the new black
Monday, May 9th, 2011
If your mother or father or the wolf what raised you fulfilled her or his or its obligation to make you fit for civilized company, she or he or it taught you not to be a show-off, a braggart, a gloater. Of course, if whoever or whatever initiated you into this world also met the obligation to make you hold your civilization to account, she he or it also demanded that you have pride without acting prideful. But the difference between the two isn’t graven in stone; one person’s honesty is another person’s ostentation.
For this person, Evie Shockley’s the new black is a textbook example of how to be bold without being base. I distinguish between virtuosity and vanity in terms of what the performer wants: an artist of the latter shrieks look at me! while the former says look at this. Wielding an instrument clarifies the difference between performer and performance, but voice is an instrument, even if it easily mistaken for an aspect of self. A conscientious performer’s work instructs us by being, so when I call the new black a textbook, I mean it takes the reader to school for their own edification and entertainment, not to shine a spotlight on the instructor. Whether you are looking for a school of twentieth century verse norms, a school of American history, a school of how to move around those alma maters and master your inheritance of them at the same time you stand in suspicion of their provenance and possibilities, whether you are simply looking for a great good time: the new black is going to credential you in every last one.
Shockley’s well aware that her age (and Our Age) demands that she be suspicious of the falsely simple or the disingenuously complex at the very least. One of her dedications is to Lucille Clifton, and the devotion is true and whole, but an epigraph quotes Thomas Sayers Ellis’s justly famous “All Their Stanzas Look Alike,” the essential instructional document of how to summon, name, manifest and subdue poetic fear—″Even this, after publication, / Might look alike. Disproves / My stereo types.” Yet another epigraph, however, comes from Harryette Mullen, from whom Shockley has learned much without ever risking the hazard of imitating the inimitable. The range of these acknowledgements reveals how cannily Shockley manipulates the perhaps inevitable question of black identity as expressed in matters of artistic tradition. She knows, as does Ellis, how intricately designed a trap such questions can be, and her response occurs throughout the book, stepping into and out of that trap, springing its mechanisms as a way of perpetually defying it. In “duck, duck, redux” she warily and wisely demonstrates how the push-and-pull of racism changes these terms even as it re-establishes these terms. “this is the way we wash our face, wash our face, wash our face, this is the way we wash our face, so early in the morning,” the poem begins, and ends with “this is the way we wash our hands of you historically, throw you into the atlantic, spray you with Birmingham hoses, this is the way we wash our hands of you today, with jerry-rigged levees, so early in the millennium.” In terms of tradition and identity, then, Shockley knows that making everything old new again also requires we confess that everything new is old again, as well.
This is a ferociously complicated truth, but Shockley is more than its equal, both in terms of what she can do with verse and how she thinks about what she can do. Thus, the first poem in the first section of the new black, “my life as china,” reads in part simply as a wonderful exercise in literalized metaphor:
i was baptized in heat :: fed on destruction :: i was not destroyer :: i was not destroyed :: i vitrified :: none of me was the same :: i was many : : how can i say this :
The poem answers its own question when it concludes with the following promise, as the speaker says “: i will not give : : i will give you what you have given me”—and I love this icy bargain, both threat and fact. As a poet, Shockley contains the proverbial multitudes; as a person (a condition sometimes incompatible with that of being a poet) she’s heir to all she has lived, heard, seen, learned, embodied. Like a funnel’s taper, she focuses a flood. Sometimes this expresses itself in disciplined displays of formal and editorial observation, as in “a sonnet for Stanley Tookie Williams”:
for the december miracle, as some-
one must. did you imagine sacrifice
as you called the crips to life? Did they come,
those youngbloods, at the crackling of your voice,
like lazarus to christ? vigilant night.
on the road to san quentin, candlelight.
At other moments, however, Shockley slows down or speeds up the compositional act, and shows us not just the result of her formal gifts but the ad hoc methodology of writing itself. Thus, in “Celestial,” a poem drawn from Shockley’s discovery of Marilyn Monroe’s advocacy on behalf of Ella Fitzgerald, she writes
her name was ella, elle, French for all woman,
everywoman, she, the third person, feminine
her name was norma,
she wasn’t normal, blonde, her name was marilyn,
the i in an angelic, first person
the effort between the effortlessness, the exercise,
the training, the makeup that made the woman,
her name was norma, marilyn, ella, est-elle, the star.
then annotates the poem by identifying it as a form called the gigan, invented by the poet Ruth Ellen Kocher. Whatever this thing is—I had previously associated the word with a particularly puissant foe of Godzilla—it suits Shockley and the new black perfectly, because the type of showing off it provokes allows the poet to foreground process and product in a way that mirrors both her mind and the mind of artistry, of association altogether. While the poems in this collection gather an unbelievable diversity of styles, they also fall into one of two general categories: the perfect lockdown of a tradition, as with the sonnet, and an effervescent, lively and playful destruction of the idea of tradition, which sometimes occurs in forms Shockley is inventing and dismantling simultaneously.
