Evie Shockley, semiautomatic.
Flipping the cover of semiautomatic, like reopening an unhealed wound, reveals endsheets the color of a deep blood red. In her third full-length collection, poet and scholar Evie Shockley spares no graphic detail in exhibiting the marks left on body, soul, neighborhood, and country undone by trauma. Making rapid and angular turns from poems homing in on the titular referent of gun violence to others concerned with climate change, sexual assault, slavery, and poverty writ large, semiautomatic holds trial for the specters of power that have normalized Black and other marginalized communities as predestined to bear the brunt of these atrocities. Split into four discrete though intersecting units--"o the times," "the topsy suite," "refrain," and "blues modality"--semiautomatic is playful yet dead serious, energetic yet fed up, crafting a political and aesthetic agenda of intense experimentation as a necessary mode of protest and of survival.
The collection opens with a voice apostrophizing our current historical moment, though its vocatively dissident "O," refusing to hear simply silence in return, forces "the times" to reveal a hidden tongue. From the racialized, aggressive policing of the McKinney pool party incident to the pillaging of resources on indigenous lands past and present to the hideously mislabeled cases of "corrective rape" forced upon lesbian women in South Africa, the speaker self-consciously saturates these crimes with a tenor of flippancy exploited by their perpetrators who seek to trivialize the experiences of historically excluded groups. It isn't easy linguistically or safe emotionally, Shockley affirms, to inhabit the mindset of your oppressors. The collection thus jumpstarts ironically through a severe exhaustion with the act of writing and skepticism about the individual subject's ability to enact tangible change in the world, exhibited in such lines as "language struck me as wooden, battered, the words became weeds, meaning I couldn't see any use for them," and "a lexicon connives against us when we are busy admiring its plumage." Yet, we also sense the speaker working hard to ensure that her expressive, intellectual, and psychological reservoirs never run completely dry. In moments when the evacuative energy consolidated through the act of poiesis seems to be too much to endure, the text grants itself interludes of a different sort of resourcefulness born out of juxtaposing found texts. The first section concludes, for instance, with a poem consisting exclusively of call and response excerpts drawn from Harriet Jacobs's 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and the 2012 article "Sex Trafficking in the USA Hits Close to Home" by Yamiche Alcindor.
"The topsy suite" resumes this technique of salvaging by more pointedly interrogating the role of the past in shaping various forms of imprisonment-physical, linguistic, taxonomical, literary--that have persisted to the present day. Against the weight of the "white whale" and "scarlet letter" of Melville's and Hawthorne's so-called American classics emerges Shockley's resistance to a legacy of damaging "black humor" inherited from antebellum literature and society. Similar to Gwendolyn Brooks's epic poem "The Anniad," "the topsy suite" reimagines the landscape of an entire literary tradition, via the interior life of a young Black woman named Topsy, "rescued" from Uncle Tom's Cabin as the notes inform us. Entwining her story with citations from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Shockley illustrates how Topsy's futile efforts at escaping the "big house" recall Carroll's reality-defying universe. Though, for Shockley, the logics of freedom do not necessarily belong to the same realm as the highly illogical systems obstructing it, for the suite's deep intertextuality suggests that artistic and poetic expression hold the key to emancipating entire peoples from the narratives that have been handed down about them. When Shockley transfigures a dialogue between Alice and the Queen as "i want my freedom to-day. > you can't have it just because you want it, the mistress said, the rule is, freedom to-morrow and freedom yesterday--but never freedom to-day, topsy objected. <it got to come sometime to freedom now!'>," she isn't merely replacing the whimsicality of "jam" with the more consequential reparation of "freedom." She is also writing into existence the act of Topsy questioning and challenging systems of power. Unique among other sections of the book, Topsy's narrative is scattered with images by mixed-media artist Alison Saar, indexing a broader vision of African diasporic and spiritual history. These pen-and-ink sketches depict a Black woman representing Topsy with braids forming a crown around her head--sometimes tied with bows or sprouting cotton bolls--variously examining herself in a mirror, curling over in despair, or donning boxing gloves. Via this literary-historical figure who experiences sporadic feats of self-recognition under conditions of enslavement, "the topsy suite" traces the reportage of events of our contemporary moment--the arrest and subsequent death of Sandra Bland, for example, or the rise in racialized mass incarceration--back to their roots in an anything but "bygone" racial imaginary.
