A HALF-RED SEA by EVIE SHOCKLEYBRENDA IIJIMA Reviews
a half-red sea by Evie Shockley
(Carolina Wren Press, Durham, NC, 2006)
A book pops open and creates access to numerous registers. I found myself reading Evie Shockley’s dynamic book, a half-red sea, in a cluster of relational titles (as is always the case). Encircling and informing my reading experience were Octavia Butler’s Kindred and also Wild Seed (once I found out that Evie lists it as one of her favorite titles), Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis' The Pink Guitar, to name a few. In this review I hope to give space for the ricocheting of intertextual meanings that sprang forth.
In Butler’s Wild Seed, Anyanwu, a spirited 300 year old gorgeous African female shape shifter who is impervious of time gets coerced into going to the colonies in “The New World” with Doro, a menacing spirit who takes captives from Africa and elsewhere to set up his seed villages—communities of people bred for their superior human qualities. It is a tumultuous science fiction tale that allegorically echoes layers of actual histories. Anyanwu’s strength of spirit is challenged throughout the book. Her independence, intelligence and dignity are continually frustrated by what is asked of her but more readily forced upon her. She is able to look into each relation and reshape her being to best overcome what she confronts. a half-red sea accomplishes something similar lingually and philosophically. The stretch and bend of form and content within a half-red sea is open, changeable and free—procedurally constantly regenerating from spaces within being and through charged energies of interrelation all rendered in slippery, succulently descriptive language. And, like Anyanwu’s struggle, the work is immersive—these verses course through hundreds of years of ancestral history lived, remembered and felt. Strength comes from this continuum. Strength to acknowledge and confront contemporary injustice that destabilizes, clashes, threatens—composes the daily. waiting on the mayflower opens with an epigram by Frederick Douglas: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” As the poem moves through an in-tense chronology pressure builds up to present tense.
blood. africa’s descendents,
planting here year after year
the seeds of labor, sweating
bullets in this nation’s wars,
have harvested the rope,
the rape, the ghetto, the cell,
the fire, the flood, and the
blame for you-name-it. so
today black folks barbeque
ribs and smother the echoes
of billie’s strange song in
sauces. drink gin. gladly
holiday to heckle speeches
on tv. pretend to parade.
turn out in droves for distant
detonations, chaos, controlled
I’ve clipped and cropped this poem at a difficult spot—because “controlled” sits on the page, glaring. It is unfair to these poems to fragment them—there is so much momentum and velocity within each poem that excerpting from Shockley’s poems messes with the fury played out in a tempo of suggestion, indictment and impassioned song.
“Language in its thickness, layered, can also peel back and become a map of levels, with space behind space.” Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Pink Guitar, p. 86. The richness of this statement is realized in Shockley’s poetry: “the city is american, so she/can map it. train tracks, highways slice through, bleed/ only to one side, like a half-red sea/permanently parted, the middle she’d…” Mapping, the segregation of bodies and spaces, the commoditization of bodies and spaces—this fraught reality rears, meaning it comes forth with depth and amplitude—there is rarely any whimsy implied in maps and map making. Racism has been codified and the ideology that buttresses it is mapped into consciousness. De-mapping and reuniting—perhaps this is what is needed, desperately—as it stands, only capitol (speaking here of humanly created entities, substance) has ready access across political, sociological and emotional grids (human bodies don’t) yet human endeavor is much more slippery than what can be accommodated by maps. Maps are instantly obsolete as we live in a changeable, animate universe. Here I am thinking of the burgeoning refugee population—Doctors Without Borders estimates that 33 million people live in a condition of being a refuge. These root concepts are glowingly reconsidered for what they continue to yield in Shockley’s poems. In another poem a Shockley line reads, “a map of where”—such a stance opens ground for the myriad exchanges that take place at any given site through time. The penultimate stanza in elocation (or, exit us) reads, “the city’s infra (red) structure sweats her,/a land(e)scape she can’t make, though she knows/the way. she’s got great heart, but that gets her/where? egypt’s always on her right (it goes/where she goes), canaan’s always just a-head,/and to her left, land of the bloodless dead.” And, to interject a quotation from Samuel R. Delany’s fabulous essay, …Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red, 1998, “…as much the same way as contact and networking, infrastructure and superstructure are ultimately relative terms. They are vectors rather than fixed positions, so that there are some locations where, depending on the vectors around them, for brief periods it may be indeterminate whether something will operate with superstructural or infrastructural force.” (Giving Ground: The Politics of Propinquity edited by Joan Copjec and Michael Sorkin, p. 57). Delany is referring to the vectors that shape a neighborhood—what forces help deteriorate and or invigorate a social space. Vectors, superstructures, infrastructures—a half-red sea traces the echoes, reverberations, thunder, cries and protests not without cacophonous joy, glittering revelation, sensual sighs (the syntax sashays, saunters) and smart rebuttal:
“i am southern hear me roar i am burning flags bearing crosses i am scarlet and prissy like a piece of carmine velvet at christmas don’t know nothing bout birthin no rabies so don’t come foamin at my mouth I am miss dixie and a miss is as good as a guile i am a daughter of the con-federacy…” (from cause i’m from dixie too)
and from time is of the essence:
“…like the idea of waking. watching
the sun crash into a skyline cut flat
where interstate 40 sweeps along
on stilts, she thinks about her honda’s
drink: what the paleozoic period
boiled down to. miles away, on
the same planet, creatures of a new
era thunder around, care-less and
cannibal in our desperate search
for fuel. she recaps her tank, fingers
reeking. across the corner, the lot
at 1st street bar and grill is full. she
knows the holocene will boil down, too,
someday: wonders how this crude age
will have deposited anything of use.
