Two Roads: A Review-in-Dialogue of Will Harris’s “Brother Poem” and Evie Shockley’s “Suddenly We”
Brother Poem by Will Harris
Suddenly We by Evie Shockley
I think I started last time, too, by asking you what adjectives come to mind when you think of Wesleyan University Press’s poetry books, acknowledging, of course, that a press publishes quite an array of diverse books and poets.
DEAN RADER: Is James Wright an adjective? That’s what (or who) I associate with Wesleyan. But also his brother in poetic flight, Charles Wright. Those early books, China Trace (1977), Bloodlines (1975), are spectacular. In the 1960s and ’70s, Wesleyan may have been the most influential press in the country. James Wright’s This Branch Will Not Break (1963) changed American poetry. And there is John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath (1962), all those Robert Bly books. I also think about how, in the ’90s, they were publishing some pretty edgy books by women, like Joy Harjo’s In Mad Love and War (1990), Rae Armantrout’s Necromance (1991), Susan Howe’s Singularities (1990), and of course all the books by Brenda Hillman. They also take chances on translations. Two of my favorite books are César Vallejo’s Trilce (1922; trans. 2000) and Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor (1931; trans. 2004). They have also been important publishers of some rather experimental Bay Area poets like Jack Spicer, Barbara Guest, D. A. Powell, Karen Fraser, Philip Whalen, Lyn Hejinian, and even Jane Hirshfield.
What about you?
VICTORIA: I love your thoughts on Wesleyan, especially what you call “edgy books by women.” If I were to think about Wesleyan today, I would say that I find their poetry books to be experimental and interesting. I think of poets Kazim Ali and Brenda Hillman, of Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s book The Age of Phillis (2020). Rae Armantrout comes to mind as does Kamau Brathwaite. They’ve published Barbara Guest and Fred Moten. The list goes on and on. I think university presses such as Wesleyan are doing important work.
I’m just going to jump right in here to talk about the first of our Wesleyan books, Brother Poem by the UK poet Will Harris. There’s so much I want to talk about here that I’m just going to vomit it all at once, which is different than we normally do in these reviews.
We could talk about so many things related to Harris’s book, but I wanted to point out some of the themes that were poignant to me. This book seems to be circling and recircling around themes of childhood memory, diaspora, immigration, identity, family tension, and an interesting haunting time in the speaker’s life—the age of five years old, which is mentioned several times in the book. In “Voice Notes,” the theme of identity appears in the incessant and ignorant questions related to the speaker’s identity: “No one asked me how my / face and speech related.” In this country, that question, which I myself have received a million times, would be in this exact phrase: “No, where are you from from?” The poems in this book explore these themes through speculative, slippery pronouns, and what I might call oppositional tension—the thing itself and the relief of that thing, which I’ll explain more later. Also, the two words that kept popping into my mind were “strangeness” and “pronouns.”
The speculative frame of the brother who appears in many of the poems, and in the longer poem simply titled “Brother Poem,” is fascinating. This brother is imaginary or fictitious and perhaps present to investigate the self and memory. Maybe a fictitious brother is a way of using what’s nonexistent to explore what is existent, perhaps like relief in sculpture—what’s chiseled away reveals the sculpture itself.
In the longer “Brother Poem,” Harris writes: “Every poem is another / poem that didn’t make it.” And later: “I want to speak but also / to wander at peace myself.” In the same poem, the brother hides when the parents are fighting, while the speaker is exposed, out in the open, “looking outside” and able to sense his mother’s “paleblue thought” in the air, moving, but unable to be caught:
The first poem I wrote was in my
looking outside while
fought my brother hiding
under the bed
a paleblue thought in our
mother’s mind moving too fast
to be caught
I’m intrigued by this imaginary brother as perhaps a way to cope with the trauma of childhood, the trauma of being alive. Maybe this is too personal, but I really identified with the speaker’s loneliness in these poems. While I have an older sister, she and I have never been close. But there’s something comforting about the fact that there’s one person, just one, in this world who truly understands the difficult experiences we had growing up in the United States, in the white community that we grew up in, with the particular immigrant parents we had. Despite our differences and the fact that we hardly communicated about our individual and shared traumas, just knowing this provides me with comfort. The comfort of a shared experience continued on when we had to care for our ill parents.
