It wasn't so long ago that formalism and innovative poetry seemed to be mutually exclusive categories. Rebel Angels, the 1996 anthology of formal verse, was as forcefully a manifesto as the anthologies of "language" and post-modern poetry that were still coming out in the 1990s; and if "experimental" or "innovative" poetry has become more mainstream in the years since, it has rarely crossed into the formal camp, at least among white poets.
Meanwhile, there's been an enormous outpouring of poetry by African Americans. Following the work of older poets like Marilyn Nelson, who have put form to surprising new uses (Nelson's royal crown of sonnets for Emmett Till is perhaps the ultimate example), many books by younger African American poets feature poems in both traditional forms (the villanelle, the sestina) and more recently invented ones. On the other "side," there has also been a less-noticed but equally important flowering of innovative African American poetry; Arielle Greenberg discusses this movement, specifically among younger poets, in a deeply insightful piece in the January-February 2012 American Poetry Review.
But some African American poets themselves have recently looked back and shown us that much African American experimental poetry is in fact rooted in the use and subversion of form. Elizabeth Alexander's "New Ideas about Black Experimental Poetry" in the Fall 2011 Michigan Quarterly Review notes the phenomenon of "innovating from within" the form, using Gwendolyn Brooks as a primary example. In much more detail, the first half of Evie Shockley's Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011) discusses innovative uses of form by Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, and Harryette Mullen.
Shockley's own new book of poems exemplifies this fusion of the formal and innovative as well as any recent book I can think of. Shockley isn't simply a formalist, nor does she always seem radically innovative: the new black includes love poems and poems in narrative and epistolary modes that provide accessible moments of relief against the more demanding work. And no matter how experimental, the book as a whole allows, in Greenberg's words, "subject matter to remain at the core."
Much but not all of the new black is written (to use a distinction I recently heard Natasha Tretheway make) not just "from racialized experience," but explicitly "about" race; equally important is a focus throughout on (mostly) African American women. The book begins with a prefatory unrhymed sonnet implicitly referencing Obama's election; it's followed, early on, by an epistolary poem in the voice of Frederick Douglass. The long first section, called "out with the old," foregrounds both distant and recent American history: Thomas Jefferson, Stanley Tookie Williams, and many African American women make appearances. Then, following a short section that turns both more explicitly autobiographical and more generally "political," a long third section that we would expect to be called "in with the new" turns out to be "out with the new" instead. Historical references continue in this section, which begins with a rhymed sonnet called "owed to shirley chisholm," but the past is more often explicitly juxtaposed with the present here. The penultimate poem of this section brings together Obama and Frederick Douglass, who had appeared separately in the first section, a coming together that represents one of the driving forces of the book: from the first Obama poem onward, it's clear that past and present, old and new are entangled in intricate ways that make it important, for instance, "to ask how new / and re- beginnings differ," and to note that "the hard part comes afterwards." Ultimately, "out with" suggests "out in the open with" as much as it does "away with," whether in reference to the old or to the new.
The innovative use of "old" forms is a stylistic counterpoint to—or outgrowth of—this thematic concern. The new black includes three rhymed sonnets and fourteen unrhymed ones (including a sequence), a sequence of haiku, two ghazals, a poem in rhymed quatrains, and a sestina, as well as three gigans and a bop (forms invented by Ruth Ellen Kocher and Afaa Michael Weaver, respectively). One poem uses mesostics, another a variation on acrostics; two are shaped poems: an X and an O appear in different sections of the book, referencing race on the one hand (the intersection of African and American) and women on the other. There are a number of prose poems, often reflecting other literary forms, including a collage of fairy tales ("never after") and nursery rhymes ("duck, duck, redux"). Anaphora is a frequent structuring device, as is the catalog.
But even when she's using these forms—or perhaps especially when she's using them—Shockley is subverting them in ways that make them among the book's most stunningly innovative and deeply challenging poems. Perhaps my favorite poem, which takes me by surprise each time I read it, is a sestina called "clare's song" that is a collage of words appearing to have come from a thesaurus: each line contains several synonyms for a meaning of one of the end words—and the "meaning" changes in each stanza. This is pretty amazing in itself; but as the title and "after nella larsen" at the end of the poem suggest, the poem itself is a kind of abstraction of Larsen's Passing, whose character Clare passes for white and dies at the end of the book. Experiencing the poem is like reading a condensed form of the novel, with emotional complexities moving us through a series of apparent triumphs and ultimate defeats. Here is the first stanza of the poem—and, to give a sense of how it shifts, the beginning of the second:
blonde fair bleached faded pale pastel light
blameless clean innocent guiltless pure clear
anatomy build figure person physique form
complexion countenance hue mien tint cast
bead dab dash ounce iota spot trace drop
succeed qualify answer do suffice suit pass
authorization permit ticket license paper visa pass
effortless facile moderate smooth undemanding light
And here is the end:
model pattern fashion form appearance contour cast
luminous radiant clear sunny ablaze aglow light
ebb fade wane depart drop end die decease pass
The last word is made more poignant by the fact that this use of "pass" is more common among black speakers than white: the "pass" of the first line, which takes Larsen's tragic heroine "out" of her race, brings her back in the last.
