History Lessons: Evie Shockley’s “semiautomatic” and Ange Mlinko’s “Distant Mandate”

By Christopher SpaideJanuary 16, 2019

History Lessons: Evie Shockley’s “semiautomatic” and Ange Mlinko’s “Distant Mandate”

Distant Mandate by Ange Mlinko
semiautomatic by Evie Shockley

IN 1973, Robert Lowell titled a poetry collection History, and meant it. In one unrhymed, Americanized sonnet after another, History covered everything, from “In Genesis” (sonnet five) to “Last Night” (sonnet 361). Comb through the last few years in American poetry, and you could stock a library or two with recent collections that merit the subtitle “a history.” Narrower in focus than Lowell’s capital-H “History” but no less compulsively retold, these histories-in-verse include Shane McCrae’s In the Language of My Captor and Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke, about the life of boxer Jack Johnson, Molly McCully Brown’s The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (named after a notorious eugenicist psychiatric hospital), and Campbell McGrath’s XX — that is, the 20th century, retold one poem per year. Revivifying fossilized stories and amplifying muffled voices, these history-obsessed poets stay on the lookout for secondhand forms they might dust off for the present. Weaving through Tyehimba Jess’s Olio (2016), his chronicle of African-American performers between the Civil War and World War I, is an immaculate crown of sonnets, voiced by the nine members of the first Fisk Jubilee Singers. Jess embroiders each sonnet with catalogs of assaults on black churches, starting with the burning of Charleston’s Mother Emmanuel AME Church in 1822 and ending with the mass shooting at the same church in 2015. History, in Jess’s miniature model, works in concentricities: song cycles coil inside cyclical violence; sonnets loop back to sonnets, bridging singers, uniting centuries.

Two of the most enduring collections of the past few years find themselves returning again and again — sometimes absentmindedly, sometimes deliberately, always studiously — to literary history, which might serve as a retreat or a relief, first aid or a last resort. Both books are written by established women poet-critics in midcareer, more watchful than ever for antecedents to revive and revise. In semiautomatic, a 2018 Pulitzer finalist and the recent winner of the Hurston/Wright Award for Poetry, Evie Shockley repurposes literary and musical modes from across centuries of African-American and diasporic traditions. Given the choice between formal flawlessness and page-spanning sprawls, between autobiographical revelation and collective outcry, she welcomes the self-contradictions of being all the above. And in her latest collection Distant Mandate, Ange Mlinko celebrates and imitates Baroque polyphony, recycled myths, and bewitching landscapes — only to puncture their own airtight surfaces, whether to acknowledge the threat of historical violence and ecological catastrophe or to admit, to her own surprise, the joys of romance and camaraderie.


Before finishing her first collection, Evie Shockley worked as an environmental lawyer, earned a PhD in English, and published criticism that gleefully sledgehammered decades-old critical boundaries and sifted through the debris with microscopic scrutiny. In “All of the Above: Multiple Choice and African American Poetry,” a 2005 manifesto-essay, she calls out centuries of efforts to pigeonhole black poets, from Phillis Wheatley to her own generation, born at the tail end of the Civil Rights movement. “The poetics litmus test” — Shockley’s term for critics’ exclusionary, all-or-nothing assessment — “judges the poems we write and the poetics we espouse against a fairly rigid standard and declares us to be basically one kind of poet or another”: “authentically black” or universally “American,” but not both; black or avant-garde, but not both. The test that today’s poets deserve, Shockley imagined, would be multiple choice, letting every poet pick any approach, even “all of the above” — the answer Shockley consistently circles throughout her own encyclopedic, everything-and-its-opposite poetry.

Like Shockley’s previous two collections, semiautomatic is a shuffled playlist: in a random sample, you might find a page walled with prose, then a sonnet in textbook pentameters, then “a dark scrawl” constrained to one vowel: “war can’t amass a brass tack. war’s / all bad acts and lack, scandal // and graft.” Amassing tones, keys, artists, audiences, Shockley’s playlist conducts dream-tours through African-American and black-diasporic canons. She anthologizes forms devised by Harryette Mullen and Terrance Hayes, riffs on Keorapetse Kgositsile and M. NourbeSe Philip, pays homage to Amiri Baraka and Rihanna, and assembles a “remix-collage” of Romare Bearden and Nina Simone. If Shockley has a Muse, it’s Prince, the chameleonic musician she invoked in earlier books and mourns in her new book’s first poem: “{Prince, U R Forever In My Life}.” Shockley’s virtuosity, like Prince’s, is less a gift of making from scratch than a genius for making it new. Amid her wardrobe changes and hairpin stylistic turns, Shockley’s “I” can seem slithery, impossible to pin down: her most consistent figure (again, like Prince’s) is her “you” (or “U”), insistently questioned, refused, seduced, decried, defended.