Also, in terms of strangeness, I could pick any selection in the book, but it’s perhaps easiest to begin at the beginning. The opening lines of the first poem in the book have no title:
In June, outrageous stood the flagons on
the pavement which extended to the river
where we spoke of everything except
the fear that would, when habit ended, be
depended on. Our fear of darkness as
the fear of darkness never ending.
These six lines are simply strange. They are sonic and rhythmic (the first line is arguably iambic pentameter). If we were just to try and unpack that first line, its syntax is complex and inverted. The flagons were on the pavement is simple enough, but the line is rendered more beautiful by a kind of layered syntax and various dependencies and syntactic stacking. The period doesn’t come until line five. By then, we have ridden along on a sonic train of “o” sounds from “outrageous” to “flagons” to “on” and “e” sounds from “pavement” to “everything” to “except” to “ended” to “depended.”
Poems such as “Cuttlefish” feel like formal poems—like the sestina in their repetitions and circling back. The word “brother” appears and reappears throughout the poem, as do other images. And the image of a brother appears across the book as a whole. For example, the last line in “In Anxiety Dreams” ends: “And I was quiet, as if I’d lost a brother.”
Subject matter and the first-person experience seem to take a backseat to tone and time. I’m not even sure what I mean by that, but it felt right to say that. The poems sometimes feel like dream poems (“In Anxiety Dreams” is literally a dream poem), or dream states. The lines sometimes become surreal, as in “Cuttlefish”: “You knew I had a brother though we’d only met / that night. Each time you forget and remember / the experience becomes truer.”
I also think that there’s something interesting happening with the narrative that might contribute to an added sense of strangeness and mystery. For example, in the poem, “New Year,” there’s a sense of gravity in the fifth line, “and the / fact we weren’t talking”:
I was in Jakarta for Lunar New
Year. It was colder than expected
but I still kept the air con on at
night and because of that and the
fact we weren’t talking I sat up and
looked through messages on
my phone trying to work out if
there was some pattern there.
But to go back to pronouns, we don’t know who the “we” is referring to, but we do know that the speaker left the air conditioning on when the weather was cold. The phrase “narrative reversal” came to mind when reading this poem, meaning that the core important information is withheld while the seemingly mundane side narratives that feel less important are provided in detail. It seems like the poet (and perhaps the speaker) creates mystery through this reversal, as a way to navigate and articulate the murky parts of memory, identity, and the diaspora.
Another thing I noticed about the poems is the slippery pronouns throughout, maybe I’ll just label this the deictic shifting of the personal. In “Brother Poem,” Harris writes: “What will I do / in the future // Use I or him / when I mean you.” This small passage says so much about pronouns and this idea that every pronoun is an arrow pointing to “you.” I kept thinking about the poetry of Ashbery or W. S. Merwin and the ways in which Merwin doesn’t particularize pronouns so that the words end up taking on multiple meanings at once. I’m thinking of his seminal poem “For a Coming Extinction” and the ways in which he uses “we” or “you” and how those pronouns intentionally do not fasten onto any particular thing for very long. I could go through the poem to parse each pronoun easily, but while I’m reading, all of Merwin’s pronouns begin to blend together in a symbiotic way, evoking a tone of interdependence. Merwin’s “I” is often depersonalized and egoless, a part of everything rather than the center of everything, almost as if Merwin is decentering the self, the ego. The use of “we” can envelop and encompass, in one big confident swoop, everything, including the complicit reader. And in Merwin’s case, this seems to serve his ecopoems and anti-war poems quite well.
Similarly, in Harris’s poems, I’m intrigued by these pronoun beams, like little lasers of red light that hop around in a poem. Again, in the opening poem, there’s a mysterious “we” in line three and an equally mysterious “you” throughout the poem. The “we” starts as being people, but in the middle changes to “we little mice were born to tarry in,” meaning a larger set of people or mice as metaphor.
