s problems alone.



Why This Poem

I don’t recall when I first read this poem,* though it had to be after 2007 when it was first published. But I clearly remember the exhilarating feeling of hearing a powerful, skilled, brave, honest, and funny voice and thinking, “This is a person with something to say and love the way she’s saying it.” I gave it to my wife, Loretta, to read and she had the same reaction. We were so impressed that we immediately ordered a couple of Shaughnessy’s poetry books. We also both included the poem in our college English courses.


Student reaction was mixed. Some had the same enthusiastic response we did. Others were put off by her bluntness of subject matter and “course” language, especially from a woman (which makes the poem’s point). It’s not a polite or self-effacing poem, which is what they expected from a woman writer from their high school English classes. This is one of the reasons we used the poem in the classroom: to expand the students’ traditional ideas about what a woman is and how she should think and act.


One of the things that excites me about this poem is that there are lines that I’m still not sure I totally understand. (Which is true in a lot of my favorite poems.) Yet, even when that happens, I still love the line for its muscled intelligence and bright originality.


(*note: Since writing this, my wife reminded me that we first read the poem in the wonderful anthology The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets, in which poets picked poems by their favorite poets.)


What the Poem Means to Me

In her novel The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes, “Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another—physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.” In essence, “I’m Over the Moon” is about the destructiveness of the ideals of romantic love because they keep us from seeing our world and our relationships realistically rather than how we wish them to be and therefore make bad choices based on skewed information. This is a theme that comes up a lot in the works I teach, in part because I agree with Morrison that we brainwash our kids with false expectations about human romantic love that gives them a sweet tooth for cotton candy romance rather than a hunger for the long-term healthy romance.


Students who declared themselves as “incurable romantics” were especially agitated by this poem. This led to some interesting and sometimes frustrating discussions about what a romantic was and why they embraced that ideal. Students who were only 18 or 19 insisted they believed in “love at first sight” and all the other Hallmark trappings, despite having very little, if any, first-hand experience with love. But when asked why they believed it, they were often at a loss. Their belief was not inspired by their parents’ fairytale relationships because most came from divorced homes. As we soon discovered, it was feel-good movies and television that laid the foundation for this belief. The illusion of fiction shaped their view of reality. This illusion, in Shaughnessy’s poem, is symbolized by the moon. I’ll get to why later.


In the novel (and movie) High Fidelity, the protagonist Rob goes on a fool’s journey of looking up his old girlfriends to figure out why he’s incapable of a mature romantic relationship. He eventually realizes that his whole life he’s been using romantic rock songs as his guide in relationships, the kind that tell you to go with your heart and trust your gut. At the end of the novel, he admits, “I've been thinking with my guts since I was fourteen years old, and frankly speaking, between you and me, I have come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.” However, the “incurable romantic” chooses to take no responsibility for their choices, instead shrugging off their bad choices as having gone with their heart because they’re too lazy to use their brains. The fear prospective lovers have is that the person isn’t in love with them, with who they really are, but is in love with being in love. Which makes them feel like an interchangeable Lego.


The “incurable romantic” is merely a variation of the anti-vaxxer, Holocaust-denier, climate change-denier refusing to acknowledge the realistic complexities of romantic relationships, rationalizing their inability to find or maintain love with the excuse that their standards are so high.


This is not to say that True Romance doesn’t happen. We all know it does. Some people fall in love and stay that way all their lives. For many people, that is the goal: a passionate yet stable relationship that lasts a lifetime during which you always remain physically and intellectually interested in each other. The problem is in romanticizing love: in looking for a heightened storybook experience, you may overlook sincere qualities in those around you. This is why there is a trend to make proposals Instagram-worthy, with people hiring companies to stage an extravagantly orchestrated production and, of course, film every moment. Relationships as performance art for the benefit of an audience rather than the nurturing of each other.


Having said all that, I wonder how to explain romantic love to my children. Being in love and being infatuated can seem like the same thing, but it clearly isn’t. When you’re standing in the middle of that emotional storm, you’re being battered around too much to tell the difference. Your heart and guts are easily fooled by the light of the moon. You do need some harsh sunlight, as the poem explains, to sort things out. Thinking is the necessary companion to feeling because without it, you’re easily manipulated by others and your own needs. What do I say to my children? I have them read High Fidelity, Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers, the stories of Lorrie Moore, this poem, and other works that balance out the fantasy with the reality so they approach relationships with eyes wide open.


