Quick story before I launch into King Me and The New Black: There is a poet/quilter/librarian/researcher/historian by the name of Dr. L. Teresa Church who I came to know through the Carolina African American Writers Collective. We met back in 2004 when I started going to the CAAWC, introduced to it as I was by the founder, Lenard D. Moore, another Cave Canem fellow. I was active on the CC listserv back then, and I was moving to NC for a doc program in education. I reached out to Lenard and he invited me to the first meeting in the fall. Isolated as I was, I made sure to go. That’s how I found the nurturing community of CAAWC and came to be inspired by Teresa. My use of the hyphenated word comes from her. She was and is always making up new language, which continues to inspire me, hence, “wonder-magic”.
Shockley and Reeves be on that Badness Break, wonder-magic, out-of-this-world-into-next, shatter-sense work. Afronauts, cosmos-gliders, earth-movers, poets. And I am purposefully using the “be” of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to emphasize that their work is not temporary, rather an expression of the continuous evolution, innovation, excellence within the essential core of their work.
In each book, I want to talk about closeness of the lyric within one poem.
In King Me, overlaps the familial and the natural landscape within the poem, “Lyric”. There, too, he invokes biblical story and revelation, using image of an apple tree laden with fruit to conjure Eden. When he writes, “There will be choking – half-eaten apples / lodged in the pink throats of the geese. / A few dead Adams the litter the yard. Mother /”, he invokes the paradisiac and the maternal even within the violence of choking knowledge. In this poem, the speaker also explores the teaching of how to nurture a sister who struggles with mental health issues, how that speaker is guided in witnessing the stretch of “a girl across a bed like a white sheet” with all is parallels to death, pallor, and powerlessness to the cultivation of a knowledge of how to care for someone who cannot stand alone. Here in this poem, there is also the sense of the importance of time, measured through relationship to Jesus: Christmas as birth and then by Easter that there might be a revelation or rebirth that happens in the sister. Time; body; revelation; the landscape of mind, nature, the body.
I am interested in how within a very short poem of around 20 lines so much occurs, how Reeves does such deft work in the multiplicity in the layering. How might this play out in my own work? One of the characters within this work that I am writing suffers from the shifting of reality facilitated by her therapist. She suffers from gaslighting, carefully manipulated by a sociopath with the right credentials, to believe that reality is something entirely different and that, only by his guidance, can she be truly free. I am interested in exploring this revelation in relationship to perception of desert. In one view, it can be seen as a space of sparsity and death; in another, it can be as teeming with life as a rainforest.
In The New Black, I want to write about “a question of survival”. In a prose poem of 9 lines that uses punctuation and normative syntactical decisions to drive the poem, she uses spaces within the lines to allow for layering. The poem begins with a question: “are we defined by what we can survive or what we cant?” This questions serves as the through line for the poem, connecting the reader to that “we”, the collective human and particularly black experience. While the poem ends with a connection to the historically relevant Tuskegee experiment, it also conjures the greater reality of using black people as subjects for tests, sites of investigation and experimentation and innovation, because the black body is just a body, not attached to conceptions of the human. In this poem, too, the work does not remain bounded by the cultural or corporeal; it unifies with the lyric. In this case, I see this exemplified in the use of the interstitial space as caesura/demarcation of breath within the score of the line. Also, the dehumanization of the body takes place in the association with the natural world, and Shockley confounds in her use of personification to make the limbs’ association with trembling twigs human again. In 9 lines, she complicates, weaving blood threads into the lyric.
This poem weighs on my considerations of the next works to write, particularly around the idea of survival. What does it mean to survive? I’ve been asking that question after reading Maus with students in the first seminar at Saint Mary’s. I wonder how that question might play out, too, with the character around which the plot revolves. What does it mean to survive when surrounded by the ageless?