‘When that Sand Becomes Sea:' A Review of Evie Shockley's "a half-red sea"
A solid, impressive debut for our times
by Michael Parker
Evie Shockley's "a half-red sea" is thematically layered and saliently rich. A subtle presence of grandness surfaces in many of the forty-seven poems. For example, consider the magical use of "(e)" in the word "land(e)scape" in the wonderful poem "Elocation (or, Exit Us)":
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.
Upon first seeing this (e), it was a "wow" moment, like peering into the seemingly endless face of the Milky Way on a summer night sky. Whether the reader vocalizes the "(e)," Shockley captures the sense of entrapment. In "Elocation," the narrator has a deep-seeded longing to escape from her station in life, or the land of her upbringing. I love the notion that the "(e)" is purely ornamental, not vocalized. It's a modern depiction of Everyman, who walks the path of life being moved about by the centrifugal forces of the landscape he/she belongs to -- cultural, racial, societal, national, or religious.
This meaning seems emblematic of the primary themes of "a half-red sea," -- the self in transition/conflict with family; empowerment; inter-racial relations; cultural prejudice; slavery; heritage; war; torture; death; love; passion; perseverance; or acceptance.
I think she sums it up nicely in the work's gloriously magnificent title. Evoking the image of the biblical Red Sea, Shockley seems to be speaking of the energy of the act of dividing the sea and walking through. Yet, as the narrator or as a culture, we are only halfway parting the sea, because, as her character henry bibb in the poem "henry bibb considers love and livery,"believes, we have "no wings no hope." Thus, we give up our aspirations of freedom, our real identity, for transitory experiences that enslave us or belie our ideals or nature.
At the literal heart of "a half-red sea" is the extraordinary poem "a thousand words," a stream-of-consciousness form that's a fascinating tour-de-force. Shockley employs nouns, adjectives, names of popular songs, films, slang, and cultural catch-phrases that have the swift and powerful flow of a river cutting its way through a rocky gorge.
This isn't simple brainstorming thrown together and called poetry. There is a structured, intelligent design.
The content of "a thousand words" is literally framed by the word "torture." Thus, when you begin and end each line, you see and say "torture." This affects the reader in a number of ways: it drives home the fact that we cannot escape saying or even thinking "torture," just as those tortured cannot escape it. It symbolizes that their existence is framed by torture.
torture scream shout spill tell all twenty questions and answer me bitch snitch itch scratch and sniff whiff torture/
torture tincture suture feature aperture adventure puncture creature lecture couture stature denture fracture torture/
torture dog man penis bars wars words world premiere spotlight light of day night of day right of way away torture/
torture cat fight fright freight fraught taught taut as a wire fire ready aim maim claim same just the same just torture/
torture halls walls prison freedom democracy demonic evil eve apple of my eye why so shy smile say cheese torture
Indeed, the frequency of its use intermingled with expressions (representations) of American culture highlights the stark cruelty and ugliness of it. How can a civilized person transform into a tyrant? What does one have to lose in order to enact such crimes against another human: reason, heart, respect, decency, self, soul, heritage?
torture me rollin over human rights gangstah style meanwhile back at the ranch branding iron's on the fire torture / torture hard to define but I known it when I obscene it name shame game sporting try survival of the hit-ist torture / torture hazing initiation you're in capitalism christianity civilization wear the letters with pride prude prank torture / torture good clean fun for all ages bc and ad bachelor party laughs last right through wedding day massacre torture /
Indeed, "a thousand words" is a lyrical treatise, a penetrating depiction of torture with a subtle panorama of the state of humanity and civilization that the majority of Americans are sickeningly aware of. The manner in which Shockley designed the poem -- like a framed picture -- is figurative of this, as if to say "Cut this out and hang it on your wall. This is who we are."
"a half-red sea" is not a political work, though Shockley's narration at times is unabashedly political – such as in "art of dakar (or, tourist trap)" in which she addresses the fact that in Sengal, trees more than a century old were literally removed because the U.S. president's 2003 visit was scheduled to pass by them; in "atlantis made easy," she responds to the aftermath of hurricane Katrina; and "in the ballad of anita hill," she reveals the effects the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas debates had on her race.
Other poignant cultural and societal criticism is manifest in "not in the casual chain;" "cause I'm from dixie too;" "unbelievable sale;" and "IV. July 4th: last but not least."
into the mirror of the sky
at our growing reflection
boggled by how america
gawks at the passing pinpoints
of flame, but overlooks the vast,
ebony palm giving them shape.