The latter two sections of semiautomatic, "refrain" and "blues modality," move on to more fiercely condemn--through fear and rage, sarcasm and mischief--the architects behind countless injustices wracking the globe. The actual strophic chorus opening "refrain" resounds "and the family grieved ~o~ the black family grieved," textually dramatizing how the murders of innocent Black individuals purportedly carried out in the name of safety have come to grossly mimic the "semiautomatic" nature of the very weapons facilitating them. From Emmett Till to Tamir Rice, and numerous lives in between, Shockley illustrates that rope and bullets accomplish little more than the creation of holes in the social fabric, becoming intense focalizers of not just personal grief, but other catastrophes both domestic and international. In "keep your eye on," the speaker mourns categorically, with copyedited precision:
through the holes in michael brown's murder, i see: * the GMO CEO of monsanto * the gazans stripped of dignity property * the wrecking ball slamming like an afterthought through p.s. 1--p.s. 1 million * the supreme kangarulings that court corporate dollars
The poem ends by engulfing us in a series of news tweets, ledes, and sound bites that seem no different from one day to the next. Being forced to linger psychically in chronic situations such as these would seem to dangerously limit the development of a means to thrive. And yet, this lengthiest section of the collection is anything but mired by its own refrains of outrage, as it is here that Shockley demonstrates her nimbleness in working with an astounding variety of formally constrained poetic genres: a golden shovel/rap dedicated to Rihanna; reverse univocalic lipograms about war; an abecedarian expressing the speaker's acrophobia; a haibun metaphorizing, via the life of phallic-shaped plants, incompetent leaders and their defense of trickle-down economics. In a paradoxical turn, semiautomatic proposes that working under conditions of already extreme limitation implausibly releases the imagination, creating moments of vital incongruity between lived and dreamed life. While linguistically contortionist moments demonstrated in such poems are certainly inspired by writers--Ntozake Shange notably-who have endorsed a necessarily violent relationship with the English language, Shockley finds satisfaction in covertly turning various poetic discourses that have denied Black writers entrance into the canons of experimental literature against themselves with a mock embrace.
If much of semiautomatic radiates the odium of having to constantly be on the defensive, its culmination trumpets most directly the kind of unapologetic affirmation of Blackness characteristic of the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. In the final section, Shockley situates herself within a long tradition of poets who have found reassurance in the productive irony of the blues, of a "darkness [that] always / shines out on its kin when it goes vocal," to make sense of one's role within acts of revolution great and small. Energized by the vibrations of "abdullah ibrahim's cool fingers," "bessie's voice," and Ella's "scatology spittle," Shockley points toward a discourse of living characterized foremost by constant movement. Even struggles for justice, liberation, and truth--like the blues and jazz--are conscious of their own caesurae and still propelled forward by them. This is mapped most materially in "of speech," a poem commemorating the 2015 Millions March Rally a year after the murder of Eric Garner at the hands of police brutality:
we spoke and did not die we spoke freedom and nothing happened except this poem this freedom we spoke with freedom and our speech of freedom spoke louder than blues than badges our speech of freedom spoke over their loudspeakers
Such stanzas as these illustrate a recurring style of "serious play" in Shockley's text, but they also unveil how the revolutionary language of the civil rights movement importantly first took shape in the cadence of Black song--something W. E. B. Du Bois regarded as a primary "gift" given to America, along with the "Spirit" and "sweat and brawn" of African Americans. In "du bois in ghana," the speaker confesses that she feels more equipped to persevere amidst the violence gripping our world by contemplating Du Bois's firsthand encounters with innumerable crimes against humanity brewing since the turn of the 20th century: "wars, / lynchings, genocide, mccarthy, communism's / failure to rise above corrupting power / any better than capitalism had, the civil rights / movement's endless struggle." In many ways Du Bois's experiences represent a sort of per ardua ad alta of semiautomatic as a whole. Through immense and (almost) unspeakable adversity, Shockley concludes with a steeling sigh, one can attain immense heights of wisdom, compassion, and nobility.
Readers of semiautomatic will be immediately struck by its impressive referentiality that does not resort to hollow esotericism. We are, in fact, invited in to learn from and converse with a vast network of Black writers, artists, and musicians as if their words, hues, and beats were already Shockley's own. Among Erica Hunt, Fred Moten, Sonia Sanchez, Thylias Moss, Romare Bearden, Nina Simone, Toni Cade Bambara, Amiri Baraka, M. NourbeSe Philip, and Prince, Evie Shockley rightfully inscribes her own name on an inimitable list of thinkers who have breathed life into a poetics of radical innovation as central to Black consciousness. Although it may be that "black blood's highly combustible, / under conditions of sufficient pressure," and Shockley almost guarantees that her words will bite back when provoked, semiautomatic is inhabited by subjects who are not defeated by their own righteous cynicism and fury, who find profound pleasure in both commanding and acquiescing to the rigidities of the English language, who are vital to our current national and global political climate for turning the spotlight on truths many choose to overlook.