Stephen Lawrence was working on a review for Rochford Street Review at the time of his death and we had exchanged a number of emails discussing the structure of the review. In his last email to me he discussed, with some excitement, his review of Evie Shockley’s 2011 poetry collection, the new black that had just been published in the New York’s Poetry Project Newsletter. Stephen wanted to publish the review in Australia and asked if he could send it to me for consideration to be published in Rochford Street Review. I agreed and waited for him to send it through. It never arrived.
After I heard of Stephen’s death I approached Paul Johnson from the Poetry Project Newsletter for a copy of the review. He kindly forwarded a copy of the review which is republished below as a tribute to Stephen.
Reading this review one is struck by Stephen’s keen poetic mind and his understanding of the political context in which poetry operates. It reinforces just what a loss his death was to poetry.
the new black by Evie Shockley. Wesleyan University Press, 2011. Reviewed by Stephen Lawrence.
Throughout the new black, Evie Shockley summons African American artifacts and artworks by actors, sculptors and photographers. She invites readers to search out, or revisit, artisans and poets such as Louise Bourgeois, Anne Spencer, Langston Hughes and Lucille Clifton. Shockley also exhibits Frida Kahlo, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald— even friends and colleagues Amy Chavasse, Aimie Meredith Cox, Mendi Obadike and Lisa Crooms.Shockley invites mostly black artists into her gallery, as steps in discussing a cultural landscape that weaves the artistic, the intimate and the political. It is unavoidably a personal trajectory—”race is not biological: it is / the way the wind blows when you enter / a room, how you weather the storms”—but the new black is a comprehensive argument taking a poetic route. Her personal is indisputably political.She starts with the “miracle” of Barack Obama’s presidency:
a clean-cut man brings a brown blackness
to a dream-cawed, unprecedented
place, some see in this the end of race,
like the end of a race that begins with a gun
To the poet, this event is the (re)rebirth of her country, and it also obliges a renewal of her artistic approach. In a way, Obama’s manifestation creates the new black. But “the hard part comes afterwards.”
In her collection’s first section, “out with the old,” she begins with the exquisite “my life as china”: mineral elements mined from mountains, then fired as clay and glass, come to human lips. It is lovely; yet through the poem’s limpid, Schubertian depths one can read of racial passages from another continent, market transactions, bodily alterations, shameful deals.
The poet’s visit to Monticello, in “dependencies,” inflames complex, uncomfortable reactions. Her personal response to the curated Jefferson is always evident: “i hear you loved / wine (we have that in common).” Manifold approaches lean upon each other in this multi-voiced dramatic poem—it is almost a theater piece, dividing selves into different speakers as part of the search for understanding and qualified acceptance.
The rest of Shockley’s collection continues to source artists, various branches of knowledge and her personal history to explore blackness and nationhood. She skillfully and provocatively opens up the complexities, disputes and schisms that will remain with the U.S. until the end of culture. Although she unseals then coldly peers into wounds, at other times hers is a warm, sympathetic approach.
On her dedications page, she offers “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This oscillation between positions of victim and oppressor keeps her collection in jittery motion. Nothing is cozy, even at the poems’ most relaxed. Demanding words (“maquette,” “fugacious,” “callithump”) stalk her comfortable-seeming winter poem, “on new year’s eve”; it ends with a stern cut “that severs soul from bone.”
She bends slogans to her purpose (“it was a dark and nightly / storm”) and coaxes nouns into verb drag (“baroqueing / libraries”). Triplets of puns and rhymes skip through her last sequence, “the fare-well letters.” And Joycean wordplay peeps from lines in “the cold”: “merritory,” “sunly.” There are also uneasy conceptual standoffs in this poem, as climate, literary theory and religion edge around each other. The skittish dance hints at bravado, and sometimes feels like a misstep. But Shockley’s intentionality can’t be disallowed. The quarrels of knowledge are held in concert, and converge beautifully, pivoting at the poem’s center:
the footprints didn’t sully
the snow until
they doubled back
As well as gaming with words and phrases within the poems, the collection’s title echoes playfully, bitingly, throughout. “New” becomes an acronym for “not especially white”; “murk was the new black”; “abnormal is the new natural”: all piece together the puzzle of her book’s naming.
Shockley tours a wide range of poetic forms, never settling on a single formula. The variety is so broad that this, her second book of poetry, has been accused of resembling a first collection’s stylistic “grab-bag,” intent on showing off formal flair. Too-easy subjects— such as her shrill Halliburton-in-lraq poem (its title, “in a non-subjunctive mood,” attempts to validate its inclusion)—seem unnecessary to her thesis. She relies heavily on responses to art and photography: “gold chain hanging over a worn collar, / a thick textured ring bright on the finger / beside the one she gives the photo- / grapher.” Common advice to blocked poets is to visit a gallery and transcribe what you see there, as a means of resuming writing.
Kahlo tacked her self-
portrait to canvas with oil to give herself
Shockley’s poems can be disarming, and are always clever, but petitioning museum art and pop culture may not be trying hard enough.
However, responding to artworks that in other circumstances should speak for themselves is a necessary part of her inspection of political and cultural landscapes. The poet passes meaning beneath various microscope lenses, and across the face of carnival mirrors. Shockley’s broad cultural resource, combined with her poetry’s relaxed intentionality, helps give context to, position and display pieces in the vast puzzle of race and politics in America. Her argument is fulsome, convincing, seductive, but can never be complete.
Stephen Lawrence has a PhD on political poetry, is the author of four poetry collections, edits compilations of South Australian writing, and has two poems in the Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry (University of Louisiana, 2012).