Evie Shockley author photo and book cover

Shockley, Evie. the new black: poems. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. 128 pp. $22.95 (cloth).

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Reviewed by Reginald Dwayne Betts

“You are my shelter from the storm/ and the storm,” writes Evie Shockley in “ode to blackness.” This couplet speaks directly to the conundrum that drives this devastatingly beautiful collection: black as handcuff and as blossom, but always there. Shockley’s the new black is a dismantling of archetypes: a series of poems where black is at times landscape and at times backdrop, righteous fist in the air or questioning glance. These poems are both rebuttal to the idea of post-racial and a reaching for the compendium, for the beautiful and the ugly that Langston Hughes argues is black American life in “The Negro and the Racial Mountain.” The success of this collection is in the manner it widens the scope of discourse. Race is the linchpin but not the quintessence.

Shockley’s poems about race are more than clichéd harangues that focus on white people’s perception and reaction to color; her gaze includes gender, includes the body, includes lives broken and braved in letters, in Carolina, in experiment and in sonnet. Through a sharp eye and tuned ear, Shockley has crafted an accomplished collection that signifies, puns and riffs its way to a nuanced perspective on contemporary America.

If poetry is to claim some of the space now occupied by Jersey Shore, the Wire or late night news—it must both engage and entangle. Shockley’s formal inventiveness does this in the best possible way. “my last modernist poem, #4 (or, re-re-birth of a nation)” is a hodgepodge of allusion, meditation and the fine space between professing and prophesying written in a tight nine syllable line.  “ask lazarus about miracles:/ the hard part comes afterwards, (1)” is such an exquisite reminder of what this nation’s casting of President Obama’s name into America’s complex history of slavery, reconstruction and Horatio Alger’s bootstraps means.  Other poems here tackle race with just such a complicated nuance.  “owed to shirley chisholm:,” “duck, duck, redux,” and “(mis)takes one to know one” all deserve mention here for their straightforwardness and slantedness. In “improper(ty) behavior” Shockley is at her best, making a form (in this case the ghazal) bend to the desire of her voice as “while black” becomes refrain and, again, conundrum—conundrum because while “improper(ty) behavior” does not allow the reader to avoid the harsher side of race relations in America, there are so many other notes hit in this collection that the poem co-exists with joy and sass, with erudition and contemplation. In the end, Shockley seems to be asking the reader to think in terms of “both/and” as opposed the “black/white—either/or” dichotomy that drives so much discussion of race in America.

Evie Shockley is a formalist. Her attentiveness to music is served well in the formal frame many of these poems are cast. “from The lost Letters of Frederick Douglass,” “a sonnet for stanley tookie williams,” and “love life, with stitches” all are evidence of Shockley’s ability to deftly manage technical considerations with a need to say something that resonates. In “from The Lost Letters of Frederick Douglass” Shockley writes:

. . . and I cannot pilfer back time
I spent pursuing Freedom. Fair to you,
to your brothers, your mother? Hardly. (6)

Here is a Douglass that stares at his own failures—a more domestic man, if only for a moment. If a poem can humanize an historical figure, it does so not by showing the reader a man’s flaws but by showing a reader a man grappling with his flaws. In Shockley’s imagined letter, Douglass confronts his daughter as a man taking account of portions of his own life. “Perhaps I will post, rather/ than burn, this letter, this time (7)” Shockley’s Douglass writes, and we understand, after reading, a little more of how anyone might grapple with saying the right thing, even the most eloquent of us.

Shockley’s ability to play formal concerns against her penchant for experimentation and a need to say something real is her gift; however, when this balancing act falters, the poems distract from an otherwise affecting collection. “mesostics from the american grammar book,” “you  can’t deny it,” and “dependencies” are all examples of poems that want to speak, but are garbled by a cloud of experiment. Another example, the sestina, “clare’s song” consists solely of words, without sentences, without syntax—and despite knowledge that this poem is “after nella Larson” there is little reason not to believe any other group of words arranged without grammar would echo, more or less, the themes of Larson’s novel Passing. Here are two lines from “clare’s song”:

bare empty free stark vacant vacuous void clear
boot fling heave burl launch project toss casts (16)

These words can mean everything or nothing. One could argue that they all suggest the effects of passing on an individual, but one could also argue the words describe what it means to be an American, or an astronaut.

Where the numbers of meanings one can gleam from a poem are endless, the poem asks the reader to do the job of the writer. Conversely, the experimental “explosives” is engaging, thought-provoking and, though lacking clear syntactical connections, conveys meaning with confidence and panache. Meaning here snakes, unravels as the arrangement of words shifts to say something else, to reveal something more. “a bomb is a statement a poem is a question (78-79)” becomes “a bomb is a what a statement a poem is a quest (78-79).”  The use of space on the page creates syntactical uncertainty, so that the latter line suggests the question: “a bomb is what, a statement?” This play on words and syntax continues, and throughout the poem continue to reveal meanings and suggest questions. This is clever in the best sense—framing a tiny world that the reader can get lost in, but lost with a compass.

Shockley’s the new black is filled with surprises, filled with departures from the rhetoric of race in America. The irony of course is that Shockley’s departures take us back to the rhetoric of race in America.  Yet, what Shockley has realized is that what makes “x marks the spot” both inventive and beautiful is her willingness to situate it between the familial “where’s Carolina?” and the loving “received in spring.” Ideas of race in America, of sexuality and gender all exist together in this world, and Shockley has given us a book for which the same is true.

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REGINALD DWAYNE BETTS is a husband and a father. The author of the collection of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, and the memoir, A Question of Freedom, Betts is currently working on The Circumference of a Prison, a nonfiction book about the larger ramifications of mass incarceration on people without criminal records. In 2010 he received a Soros Justice Fellowship, and he is a 2011-2012 Radcliffe Fellow.