Shockley’s articulate awareness and sensitivity of the porous dimensions of time is a rich political statement I think. The diachronic and synchronic play off of each other and form a third space—something like possibility. A further aspect of this quality of Shockley’s poetry is that she doesn’t subordinate forms of time or what occurs in time. In this way content (which is experiential and takes place in time—her lyrical accounts and other’s account) account for a the space of the poem—without exclusion; it is a diverse open autobiography infused with the vitality of the lives of those she acknowledges: Ntozake Shange, Henry Bibb, Billie Holiday, Crispus Attucks, Phillis Wheatley, Sally Hemmings, Anita Hill and others. Here’s one example of Shockley’s poetic regard for the modality that is time (from her poem clutter):
“the wedding party occupied a bed & breakfast
near the lake,
in a neighborhood that had turned black
around its edges,
as if the property were a cookie baked too fast,
at too high a temperature…”
We are at this juncture here in the United States—Brown vs. The Board of Education was overturned while I was writing this review representing a reverse of a major accomplishment in the civil rights struggle. Remembering James Baldwin’s words, “I’m only black ‘cos you think you’re white.” Should issues of race be fore grounded—where? (I think yes—in the sense of not separated out (or avoided) from everything that coexists—sensitively addressed so that there can be an opening up of common ground).Within poetry or is this a domain exempt from tangible social concern? How do we speak to/of these realities? How is identity shaped through our differences and interdependences? One disturbing feature of racism is the distinct dismissal of any sort of critique coming from people of color—absorbed or reflected into the generalized impertinence that feels like social fabric. If critiques are ignored by white people of privilege I don’t know how desired change can happen without out serious blind spots, misunderstandings and misperceptions. Derrick Bell’s second rule of racial standing that reads as follows:
“Not only are black’s complaints discounted, but black victims of racism are less effective witnesses than are whites, who are members of the oppressor class. This phenomenon reflects a widespread assumption that blacks, unlike whites, cannot be objective on racial issues and will favor their own no matter what. This deep-seated belief fuels a continuing effort—despite all manner of Supreme Court decisions intended to curb the practice—to keep black people off juries in cases involving race. Black judges hearing racial cases are eyed suspiciously and sometimes asked to recuse themselves in favor of a white judge—without those making the request even being aware of the paradox in their motions. (Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, p. 113)
How does this play out in poetry…? Evie Shockley has the courage and dignity to address ourselves, our interrelations—our words and selves.
Joan Retallack talks about the contemporary challenge as follows, “At some point I realized that the lurking question in everything I’ve written about literature is this: how can imaginative, responsible, meaningful agency thrive in such a complex and perilous world, fallen many times over, hardly off its knees when it comes to matters of hope? In an earlier paragraph she highlights complex realism, reciprocal alterity, polyculturalism, polylingualism and contemporaneity. (Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wage, p. 13) These regenerative meditations by Evie Shockley offer up a positive socio-lingual paradigm.
Brenda Iijima is the author of Animate, Inanimate Aims (Litmus Press) and Around Sea (O Books). If Not Metamorphic was runner up for the Sawtooth Prize and will be published by Ahsahta Press. Also forthcoming is Remembering Animals which will be published by Displace Press. She is the editor of Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs (yoyolabs.com/). Together with Evelyn Reilly she is editing a collection of essays by poets concerning poetry and ecological ethics titled, )((eco (lang)(uage(reader). She is the art editor for Boog City as well as a visual artist. She lives in Brooklyn, New York where she designs and constructs homeopathic gardens.