In “After ‘The Quinine Plant,’” a “he” emerges right away but it feels both near and distanced, both a possible first-person “I” but also perhaps an alter ego, a dream persona, a memory persona, one with “feet never touching / real earth.” At the end of the first section, everything is simultaneously disparate and united: “the myth of the living / tree divided / among her children” who “became /one currency.” But unlike Merwin, I think Harris’s relationship with the pronoun has somehow to do with identity, with the relationship between seeing, being seen as the other, and self-identity.
I found this book to be interesting and memorable. Harris, at least to my ear, sounds singular, and I, as a reader, am always looking for singular and unique voices. Harris seems to have a vision of poetry, poetics, and what he’d like his own poems to do and explore. I find that conviction, as channeled through the poems, to be compelling.
DEAN: You have done such a great job. I’m not sure I have much to add, except to say that even without the shared experience of growing up as a child of Asian immigrants, I found many interesting things in this book. Like you, I was struck by the strangeness of the diction. The poems possess a beguiling combination of narrativity and syntactic distance. On the one hand, many of the poems feel like stories—they have a beginning, middle, and end—but their slippery syntax keeps the reader from easing too comfortably into the story of the poem.
A good example is “After ‘The Quinine Plant,’” an engrossing long poem that is comprised of 10 one-page poems, each of which begins with the line, “The more he thought.” That refrain pushes the poem along, creating a sense of accrual that is often frustrated by yet more thoughts. Those thoughts (about identity, geography, nationhood) announce themselves in the poem’s opening:
The more he thought
the more thinking
a source of anxiety
casting its green
shade over him
of what he was
and could not be
because of what
he did not know
By the way, I like that line break of “he did not know / he was.” I like that we can read those lines either as “he did not know he was” or “He did not know. He was.”
You mention pronouns above, which I think is a smart observation. In this poem, it remains unclear who the he might be. Maybe the speaker, maybe not. We don’t often talk about things like “third-person omniscient” or “third-person limited” in poetry, but in this book, I think those questions are illuminating. And I totally agree with you about Harris’s use of we. I always felt strangely included (as opposed to excluded), despite the indeterminacy of the poems.
To me, Evie Shockley asks similar questions in Suddenly We (there is that first-person plural pronoun again). Do you see any overlaps between the two collections?
VICTORIA: I think you are right when you use the word “distance.” I think these poems are subverting conventional ideas surrounding narrative.
That’s an interesting question—any overlaps between Harris and Shockley. They are such different poets that I find that question a little bit hard to answer. Maybe one “similarity” is their focus on pronouns? Following the first poem in the book, Shockley’s book is divided into four sections that all have “we” in the section titles such as “we :: becoming & going” or “we :: indurate & out,” and the book ends with a final poem titled “les milles.”
This book seems to be asking these questions: How is it that we live together? How do we survive together? How does the “I” press against and with the “We”? The personal versus the collective. The epigraphs at the front of the book seem to support these themes. Each quote from Aretha Franklin, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Nathaniel Mackey, and Bernice Johnson Reagon seems to be making an argument. For example, Reagan’s quote says: “there is nowhere you can go and only be with people / who are like you. it’s over. give it up.” In some ways, then, these epigraphs seem to be a kind of thesis, for lack of a better word, a summary of the overarching theories of the forthcoming poems.
The very first poem in the book is a concrete poem referencing the artist Alma Woodsey Thomas’s work Starry Night and the Astronauts (1972). Thomas was the first Black woman to have a show at the Whitney Museum. The first section of the poem spells out “we,” but the “we” is made up of several repetitions of the word “you,” implying that we, the reader, as well as the speaker, are actually the ones who are composed of a collective.
In “brava gente,” the poem explores similar themes:
all of you were some of us, at one time or another
history holds the long threads that trail from your heels,
leading back to the origins of your origins
the first fights
the first droughts
the first debts
where do good people rest their heads?
and where will the rest
of us go?
