If You Are on This Earth You Are of This Earth: On Charif Shanahan’s “Trace Evidence”

March 20, 2023   •   By James Ciano

Trace Evidence

Charif Shanahan

WHAT MIGHT first strike you about Charif Shanahan’s second collection, Trace Evidence, is the design of its cover. Up close, a series of vertical black and white lines intersect the relief of a man’s face. When held at a distance, the distinctions of the face become clearer: the gaze of the eyes more penetrating. The face on the cover of Trace Evidence embodies a kind of indeterminacy, a suspended position that gains or loses definition depending on how and from what vantage one views it. This cover image serves as the perfect entry into Shanahan’s collection—it prepares us to traverse the physical and metaphorical intersections of a speaker who constantly seeks a place from which to speak, and who is met at each turn by the negating forces of language, history, family, and intimacy.

Trace Evidence begins with “Colonialism,” a prefatory poem, and moves from there into three distinct sections. The poem, via both its title and content, casts a luminous shadow, staging many of the book’s central themes: the dramatic setting of the poem situates the speaker as a young boy with his mother “Waiting on a thinly grassed divider / For a sliver to form // Within the traffic—” They have returned to the mother’s homeland of Morocco. And it’s here, as with the cover, that we feel at once the collapsing of both literal and metaphoric intersections: the boy in the poem dashes alone “through the exhaust of four lanes / Not exactly a highway // But still too wide to be crossing— / And without a crosswalk, no less—” Shanahan ushers us into the book through the space of the threshold, and in this situational dashing across the intersection of traffic, we also feel prepared to travel with this speaker as he interrogates and traverses the myriad intersections of his own identity across the space of the book. Grammatically, as if to enact a kind of intersectional suspension, or a crossing of a threshold, Shanahan unfolds the poem as one long sentence with no definitive breaks. The only grammatical respite provided comes in the form of the em dash, the visual embodiment of an intersecting motion—it pairs two words or clauses together, and it linguistically bridges gaps and thresholds.

There is a precision to Shanahan’s verse; each word seems to hold behind it the immense urgency of a speaker seeking to write himself into existence, while being simultaneously aware of language’s limits, failures, and embedded histories of erasure. Deeply inquisitive and self-aware, the poems demonstrate a true mastery of form across the collection. Shanahan’s lines are finely calibrated, whether in shorter lyrics of gorgeous self-excoriation in the first and third sections or in the expansive mode of meditation that defines the book’s second and seminal section. No matter what form they take, the poems in Trace Evidence reckon in surprising and unexpected ways with mixed-race identity, sexual intimacy, and the imbricated legacies of transcontinental colonialism. Beyond familiar American ways of discussing and delineating race, Shanahan explores notions of anti-Blackness contextualized by the specific racialized context of an Arab mother who, while unwilling to recognize herself as Black, bestows Blackness on the poet.

The first section of Trace Evidence unfolds the daily life of our speaker and his struggles to, in language, find ways to articulate “what for [him] it has been like.” In the brilliant first poem of this section, “‘Mulatto’ :: ‘Quadroon,’” Shanahan writes:

If to speak in a particular social world I must

Occupy a position and that world consists

Of positions that are clear but none

Of which clearly I occupy

Then it may be that I cannot      even if I want to

Tell you what for me it has been like.

This poem as a whole feels like an emblematic thesis for the collection—in complex syntactical phrasing Shanahan crafts the very predicament his body poses to language’s ability to define his existence. In an act of reclamation, the poem itself becomes a “position” from which to speak, the poem a source of agency “In a system whose positions / [the speaker] appear[s] not to occupy.” The speaker understands, as he puts it in “‘Mulatto’ :: ‘Quadroon,’” what it means to be both “A part and apart—”

The speaker suffers constant indignities, erasures, and small violences to his sense of self, the kind of transgressions that might contribute to the “sense of shame” referenced in the first section’s epigraph by Mencius. These transgressions come from professional relationships and figures such as his boss—“Sometimes she says they, sometimes she says you. / She’s talking about Black people” (“Talking with My Boss about Diversity and Inclusion”)—and fellow mentors and poets—“your hero, at your book party, tosses her hand through the air / to tell her friend who’s just asked who you are that you are nobody” (“Thirty-Third Year”)—and even therapists, as in the poem “Countertransference,” where instead of the speaker receiving help for his pain, it is the therapist who has a breakthrough in relation to his own racialized body: “And so it was your pain I was paying to see, to speak to me, to seep out of you.”

While the transgressions of these professional relationships cast a large colonial shadow, inextricably tied up in capital and the transactional commodification of Black bodies, the subtle violences from the speaker’s most intimate relationships, specifically his mother, are perhaps the most devastating. In “Not the Whole Thing, but a Large Part of the Story,” he writes, “Over there, she was sahrawi, asmar, / Even abid. Over here, Black. / To her, Black meant African American, / Which she was not.”

