by Evie Shockley
Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017
111 pp. Paperback
The brutal executions of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery were just a few examples of the systemic racism that permeates the United States in 2020, but Evie Shockley’s Semiautomatic was putting forward a nuanced discussion about these—and many other issues affecting Black, feminine, poor, and/or abused people—back in 2017, which serves as a poignant reminder that these atrocities of justice have been raging on for much longer than one crappy year. This is a book that showcases heartbreaking moments of hopelessness and frustration. It unflinchingly portrays feelings of claustrophobia, paranoia, and fear—all of which hampers the development and expression of Black joy. It also discusses the commodification and exchange of female bodies, which does warrant placing a trigger warning on this book for those sensitive to prostitution and/or sex trafficking.
However, while much of the text is centered around these unpleasant truths, one of the greatest surprises in this collection is how exceptionally varied the pieces are in their subject, form, and style—which makes each poem feel like a unique aspect of an overarching narrative. From nutritional facts about what “makes little girls,” to disjointed words discussing the Fukushima tsunami, the book never feels bound to a single subject. This may come off as disjointed or unfocused to some readers, but I feel that everything works together to showcase the wildly chaotic nature of the world. There is a voice—or perhaps it is more accurate to say a tone of timeless authority—present throughout, one which seems to stand amongst a surging crowd and sees all the beauty and injustice of the world with unblinking accuracy. In her poem, “supply and demand,” Shockley writes that “most people don’t know how to save black boys. / black boys don’t grow on trees” . . . which is deeply disturbing when one remembers America’s history of cultivating “strange fruit.” While not all of the works featured in this book express sorrow, it is difficult to walk away from the book and not find yourself musing over certain-hard hitting moments. For example, in the poem “keep your eye on” there is this line: “trayvonimartinmjordanpdaviserenisharmcbrideimichaelabrownlism.” At first glance, this may appear as a simple jumble of letters, but upon reading between the lines you’ll realize that the word imperialism is threaded through the names of Black murder victims. The string of letters comes off as initially overwhelming and confusing, but once you open your perception, you begin to see the hidden message beneath, which is a wonderfully clever analogy for deciphering institutionalized American racism. This is merely one of the more straightforward examples of Shockley’s outstandingly clever writing style, a single line pulled from a remarkable poem. There is a density to her work that demands the poems be read and re-read repeatedly.
Shockley also demonstrates a comprehensive awareness of supplementary material and often creates widely intelligent juxtapositions. One of the longest pieces, “Sex Trafficking Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in the USA (or, The Nation’s Plague in Plain Sight,)” is composed entirely of excerpts from Chapter X of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs and from “Sex Trafficking in the USA” by Yamiche Alcindor. It is difficult not to feel that you are being confronted by something larger than yourself, a presence that looms over the world and sees everything with a clarity that can only be expressed through the lens of Shockley’s wit. As is probably obvious by now, I was quite overwhelmed at times and consistently struggled to wrap my head around everything being expressed. These pieces are simply layered with so much good stuff that attempting to take it all in at once may leave you reeling or with a nagging sensation that there is even more undiscovered subtext. This is all to say that Semiautomatic is an utterly fantastic book of poetry, one that jams its fist into America’s chest, yanks out its damaged and corrupted heart, and asks the reader: “why wasn’t this heart filled with love instead of hate? Aren’t we better than this? Will we ever be better than this?” with the answers left for us to decide. Bravo Evie Shockley, bravo!
— Jarred White
California State University, Stanislaus