As noted, women are central in many of the poems, including Frederick Douglass's letter, which addresses his daughter and discusses his wives. The poem in the shape of a (sort-of) O is filled with references to women both past and present, and begins: "at the musée de l'homme an exhibit called femmes du monde"—a reference I thought must be invented until I looked it up. This is one of several "facts" I learned from the book; another is that Marilyn Monroe, a "huge fan" of Ella Fitzgerald, helped the singer in the beginning of her career. Shockley brilliantly uses the recently invented form of the gigan to fuse the two women and the fact of their "stardom" into a celebration of "all women":
her name was ella, elle, french for all woman,
everywoman, she, the third person, feminine,
hippy, buxom, regal curls piled atop her head,
soft shiny crown for her diamond voice, the soaring
swooping bird, the orchestra in her throat, the stars
in her eyes, the star in front of her eyes each night,
one week, at the mocambo, her name was norma,
she wasn't normal, blonde, her name was marilyn,
in i in angelic, first person, created, an immaculate
concept, the image of pure beauty, sound, power,
her name was ella, elle in french, all women,
in her, i's, the star in front of her eyes, each night,
glamorous, first lady of song, iconic, backstage,
the effort behind the effortlessness, the exercise,
the training, the makeup that made up the woman,
her name was norma, marilyn, ella, est-elle, the star.
In this poem (and differently, in the sestina), there's a great deal of what I think of as "word work." The shifts between words for third and first person aren't just playful; they're one of several language-driven moves (follow, from these, the eyes and the stars for others) that make the movement between Ella and Marilyn seamless.
"Word work" like this becomes a driving force in the last section of the book, a sequence of thirteen unrhymed sonnets called "the fare-well letters" that move through so many wickedly wonderful associations of both sound and meaning that I discover new aha! moments on each return visit. Here is "dear white xmas":
cross my heart. heat. hurt. an
insulting injury. the wound
is hard to place. oh. ou? x marks
the spot. spooky. 'tis the sea-
son to be haunted. attached
to the past. in the grip of ships.
ahoy! unmoored. a pale ailment.
hail and well met. meant well.
enough. frothy, snow-capped
waves. an icy greeting. a cold
snap. slap. slip. a lightmare
lightly whipped. screamy. hissy.
fit to be tied. a tempered tantrum.
just like the ones I used to throw.
This, the penultimate poem in the book, quotes not only the first poem in the sequence ("the wound / is hard to place") but also the "X" poem. The focus on African American history is much more subtle here than in "x marks the spot," relying on a juxtaposition of Christmas and race and conveyed by constant shifts in sound ("snap. slap. slip. a lightmare / lightly whipped") as well as line breaks ("sea-") and caesurae ("well met. meant well. / enough") that allow double and qualified meanings to proliferate on the page.
The function of strategies like these is defined as well as illustrated in a poem called "Explosives." Written in columns that extend across two pages, the poem is impossible to quote properly; but here are its beginning lines, minus very large spaces: "a bomb is a statement a poem is a question / a bomb is what a statemeant a poem is a quest / a poem requests / the pleasure of your mental energy." The reader of the new black is indeed so energized: one simply can't read these poems passively. One section of the sequence "the cold" begins "—that some morning we will push / the earth too far" and ends: "we should quake :: it's our fault"; another of the unrhymed sonnets, "dear mid-afternoon nap," ends "wake up, wake up, / wherever you are! mourning / bells. hear? ring, rang, wrong." Rarely mere puns, the word shifts often involve skewed allusions, as in "just like the ones I used to throw" at the end of "dear white xmas," or "it was a dark and nightly / storm" at the beginning of "bop for presidential politics, c. 2008." These distortions are often a lot of fun (a ghazal about southern trees includes the speaker saying to a northerner, 'frankly, my dear, that's a magnolia"); but they also pack a lot of emotional and intellectual resonance, as old phrases are recycled and made new.
Another strategy that requires the expenditure of "mental energy" is the suppression of overt reference. Used in poems like "dear white xmas," this technique becomes central in several poems that suppress the tenor of a metaphor altogether. Here is "my life as china," the prose poem that opens the first long section:
i was imported : : i was soft in the hills where they found me : : shining in a private dark : : i absorbed fire and became fact : : i was fragile : : i incorporated burnt cattle bones' powdered remains : : ashes to ashes : : i was baptized in heat : : fed on destruction : : i was not destroyer : : was not destroyed : : i vitrified : : none of me was the same : : i was many : : how can i say this : : i was domesticated : : trusted : : treasured : : i was translucent but not clear : : put me to your lips : : I will not give : : I will give you what you have given me
The poem not only references past and present, it also implicitly brings together "my life" and the life of a people. The exclusion of reference is similarly used in "to see the minus," another poem in gigan form that, without saying so, references both Hurricane Katrina and a more general sense of racial loss. The poem begins:
the ghost. the thing we could touch if its throbbing
absence were any more vast, any more like a molecule
of jupiter, all mass, weighing us down, but nothing
we can put a finger on. we squint to see the minus: water
take away holy, take away book, take away tree, take away
phantom limb, a connection our brains keep trying to make
with the dead and gone. minus family, minus portrait,
minus heirloom, minus hand-me-down, minus hand.
A "connection our brains keep trying to make / with the dead and gone" describes one side of the new / old thrust of the new black. The other appears as one of a series of "notes to my nieces":
trust me on this. g o d stands
for good old days, and if you have enough
faith, you can remember them almost
like you were there, on your knees
with us, scrubbing them clean or
praying for the millennium, that next life,
when the g o d would be n e w : not
For a white reader, the experience of reading into this "not especially white" world is an exhilarating and perhaps even attitude-altering challenge. For any reader, the most complex of Evie Shockley's poems are indeed explosive.
About the Author
Martha Collins is the author of White Papers (Pitt Poetry Series, 2012), as well as Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006), a book-length poem based on a lynching her father witnessed when he was five years old. Collins has also published four earlier collections of poems, two books of co-translations from the Vietnamese, and two chapbooks. She is currently editor-at-large for FIELD magazine and one of the editors of the Oberlin College Press.
Editors: David Young, David Walker
Associate Editors: Pamela Alexander, Kazim Ali, DeSales Harrison
Editor-at-Large: Martha Collins
Managing Editor: Linda Slocum