The title poem of the book, “Trace Evidence,” immediately complicates and contextualizes in dialogue the relationship between the speaker and his mother. It’s worth noting that the conversation takes place while the two are waiting to cross an intersection, “standing at the corner of 195th and Jerome.” Early in the poem, the speaker addresses his mother:

                                 What I’m trying
I mean
You are an Arab, yes,
By culture, by language, and in part by blood; by blood
You are also Black African—

This reads like a direct situational and imagistic echo to the poem “Colonialism,” in which the young speaker in Morocco runs away from his mother across a traffic intersection. With tremendous formal dexterity, the poem unfolds chiastically—a 12-line first stanza, a linguistic monostich hinge, and then a second 12-line stanza. The poem folds in on itself at the center so that the form embodies the inextricable bonded separation of mixed-race identity: two races folded into one body. Linguistically, “the lights” cast onto the speaker and his mother as they wait to cross the intersection set the stage for an interrogation, conjuring the world of forensics in the title Trace Evidence. As the title poem comes to a close with the speaker’s gorgeous formal address to his mother—“My sweet selfless mother, it is / Fine, it is fine. For us here now I will be the first of our line”—we understand the “trace evidence” put forward by the speaker to be the very real and unerasable fact of his racialized body in this world, regardless of his mother’s willingness or ability to accept her own Blackness in this country.

The second section of Shanahan’s collection, “On the Overnight from Agadir,” is made up of one triumphant long poem detailing a traumatic crash the speaker survives on an overnight bus in Morocco. On returning to his mother’s home country, Shanahan writes, “I flew / here to find something out / about my mother so as / to find out something / about myself.” Shanahan describes the circumstances of the crash with momentum and precision:

Then, in the early morning hours, on a bus almost returned to Rabat,

A razor of light slits my eye down the center—suddenly

The bus on its side, dirt in the air, stars in the dirt.

Shanahan continues his forceful use of the em dash, here visually reflecting not only the “razor of light” that precedes it, but also, in its horizonal motion, “the bus on its side.” Shanahan continues, “In one skull an eye looks west, another east.” Here, he compresses the physical traumatic aftermath of the crash into the metaphorical traumatic reality of his body’s existential position along the implied binary lines of the West and the East, white and Black, an Irish American father and a Black Moroccan mother.

This second section of Trace Evidence is a polyphonic orchestration of what it means to go “home.” As Ladybug, one of the multiple speakers of the poem, puts it, “You thought you were going to Morocco, she says, laughing. You were going to the body.” In searching for home, or in searching for a part of himself in the land of his mother’s home, Shanahan not only ends up returning in his long convalescence to the contradiction of his own body, but also literally ends up recuperating from his injuries in his “childhood bedroom in the Bronx.” Shanahan finds that the best answers to his existential wrestling are further questions:

Where does the inquiry begin     Does it begin in my particular body

In my particular mind     Does it begin centuries before me

Does it begin in my mother    Does it begin in all these places    At once

Shanahan traces this “inquiry” back to its “roots,” using the metaphor of a tree as a unifying image to braid together disparate temporalities and physical locations, even beginning from the poem’s opening lines: “Don’t go to discover your roots, Ladybug says. If you want to look for roots, go and look at a tree.”

Embedded at the center of this long poem, and at the heart of the book, we hear an echo of the scene from the book’s prefatory poem, a hypothetical conversation with either the speaker’s mother or, ambiguously, another version of himself:

Would I do what to you? Reckless childish behavior, that’s all it was.

            You disappeared from sight.

You can’t really believe I wanted to kill myself. At 5 years old.

            The car horns blared. They were layered, merging.

The exhaust was heavy. Once inside I could not see. I ran until through it.

            What do you see? When you think of it now?

I can still hear them. I hear them now. You?

            A nearly white brilliance. An almost-permanence.

In addition to asking the existential question of whether or not to continue living, there is a specific whiteness at the heart of the memory that seems to obliterate all sense of self, all sense of possibility or futurity for the speaker.

In surviving the bus accident in Morocco, the speaker of Trace Evidence seems to approach the fact of his life with a new sense of value and self-worth. “Is it possible my function is to hold / all the intricate, interstitial pain / And articulate clarity?” Shanahan writes in the book’s third and final section. In the face of constant erasure, it is exactly this self-confidence—not just to contend with the precarity of his own existence, but to continue living in defiance of it—that Shanahan achieves with this monumental collection.

With Trace Evidence, Shanahan, as the “first of [his] line,” has carved out a space from which to speak. He has found the language to articulate “Not a portion of the life, not / A possible life, but [his] tangled and patient / Actual implausible resilient fucked-up life.” Ultimately, at the heart of this collection is the enduring and deeply felt paradox of Shanahan’s knowledge that “Being here now, with you, speaking here now, with you, is the most difficult / thing I can do,” and yet, he still chooses to do it, offering this book as “trace evidence,” a testament to existence, a call to joy, a call to love, a call, as he puts it in the poem “Indeterminacy,” to “Get to living!” Trace Evidence closes on these lines from the poem “Worthiness”:

When I turn away from the day, I enter an unconscious state. I seek it
Though years ago, I wrote, “I want to enter my life like a room.”

The final quoted sentence comes from Shanahan’s poem “Trying to Live,” which appeared in his first collection, Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing (2017). In this recomposition, Shanahan is no longer “trying to live” but is living, has entered his life. With his second collection, Trace Evidence, Shanahan crosses a poetic threshold, running across and beyond intersections imposed by others and the self. The poet leaves us, ready for his future.


James Ciano is currently a provost fellow at the University of Southern California, pursuing a PhD in literature and creative writing.