Shockley trains her perfect ear not only on past traditions but on her own writing, in real time: phrase by phrase, even phoneme by phoneme, you can catch her listening for every rhyme, accidental allusion, and double entendre. semiautomatic’s prose-poem prelude, “that’s a rap (sheet music for alphabet street),” wonders aloud how a black woman poet writing today will be received and dismissed. It also shows off her rhythmic and multilingual chops, as every major word shares letters, sounds, or etymological DNA with the next:

if i sang the blues would that be new ? or knew ? would boos follow blues ? would blood follow, bud, flower, flow, sang-froid, cold-blooded, hot-blooded, male :: if i sang frigid would that be cool ? jazzy ? jizz, buzz, the word :: do i have the rite to write the body ? the right body to remain silent ?

Faced with the choice between contemporary “rap” and classical “sheet music,” between innovation (what’s “new”) and tradition (what we already “knew”), Shockley picks all the above; the poem necessitates, in equal measure, a tongue-twisting performance and a pencil-in-hand puzzling-over. Here and elsewhere, Shockley’s effervescent surfaces stand at a buzzy, dissonant interval from her dire concerns. Watching global warming unfold in “weather or not,” Shockley blithely voices “generation why-not,” which “voted its con-science,” against science: “we acted as if the planet was a stone-cold player, but turns out the earth had a heart and it was melting.” Yes, brown people like “pacific islanders” were the first to be devastated, but “the polar bears are white and their real estate was being liquidated too.”

Even as she delivers brilliant lines, Shockley refuses to be known for brilliance alone. Like the fed-up tightrope walker of her abecedarian “acrobatic,” she sees flawless technique less as spectacle for spectacle’s sake than as a survival method for life’s treacherous “heights”: “acrophiliac i’m not, so don’t try putting me on the balance / beam”; “heights make my skin break out and my eyes / implode.” semiautomatic, Shockley’s most downcast and indignant book to date, wrestles with a dire multiple-choice test: how should poetry respond to America’s disregard for black stories, black bodies, black lives? With elegies commemorating exemplary individuals or ballads constellating loss into transcendent abstractions? With unequivocal protest or deliriously collaged figures and footnotes? Either way, not speaking is not an option: “cogito ergo loquor,” one title reads, I think therefore I speak, because “in / silence unspeakable becomes unthinkable.” As ever, Shockley chooses every possibility and its reverse: the sonnet “senzo” makes one case for assiduously pruned language (“no phrase that droops or wants / out of the sun survives long”), and another for invasive profusion: “the rest // run wild, flush vivid, throw shade, deluge fruit, / lavishly express their dissonant root.” (Even Shockley’s title “senzo” has it both ways: in Chinese and Japanese, “senzo” means “ancestor”; in Sotho, “creator.”)

Shockley’s most disheartened poems find no way around state-sponsored language and sanitized officialese, so she adopts them, reforming and deforming them from within. For the assault now creepily known as 2015’s “Texas pool party incident” — in a gated community, a white cop slammed a black teenager to the ground—Shockley pens a two-choice test. Pick your tragedy:

the black girl was pinned to the ground like:
      (a) an amateur wrestler in a professional fight.
   (b) swimming in a private pool is a threat to national security.

the girl’s cries sounded like:
      (a) the shrieks of children on a playground.
      (b) the shrieks of children being torn from their mothers.

the protesting girl was shackled like:
      (a) a criminal.
      (b) a runaway slave.

Was this white cop’s failing — perceptual, ethical, political — seeing that black girl as “like,” like but not quite a child, like and only like a person? To quote Shockley’s knock-out punch line: will we face racialized, gendered violence whether we “liken it or not”? semiautomatic’s most startling collage, “Sex Trafficking Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in the USA (or, The Nation’s Plague in Plain Sight),” alternates quotations, sentence by sentence, from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and a 2012 USA Today article on sex trafficking. Details from a past century, from a slave narrative we prefer to keep compartmentalized in history, slide chillingly into the modern day.