Of these categories, while I respect the authority and skill of the former, it’s the latter that makes the poems I love best. She can do amazing things with the prompt of the riddle, which is metaphor unconstrained, metaphor that embraces rather than disguises its logic. In “where’s carolina?” Shockley tells us how to graph a map that renders everything in equal detail:
east of childhood, north of
capitol offenses, just west
of a big blue treasure chest :
wet coffin of neglected bones.
in the veins, unnoticed as
a pulse, at a counter : sitting in
And the consequence of this is that our map becomes as big and complex and gorgeous and awful as the thing we hoped it would help us navigate. Likewise, in the ghazal “where you are planted,” she picks apart the tapestry of her own childhood with the device of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to indicate how a self emerges from countless strands of otherness:
one hundred degrees in the shade : we settle into still pools of humidity, moss-
dark, beneath live oaks. southern heat makes us grateful for southern trees.
the maples in our front yard flew in springs on helicopter wings. in fall we
splashed in colored leaves, but never sought sap from these southern trees.
frankly my dear, that’s a magnolia, i tell her, fingering the deep green, nearly
plastic leaves, amazed how little a northern girl knows about southern trees.
i’ve never forgotten the charred bitter fruit of holiday’s poplars, nor will i:
it’s part of what makes me evie : i grew up in the shadow of southern trees.
In much the same way she reaches into and across poetries as a matter of technique, Shockley embraces everything as a legitimate subject. If all forms are hers to charge with life, so are the expressions of those forms. In “a background in music,” she praises
the elementary chorus performing a patriotic medley
for the bicentennial, the high school madrigals wringing
the carol of the bells out of our overworked throats each
december, W V O L simulblasting car wash or little red corvette
out the windows of every deep ride rolling in the black
neighborhoods, melodies to carry over the clap *slap* snap
of our hands clocking time (miss mar-y mack mack mack)
or to keep us out of trouble with the jump rope, pep squad
cheers to perfect, spontaneous spirituals in the church
parking lot, and, yes, some country, the mandrells, the oak
ridge boys, tuning in to hee-haw’s banjo humor and gloom,
the music was howdy and whassup, hell naw! and aw yeah!
and if this doesn’t declare itself as the ars shockley I just don’t know what could. Plenty of contemporary poets might agree, in principle, that the whole point of a past is to use it, and that the whole point of one’s culture is to live it, but very few can effectively write to that principle. One must be willing and able constantly recall, and render, the truth that the key feature of an individual mind is that its operation is always happening right now, a perpetual present.
Because of that mindfulness, there exists a true joy in watching Shockley do her thing. There’s not a trace of self-inflation in the prodigious display of skill in the new black, and there isn’t a gesture towards self-denial, either. The playful, barbed, bitter and bemused irony compressed in the very phrase—the new black, whatever it is, cannot be divided from or mistaken for the “old” black—gives Shockley an opportunity for brilliantly complex and defiant homage. As she concludes in “ode to my blackness, “without you, I would be just // a self of my former shadow”.
It occurs to me as I wrap this up that the last three examples I’ve chosen only come from three pages of the new black. I hope that gives you some idea of how rich and delicious it is; it’s so abundant that the last section, “the fare-well letters” (thirteen valedictory poems of fourteen lines each, epistles to an ace bandage, ink jet, quaalude residue, an untimely violet) is itself an entire book’s worth of brains and beauty and vicious, goofy wit.
the new black doesn’t need the likes of me to explain or sell it: it shouts, with glee and a kind of genius, its own achievement. But I do want to make a final case in defense of its unapologetic figuration of Shockley’s skill. It’s easy to look askance at soloing, especially in musical terms, as self-indulgent. But in the best solos it isn’t the self that is being indulged. It is the instrument, and all that has issued from it previously. A true solo is also a chorus; singing, as Shockley writes, everything there is to say. In Art Blakey’s “A Night in Tunisia,” a voice responds to a solo with the command to get mad—and the soloist’s response is the sound of skill bought with great effort, now given away freely. Sometimes getting mad and getting happy sound alike. Sometimes they sound like bliss.
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