All the Biography You Need to Know for This Poem

Brenda Shaughnessy was born in 1970 in Okinawa, Japan, and was 37 when “I’m Over the Moon” was published. The age of a poet when they wrote a poem gives me some insight on their perspective of the subject matter. She grew up in Southern California and currently lives in New Jersey with her husband, poet Craig Morgan Teicher, and their two children. She teaches at Rutgers-Newark and New York University. Her work also explores non-binary relationships. As she said in an interview, “The thread of lesbian connection and being part of a queer community is definitely present in all my books. I’ve always wanted to posit the lesbian/queer voice as central in my work, in hopes that a lesbian/queer readership might recognize their own songs.” I also like this amusing comment about parenthood, “I don’t know who said this amazing thing, but I second it: ‘Children are a great source of joy. But they turn all other sources of joy to shit.’”


Line-by-Line Musings

I’m Over the Moon (title)

This clever title takes a common phrase about romantic love and reverses the meaning. When someone says, “I’m over the moon,” it usually means a state of delirious happiness, usually from being in the early stages of love. But here it means that the narrator is “over” (meaning past caring about) what the moon represents: idealized romantic love.

This is good place to briefly discuss the moon as a symbol of illusion. In practical terms, no light actually emanates from the moon, it only appears that way (an illusion). The light is reflected from the sun. Moonlight softens whatever it illuminates, making it appear less realistic and therefore more desirable. The song “Moonlight Becomes You” (“becomes” meaning flatters) addresses this idealization: “Moonlight becomes you, I’m thrilled at the sight/And I could get so romantic tonight.” The main concept is that moonlight allows the perceiver to interpret an object or person and see what they want to see. Which is what we often do when falling in love: project qualities on the person that aren’t really there. This is echoed in Joni Mitchell’s song, “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” in which she starts the song by making fun of Richard’s cynicism about her romanticism:


And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe You laugh, he said you think you're immune, go look at your eyes They're full of moon You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you All those pretty lies, pretty lies When you gonna realize they're only pretty lies


When he says her eyes are “full of moon,” he’s referring to the moon as a symbol of her romanticism, which he says always results in the person becoming cynical. Her idea of love is “pretty lies.” She laughs at him but by the end she is exactly as he described her, in a dark bar complaining about lost idealism. When she says she wants to “blow this damn candle out,” she’s referring to the candlelight as the symbol of Romanticism. (I discuss this a little more a few stanzas down when the narrator mentions the mirror.)


One of my favorite musicals, The Fantastiks, addresses this with satirical wit. The first half of the play takes place in moonlight, which allows the young lovers to be manipulated by their dads, and their own childish notions of romance, to fall in love. The second half of the play takes place in sunlight, which strips away all their sappy ideas and reveals the harsh truths they need to accept in order to really understand love. The second act begins with the song “This Plum Is Too Ripe” which has these lyrics:


Take away the golden moonbeam.

Take away the tinsel sky.

What at night seems oh so scenic

May be cynic by and by.


The title introduces the narrator’s cynical tone about what the moon represents. Throughout the poem she attacks the moon as a paternalistic symbol of women that mansplains their role. The Man in the Moon is grandpa with his feet up watching Hallmark Channel romances and demanding his daughters and granddaughters be raised to be just like the women in those stories.


I don’t like what the moon is supposed to do.

Confuse me, ovulate me,

I often tell my creative writing students to begin with a conflict and that’s exactly what happens here when the narrator declares, “I don’t like…” When she adds “what the moon is supposed to do,” she’s already concluded that it doesn’t actually do what it’s supposed to and she doesn’t like the idea of what it’s supposed to do. She’s also setting up the idea that within the notion of romantic love is the confining view of what a woman is and what she’s “supposed to do.”

The moon is supposed to “confuse” her by only showing her an idealized version of the world rather than the truth. She is then supposed to choose love based on this faulty information. Buried in this notion is the idea that women can be wooed/manipulated by preying on their popularized need for romanticism. Popular culture constantly portrays women as less realistic and more prone to romantic idealization (like children) which contributes to not respecting them intellectually.


“Ovulate me” refers to the common myth that the moon and female fertility are linked. The myth states that menstrual cycles are affected by the moon like the ocean tides. Menstruation comes from the Latin word “mensis” which relates to the Greek word “mene” which means “moon.” The narrator is right in stating it’s bullshit. The reference to ovulation also suggests that this is the main role of women and therefore the source of their worth to society.


spoon-feed me longing. A kind of ancient

date-rape drug. So I’ll howl at you, moon,

I love everything about the phrase “spoon-feed me longing.” The thumping rhythm of it blasts defiance as much as the words. The dark accusatory tone of “ancient date-rape drug” implies that the whole mythology around Romantic Love has put women in a vulnerable position to be exploited. It limits the way women are supposed to act in order to be deemed “lovable.” And it suggests that the most important role for a woman is to be in a relationship. This is supported by how many works about women fail the Bechdel test (named for author Alison Bechdel) which questions how women are represented in fiction by seeing how many scenes that contain at least two women involve discussions about topics other than men.