Shockley’s few causes for hope, charity, or tomfoolery are the people around her: mourners and marchers, jokers and readers. Some, like the late Jayne Cortez, are reread and remembered; others, like her twin nieces, leave her giddy with promise. Shockley’s FDA-style “nutrition facts,” a list of ingredients for those girls, includes the well-advertised “sugar ’n spice ’n everything nice,” plus sturdier stuff: “wood (hard-headed), sponge (absorbing juice and juicy words), rubber (bouncing off each other), sand (getting into everything).” Fortunately, for this resourceful poet-critic, history offers imagined pen-pals among predecessors and contemporaries, whether in Gwendolyn Brooks and Rihanna — two good girls gone bad — or “du bois in ghana,” an address to the African-American thinker who moved across the Atlantic after 90 years of witnessing and withstanding American atrocity. “when i turn bitter, seeing no potential // for escape, i think of the outrages you saw,” Shockley reports from our century. “you kept writing and walking, looking / for what you knew was out there.” Maybe in 90 years, though surely today, someone will write the same to Shockley.


Open any Ange Mlinko collection, and you’re guaranteed high doses of esoterica, OED deep cuts, jokes lobbed at the canon, and a literary historian’s jaded awareness that nothing’s new. The braininess suffusing Mlinko’s criticism — for London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, and Poetry, among others — has been a reliable constant in her poetry as well. Her earliest work echoes (according to every reviewer within earshot) the New York School, especially Frank O’Hara: she shared his hurtling, punctuation-light line, double-booked social schedule, and chummy intimacy with his city. As Mlinko’s line and life settled down, her poems began to travel both the world and the World Book Encyclopedia. Interweaving myth and autobiography, glamorous landscapes and scientific factoids, her newly intricate poems found models in classical music and gardening, even dressage. In 2011’s “Cantata for Lynette Roberts,” an expansive tribute to the neglected Welsh modernist poet who lived to 86 (but stopped writing in her 40s after a nervous breakdown and religious conversion), Mlinko addresses her predecessor with first-name familiarity: “Lynette, if you were here, I’d ask you the one salient question for a woman at midpoint: / How not to harden?” It’s a crucial question for anyone “at midpoint,” but is particularly important for this “hard,” allusive, deliberately puzzling poet, whose devotion to perfectly patterned surfaces risks asphyxiating the passions underneath.

Hopeful “not to harden,” Mlinko, in her latest book, Distant Mandate, divides her allegiances between exacting formal control and capricious play. She resuscitates old-school rhyme schemes, but her rhyme-pairs rewire the language, linking up “radio’s” and “Adios,” “sans serif” and “seraph,” “Psyche” and “earachy.” Where her past lines could spool into hundred-syllable pools, her new poems might recall bygone forms, tautly metrical and judiciously embellished. Yet her delight in indirection is entirely contemporary and exclusively her own. Typically, Mlinko bares her heart around line 78 of 91, if ever; more often, she squirrels it away, behind an obstacle course of cryptic-crossword clues and hyperlink-like leaps. Sleepless amid Miami nightlife — “The revelry of others showed up as / bags under my eyes” — Mlinko stows her “torment” inside her title, “Dentro de la Tormenta” (“inside the storm,” like the “eyes” of hurricanes). Every sight thereafter braids together hurricanes, childish play, and reckless attitudes toward perilous climates: a child squealing over “A Lamborghini Huracán!”; an “exuberant” woman swimming mid-storm, “braced against wind like an admiral.”

Wherever Mlinko travels — across Florida, where she lives and teaches; to past homes in Texas, New York, or Lebanon; to unfamiliar stretches of Georgia or Greece — she goes less as roving reporter than stand-up mythologizer. Girls on motorcycles become “centauresses,” half-human, half-horsepower; a trumpet-playing busker is revealed as “Misenus, son of Aeolus, god of the wind,” making this subway station “a twenty-first-century translation / of hell.” A bookish reader of landscapes, Mlinko can twist her appreciations into excavations of suppressed legacies — Jefferson Davis bringing “camel brawn / to Texas to aid in the Civil War” — or prophecies of nearing catastrophes. In another Texas poem, “In the Gods” (a term for theater seats in the upper balcony), Mlinko drives home from a dizzying performance of Wagner, past a Texas City that “smokes like a witch’s sabbath.” For this enthralled operagoer, those oil fields must be the handiwork of “a trickster / fire god Loge,” who “casts an aboveground spell, / flaring waste gas on a new well.” Somewhere between greedy Norse gods and money-hungry corporations, between Götterdämmerung and ecological devastation kindled on fossil fuels, the opera’s explosive highs keep resonating: “It lit me in the gods: / fracked with river water, / and piped into a rich contralto.”

Distant Mandate’s second half alchemizes and allegorizes heartbreak, with few facts disclosed — a separation here, a “hiatus” placed “on hiatus” there. Whatever really happened is merely a runway for Mlinko’s sumptuous flights of fancy. “Marriage as Baroque Music,” for one, spells out its conceit in it title: Mlinko wastes no time delighting in her chiming troubadour stanzas, or in the comedy of one heterosexual couple finding themselves mirrored by a duetting soprano and mezzo-soprano, both tickled and moved by the self-conscious artifice.