Poetry that transforms people has at its heart a humane narrator who exhibits characteristics beneficial for observing, analyzing, and persuasively challenging us regarding what we have become. Shockley is this type of narrator. Her insights on the human condition feel real, sincere, and universal in how they can be understood, interpreted, and applied. (Consider: "pantoum: landing, 1976;" "o pioneer!" "unbelievable sale;" "elocation (or, exit us);" "protect yourself;" "clutter;" "at your age, he was preaching at the temple;" "waiting for van gogh;" "meditation: having everything to live for, the poet worries;""ballad of bertie county;" "notes for the early journey;" "you must walk this lonesome;" and "you remind me.")
Evie Shockley has accomplished a work of considerable depth. Her grasp of history, contemporary entertainment, current American politics and issues of war lend her poetry substance and poignancy.
Shockley at times waxes philosophical; other times passionate, or religious. Shockley at times also inspires. Consider her moving, elegiac poem "notes for the early journey" in which she urges death's sojourner to "keep moving" despite the obstacles.
place where the land dissolves into sand keep walking when
that sand becomes sea speak a bridge into being
I know you can do it your father's son ain't
heard of can't follow the song don't stop until you're south
of sorrow and all you can smell is jasmine...
Experience is a fundamental lifeline to the heart of the human narrative. Shockley's poetry radiates with a true interpretation or expression of her experiences, leaving traces or evidence of our shared humanity as well. Her poetry is dynamic and richly manifold. In the vein of moving onward, Shockley explains that the journey home is one we often walk alone, and that the proverbial river of energy and living water is there for us to draw upon. This is evidenced in the beautiful poem "you must walk this lonesome."
Say hello to moon leads you into trees as thick as folk on easter pews dark but venture through amazing was blind but now fireflies glittering dangling from evergreens like christmas oracles soon you meet the riverbank down by the riverside water bapteases your feet moon bursts back in low yellow swing low sweet chariot of cheese shines on in the river cup hands and sip what never saw inside a peace be still mix in your tears moon distills distress like yours so nobody knows the trouble it causes pull up a log and sit until your empty is full your straight is wool your death is yule moonshine will do the barter with you what you got for what you need draw from the river like it is well with my soul o moon you croon and home you go
There is a nomadic-like hope flowing through "a half-red sea," consisting of all the emotional, religious, familial, and cultural bindings etched in the tables of the heart. After all, have we not felt the continual tug of the mercurial currents of life, waiting for that opportunity to reach solid ground, find meaning, place, acceptance, respect, and a heartland?
Shockley's well-tuned poetry and confident voice may be a by-product of her participation in one of America's most prolific and acclaimed poetry groups, The Lucifer Poetics Group, and due in part to the faculty and fellows of Cave Canem, which she notes in her acknowledgments. Nevertheless, the delight of Shockley's work is that it gets under the skin, finds its way into the receptacle of one's memories, and stays.
I am enamored with "a half-red sea," with Shockley's lyrically fresh voice that exudes experience and wisdom. It's transcendent. It has the feel of an important book – for it's critical analysis of culture, politics, race, religion, or community; and its depiction of our humanity's current state in which it wallows in a base representation of itself.
In closing, and in light of the book's title, Shockley's narration is our latter-day Moses. The engrossing cover art by Maria Entis, titled "Red Sea," seems to express this poet-as-prophet interpretation. The viewer seems to be present at the sandy shoreline of the tumultuous Red Sea. As we peer out over the fluid landscape, the equally tumultuous sky in the distance is red, the same color of red that beckoned Moses to leave his flocks and climb the mountain to speak with God. Though red often signifies anger, it is also the color of energy, the power to act. It is the energy that is always about us, that transforms us, changes the currents, and allows us to travel down new roads, find new heartlands, and be resilient against the forces that try to break us. If applied, this energy ensures we will not traverse through a half-red sea "afraid [that] the divide [will] not hold and all [will] drown."
And if you look closely in the center of the sea, you can see the beginning of the viewer's passage from Egypt: the gradual retreat of sea; the lengthening path of sand; and the slight depression of the sea's surface that proceeds a great parting straight to the shore on the other side.
"a half-red sea" by Evie Shockley is available now at Carolina Wren Press (www.carolinawrenpress.org/)