When the narrator says she’ll “howl at the moon” she’s reclaiming her own passions rather than let them be defined by our paternalistic symbol of the moon.


I’m angry. I’ll take back the night. Using me to

swoon at your questionable light,

She expresses her anger at being confined by moon mythology and vows to “take back the night,” meaning rewrite how a woman should see herself and how others should see her. (The author is doing that by the act of writing the poem.)


“Using me to swoon” refers to the moon (and all the cultural baggage attached to it) compelling her to “swoon” like a tween at K-Pop concert because that’s the gender traits it insists on.


you had me chasing you,

the world’s worst lover, over and over

The irony of brainwashing people to believe in something is that they become rabid defenders of the programming. “Incurable romantic” isn’t a charm bracelet of honor but handcuffs of submission, not a diamond necklace but a too-tight choker. Incurable the way a zombie is incurable, wanting to eat the brains of others because it has none of its own. Hence, she chases “over and over” again even though the moon (and all the shallow lovers the moon represents) is the “world’s worst lover.” It’s the worst because real love isn’t involved, just a shadow of love.


hoping for a mirror, a whisper, insight.

But you disappear for nights on end

Classical art is sometimes referred to as a mirror because it tries to realistically duplicate its subject matter. Romantic art is sometimes referred to as a candle or lamp, because it doesn't try to replicate the subject but rather hold a candle to it so that we see it in a certain interpretive light. Here the narrator hoped that her pursuit of the romantic love the moon represents would be a mirror that would allow her some insight. Instead, the moon, like an indifferent lover, disappears “for nights on end.”


with all my erotic mysteries

and my entire unconscious mind.

How is it possible for the moon to disappear with her “erotic mysteries” and “entire unconscious mind”? It’s only possible if she lets it because she’s spent so much of her life under its influence which defines what proper eroticism is for a woman. Her awareness of it is the first step in reclaiming her eroticism and unconscious mind.


How long do I try to get water from a stone?

It’s like having a bad boyfriend in a good band.

“It’s like having a bad boyfriend in a good band” is one of my favorite similes in anything I’ve ever read. The line is so good that the reader can intuit its meaning immediately and nod in agreement. It’s about being mistreated in a bad relationship but staying because you’re attracted by the artist part of him that is his redeemable quality. It’s like Alex, the narrator in A Clockwork Orange. He’s a horrible human being, but his love of Beethoven creates a redemptive quality so we’re thinking that because he loves Beethoven, perhaps there’s a spark of humanity in him that can redeem him. Unfortunately, we have a long and disappointing history of great artists who were shitty human beings.


But there’s another aspect here. The mythology of the moon and its blueprint for romantic love is told to us through art—movies, songs, plays, romance novels, etc. The line suggests that we can appreciate the art that tells these stories without embracing the incomplete and condescending message. For example, I love romantic comedies like Notting Hill, Love Actually, Groundhog Day, and so forth. They celebrate romantic love in a way that reminds us of its value. And they are entertaining. The mistake is to try to recreate the formula in your own life rather than understand what that formula is trying to say: overcome childish fears of losing independence, care for someone else more than you care for yourself, be someone who inspires love in others. Otherwise, it’s like someone loving the novel Moby-Dick and at the end thinking, “I really want to go whale hunting.” Kinda missed the point.


Better off alone. I’m going to write hard

and fast into you, moon, face-fucking.

These next four stanzas use blunt sexual language in order to convey the depth of the narrator’s indignation and anger at having her sexuality and sensuousness sanitized for society’s protection. The paternalistic arrogance of defining how a woman should feel sexually and how she should express herself sexually brings her to threaten the “moon” with aggressive, hard-core sexual language (“into you,” “face-fucking”).


I like how she says “I’m going to write hard and fast into you.” We expect the word “ride” instead of “write.” But write indicates that she is reclaiming the right (an echo of write) to create art that tells her true and full story. Like this poem. Now, instead of being with a bad boyfriend in a good band, she is the artist controlling her own narrative.


Something you wouldn’t understand.

You with no swampy sexual


promise but what we glue onto you.

