Review by Jewel Pereyra
Named the “master of genealogies” by Claudia Rankine, Evie Shockley orchestrates mash-ups using traditional poetic forms, jazz, hip-hop, and Southern film reels in her new poetry collection the new black. Shockley’s poetry is experimental, resistant, and imaginative; her variegated prosody includes mesostics, elegies, haikus, and numerous shape poems. She imbues these forms with allusions to early influential African American literature such as Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs’ slave narratives, and Phyllis Wheatley’s poems. Simultaneously, she remixes these early writings with contemporary celebrities, activists, and children she sees daily in her neighborhood. Shockley envisions new representations of black and African Americans through reinvented palimpsests (as detailed in her poem “soundtrack for the generational shift”). From traditions to new materials, her poems amalgamate genealogy with Afro-futurism to powerfully reimage popular notions of race, ethnicity, and culture.
Shockley’s poem “mesostics from the American grammar book” complicates history, poetic forms, and popular images of famous biracial women such as Halley Berry, Dorothy Dandridge and Mariah Carey. Anne Spencer’s opening quote introduces the notion of “Taboo,” for these women have changed black notions of respectability, sexuality, and images on screen. The structure of the poem is both mesostic and acrostic, which position the vertical and horizontal lines as intersectional, relational, and interlocked. By intersecting in the middle, Shockley plays with the idea of the “liminal” (or middle) space of identity and/or “color line” in which these famous women have had to toe, tread, and negotiate between in popular media. Using this liminality as a form of resistance and uncomfortability, she strives to break away from these vertical and horizontal lines because they fix black identities into “controlling stereotypes” (as coined by Patricia Collins).
In “good night women (or, defying the carcinogenic pen),” Shockley mashes mythology with a lyrical ode to pen a new type of elegy. The introduction of the “carcinogenic” refers to the influential women writers who have died from cancer: Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, Sherley Anne Williams, Barbara Christian, Claudia Tate, June Jordan, and Nellie McKay who were notable activists in the 1970’s and 1980’s Black Arts movement and who were influential in expanding women’s literature. Shockley describes the women as celestial beings, or “stars, ” as “andromedas fighting their own monsters, /dipping into history and wisdom, / filling to overflowing the big and little gourds.” In her apotheosis, Shockley pays tribute to these timeless women’s works and formulates a genealogy of the “stars [who are] rising, shining, falling.” Moreover, in her poem “soundtrack for a generational shift,” Shockley re-mixes black identity with allusions to rap and hip hop tracks in the lines “the palimpsestic show closes before I can identify all those—the dead and the living—who’ve traversed the room to bless our impending traditions.” Both political and personal, Shockley’s the new black experiments and pieces together African American history, music, and cultural images to formulate new subjectivities. Her collection challenges readers to think beyond the legends and cultural constraints we place on ourselves and on each other: “today the game has changed. / new rules. You’ve met your / match. Score, for now, love all” (from “dear yesterday’s zero.”)
Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, poet Evie Shockley earned a BA at Northwestern University, a JD at the University of Michigan, and a PhD in English literature at Duke University. The author of several collections of poetry, including a half-red sea(2006) and the new black(2011), Shockley is also the author of the critical volumeRenegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (2011). Her poetry and essays have been featured in several anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009), Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook (2010), A Broken Thing: Contemporary Poets on the Line (2011), and Contemporary African American Literature: The Living Canon (2013). (Bio from The Poetry Foundation).