                            The soprano’s
built like an ox; the mezzo-s’s
highest note’s topped by tresses
and there’s an element of mirth
when, ignoring the other’s girth,
she locks gazes with her, passionate:
Solomon and Sheba duet.

Music and marriage modulate erratically: “Uncertainty of what they’ll sing / makes the composition interesting.” All Mlinko can be certain about is her romance’s major-key opening and (with luck) its consonant resolution — that “flattery you pressed on me, ages ago. / Remember? The marriage-scale. It starts with do.”

Show-offy rhymes, exquisite taste, love and loss transmuted into crystalline forms: Mlinko has been rereading James Merrill. She rivals his miraculous wit, and his puns so brilliant that language itself seems their co-conspirator. As the author of several poems titled “Days of [insert year here],” Merrill would appreciate her “Days of 1999” and its daffy flirtation: “Aloe aloe      I mutely mock in French accent.” Mlinko’s longest poem to date, “Epic,” brings the myth of Psyche into the third millennium; it builds off Merrill’s own irreverent retelling, “From the Cupola,” whose most-quoted lines are an authorial intrusion: “Psyche, hush. This is me, James. / Writing lest he think / Of the reasons why he writes— / Boredom, fear, mixed vanities and shames; / Also love.” In Mlinko’s “Epic,” it’s not the author but her nameless protagonist who breaks the fourth wall: “a girl,” starting anew in Brooklyn, “with a meaningless profession, / which doesn’t pay to the extent it gentrifies.” Thanking her guardian “angel” (or Ange) for leading her to the local library, the girl confides in hushed parentheses:

             (Thanks to the angel who commandeers
the signs that point to what to read. A lector
of one’s own life is often what’s required,
and I was lost in a confounding chapter.)

Mlinko recently described Merrill’s work as “wonderfully, generously peopled,” and the compliment holds for her own hospitable work: it’s to welcome in, not fend off, that Mlinko furnishes every stanza with in-jokes, gossipy name-dropping, and true-and-beautiful banter (“A horse does not want to be FedExed”). Distant Mandate’s most enchanting ode to the good life is “Epiphany Letter,” addressed to the poet, translator, and fellow classics disciple A. E. Stallings. Recalling “our few days together” by a Georgia beach, Mlinko’s epistolary poem becomes a tiny Odyssey’s worth of domestic oddity. How could she forget that beach where “small holes under our bare feet may / have piped a tune by our quick passes,” just “[l]ike the ocarinas your aunt baked from clay”; that “nighttime stroll, with wine and unbreakable glasses, / on the sand where everything is broken / by the tides”; or the “local Creole” spoken by Stallings’s irrepressibly endearing daughter:

                                         You wince
when your daughter says I winned
but that her native tongue is not your own
is not as strange as that we mince
these words we’re given. Rather say she’s wind
— we can barely keep up!

Decades ago, Mlinko’s and Stallings’s poems sounded nothing alike; today, their concerns rhyme perfectly. In person they mince their words, but in their stanzas — seamlessly rhymed, comfortably metrical, maintaining composure even when “everything is broken” — they find words equal to their giddy gratitude. “As for us,” Mlinko signs off to Stallings (now back home in Greece),

                      I guess we like our stanzas
like barrier islands taking the hit
                                               when the Atlantic’s
all worked up in one of its blustery
and if it means to say I winned, we laugh.

Somewhere behind those “blustery / dances” is the Odyssey, with all its animated waters and unruly winds, alongside more recent currents: Mlinko’s ending recasts the marital melodrama of Robert Lowell’s “Man and Wife” (“your old-fashioned tirade— / loving, rapid, merciless— / breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head”) as giggly comedy. It’s a reassuring coincidence that both Mlinko in Distant Mandate and Shockley in semiautomatic, in search of peers and audiences, dare to ford oceanic divides; as those same waters rise unmanageably, both poets acknowledge the ecological apocalypses stirring. Reading poets like these — who keep past and future in equal view, their stanzas as sturdy as barrier islands in our present poetic geography — am I wrong to think we winned?


Christopher Spaide is a PhD candidate in English at Harvard University, where he studies and teaches modern and contemporary poetry.

LARB Contributor

Christopher Spaide is a PhD candidate in English at Harvard University, where he studies and teaches modern and contemporary poetry. His poems and criticism have appeared in Boston ReviewPoetryPreludeThe Yale Review, and elsewhere.


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