That’s not real. You have no begging


cunt. No panties ripped off and the crotch

sucked. No lacerating spasms


In these three stanzas, the narrator berates the moon for not understanding her lust, mostly because it doesn’t care to, preferring the Father Knows Best version of gender roles and “proper” expressions of sexuality. The moon doesn’t want to acknowledge the woman’s swampy sexual desire, so wonderfully express by “begging cunt.” The ripped panties, sucked crotch, and lacerating spasms suggest the animalistic nature of her sexuality that society doesn’t like to acknowledge except in women it deems sluttish. Open sexual desire in men is lauded as James Bondish, in women it is villainish, the sign of a damaged female, and to be punished.


sending electrical sparks through the toes.

Stars have those.

The narrator’s reference to “Stars have those” implies that stars have a fuller understanding of the entire spectrum of being a woman. Why? Perhaps because they are so much farther away and that there are so many of them that we can imbue them with any meanings we want. They seem more like a twinkling ideal rather than the close glaring moon.


What do you have? You’re a tool, moon.

Now, noon. There’s a hero.


The obvious sun, no bullshit, the enemy

of poets and lovers, sleepers and creatures.

This idea of noon as a hero goes back to what I wrote above about The Fantastiks and their use of moon and sun. The sun illuminates everything in bright light so we can see it in the roundness of truth rather than the subjectivity of illusion. I like how she says it’s the enemy of poets and lovers, while writing a poem decrying poets who croon romantic crap. Lovers is also being used ironically because they aren’t really lovers if they love the illusion, they are artists in love with their own art: the fantasy love relationships they create.


But my lovers have never been able to read

my mind. I’ve had to learn to be direct.


It’s hard to learn that, hard to do.

The sun is worth ten of you.

I used to do this exercise in class in which I asked the students what they would change about the opposite gender (I realize this is crudely binary, but it was just to prompt discussion). Almost all the males said they wished females would say exactly what they want rather than hint or be passive-aggressive. We then discussed why they thought women were less direct. The women in the class quickly responded that males didn’t appreciate directness and often thought it “bitchy” or “mean.” But when a male was direct, he thought it was being “honest.” We also discussed the difference between being honest and being deliberately cruel as a means to manipulate someone through their insecurities. The purpose of the exercise wasn’t to come to conclusions but to leave them thinking.


Maybe the narrator is saying it’s difficult to be direct because culturally women aren’t allowed to be direct. And the mythology of the moon teaches that women are passive nurturers. Or she might just be saying that’s her problem, not as a woman, but just as a person. Her statement that “the sun is worth ten of you” makes it clear that she prefers seeing the world as it really is to the foggy illusion of the moon. She prefers the red pill to the blue pill.


You don’t hold a candle

to that complexity, that solid craze.

The “hold a candle” is a common idiom meaning that something isn’t as good as something else. In this case, she’s saying the moon isn’t as good as the honesty of the sun, but the candle is also a reference to the candle as a symbol of Romanticism.


“Solid craze” is interesting because in the early part of the poem, she talks about the moon making her crazy (meaning the way women are supposed to be under the strict, conservative ideals of womanhood). But now she refers to “solid craze,” suggesting the passion that can still be generated by seeing the world as it is: solid.


Like an animal carcass on the road at night,

picked at by crows,


taunting walkers and drivers. Your face

regularly sliced up by the moving

The gruesome reality of life and death is in sharp contrast to the dreamy illusions of the moon, the beer goggles of the night.


frames of car windows. Your light is drawn,

quartered, your dreams are stolen.

The “moving frames” portrays moonlight like a movie projector, projecting Hollywood “happily ever after” into our collective unconscious. The act of the moving car slicing may suggest the moon’s power is being attacked. Add to this the drawn and quartered (when a prisoner’s internal and sex organs were removed while he was alive and then the head cut off and the remainder of the body cut into quarters), which implies the moon is the victim being killed. The torture references tell us how angry the narrator is because of the scope of the damage the moon mythology has done for generations.


Taunting that “your dreams are stolen” could mean that the destructive dreams of romantic love that Toni Morrison referred to are being confiscated and rendered powerless. But it could also suggest that the moon is no true artist in creating art that gives insight, but rather one who steals dreams (art) to regurgitate over and over, like a Thomas Kincaid painting of a misty-shrouded cottage.


You change shape and turn away,

letting night solve all night’s problems alone.

The moon changes shape through its phases. As it gets smaller, it seems to be turning away, leaving us to deal with the damage that its false promises have wrought. The movie is over and we leave the theater trying to apply the cute-meet and staggering coincidences to our lives, only to blame ourselves when the blueprint fails to deliver.

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