A HALF-RED SEA by EVIE SHOCKLEYJULIE R. ENSZER Reviews
A Half-Red Sea by Evie Shockley
(Carolina Wren Press, Durham, NC, 2006)
A Profound Book to Read and Uncover
When an extraordinary poet creates a book that both innovates and extends the work of contemporary poetry, she demands a publisher who can innovate and extend with her. A Half-Red Sea, written by Evie Shockley and published by Carolina Wren Press, is a moment where these two have come together with astonishing results. With A Half-Red Sea, Shockley’s debut collection, she has written a tour de force that combines narrative, lyrical, and experimental poetry into a satisfying whole and that in its presentation to the world demands inventive publication, which Carolina Wren Press delivers. A Half-Red Sea is a book that matters from a poet who matters. Profoundly.
The range of styles and forms that Shockley utilizes in her work is extraordinary and is one of the first and most noticeable things about this book. A Half-Red Sea is organized into three sections, passage, rafts, and pull, each with fifteen or sixteen poems. Throughout each of the sections, Shockley weaves formally structured poems, such as pantoums and sonnets, with free verse poems. She moves easily between and among these structural elements as well as writing powerfully condensed prose poems and emerging forms such as the “bop.” This alone would be enough worthy of praise, but Shockley also layers A Half-Red Sea with poems that depart from existing structural conventions. Shockley utilizes typography to explore and press language. She experiments and innovates on the page. Structurally, Shockley resists classification.
One of the most powerful experimental poems in A Half-Red Sea is the one that concludes the first section of the book. Titled, “a thousand words” Shockley gathers a thousand words all surrounded by the word torture. This poem requires a larger fold-out page in the book adding to the accumulative power of the poem. It is an unusual artifact to find in the book -- both the publishing strategy of a fold-out page and the poem itself.
Shockley’s poems balance between narrative impulses, such as her poem, “wheatley and hemmings have drinks in the halls of the ancestors” in which her wry and imaginative wit takes center stage or “the ballad of anita hill,” written in rhymed quatrains, in which anger is masked and unmasked repeatedly, and lyrical moments, such as her poem “ode to ‘e.’”
These poems accomplish their meaning through repeated layering of meanings. This is visually accomplished most pointedly in the poem, “poem for when his arms open so wide you fall through.” This poem, printed not vertically on the page but horizontally, is four poems beneath the title words that read almost as an acrostic, that is both across and down the page.
Shockley gives some guideposts to assist the reader in the notes at the back of the book, but the meaning of the text emerges from repeated readings and investigations of the allusory elements of the book. While the easiest thing to say about the book is it’s thematic elements, and they should be mentioned -- much of the narrative and allusions that Shockley mines in her poetry emanates from narratives of African-American history and literature -- the work of a A Half-Red Sea, grounded in Black history and literature, both extends beyond and returns to this point again and again throughout the book. Poems for Gwendolyn Brooks, ntozake shange, and Phillis Wheatley only begin to describe the many places A Half-Red Sea takes the reader.
From Shockley’s mastery of multi-focal structures to the power of the language that she distills in the text, from her impressive bank of narratives woven into these poems to her powerful experimentation with language, A Half-Red Sea is an urgent and imperative book. Read it.
Julie R. Enszer is a writer and lesbian activist living in Maryland. She has previously been published in Iris: A Journal About Women, Room of One’s Own, Long Shot, the Web Del Sol Review, and the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual. You can learn more about her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.