At the bottom of this poem is the epigraph (or is it called that?):
—for igiabo scego, farah jasmine griffin, dionne brand, suheir hammad, cherríe moraga, tina campt, cecilia vicuña, zoë wicomb, layli long soldier, min jin lee, and all the many chroniclers of movement(s)
This epigraph is also a sort of summary of Shockley’s project in this book—we need to reach back and reach forward to survive as a species.
This book seems to be arguing for a poetics of the first-person plural, of we. In “les milles,” the poet writes: “there is no poem unless i / we can find the courage to speak” (where the “i” is a lighter-colored font, gray-toned).
What are your thoughts on Shockley’s book or anything I’ve talked about above?
DEAN: That is so interesting! I would have said that the main question Shockley’s book tries to answer is, How do we make it through all this? Which is so similar to your “How do we survive together?” I think we had similar experiences with her project.
I admire Shockley’s marriage of the political and the playful. That first section is chock full of short, almost silly, lyrics that use font and white space in joyous ways. I love her puns, and I really never say that about puns. To wit:
will have rhone
we wheel on
look at our space-van go
It is as if she is seeking community or connection through humor, sweetness, vulnerability. I get the sense in these poems that Shockley is dropping her—and asking us to drop our—guard. Later in the collection, there is a poem with the title “women’s voting rights at one hundred (but who’s counting?)” that begins with this epigraph:
eenie meenie minie moe
catch a voter by her toe
if she hollers then you know
got yourself a real jane crow
I love the dark humor in both the title and the rewrite of the racist nursery rhyme. Here, gender and race are tweaked but in a way that draws the reader in. I just really want to spend my time attending to and giving my energy to someone who is willing to help me think about (and feel through) these issues in new ways.
I was also struck by the verbs in this book: becoming, spinning, hatches, waiting, coaxed open, unravels. There is so much movement but also transformation. A blossoming, a birthing, a blooming that is really intriguing.
VICTORIA: I too was interested in how Shockley’s poems are not afraid of play and experimentation, whether it is how the poems appear on the page physically, or how the poems play with sounds and language, as you talk about, or how they play with punctuation. I think this playfulness, though, serves a purpose, as you’ve said of the marriage between play and the political. Perhaps the play in Shockley’s book is one of subversion or protest. I’m interested in how play doesn’t diminish the subject matter in the work but supplements it.
There are examples of subtle sonic play in many of the poems. In “no car for colored [+] ladies (or, miss wells goes off [on] the rails),” a poem describing how seven decades before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, Ida B. Wells refused to give up her seat on a train in a “Whites Only” train car going from Memphis to Woodstock. This poem contains subtle moments of sonic play: “outfit be damned, she resists her ouster, till her sleeve’s // torn & the conductor’s bleeding. she’ll pull these threads / until the whole threadbare lie of lynching unravels.” Note the “o” sounds in “outfit” and “ouster,” all the “t” sounds in “ouster,” “till,” and “torn,” as well as the “e” sounds in “sleeve’s” and “bleeding,” the echoing of “threads” and “threadbare” and the alliterative “l” of “lie” and “lynching.” The poem amps up the sonic volume in the final four lines of the poem as a way to mirror the heightening of the narrative at the end of the story.
“Jury Duty” explores the speaker’s father who had served on a jury but had to be sequestered overnight and the trauma of that experience for the speaker and her sister. The poem describes the dilemma of jury duty, the complaints that go along with having to serve, and the privilege of being free.
The narrative is electrified through interesting and dynamic stylistic choices such as unexpected usages of lowercase after periods throughout the book, rendering a feeling of an uncomfortable stopping then starting, mirroring the trauma of the speaker and her sister:
our father’s one call to tell our mother
the jury would be sequestered overnight—
in courthouse cells, we misbelieved. daddy’s in jail?!
we girls wailed. our lives had been a steady
caravan of cautions and counsels, inevitably ending
and stay out of prison. we hardly dared
DEAN: As I’m reflecting on what you’ve written, I’ve come to realize that Harris and Shockley are not as different as we might have believed before we began this review. They are both interested in identity. In change. In language. In the change language can induce. They want their poems to do something. To reshape. To alter. To recast.
I think they succeed.
Victoria Chang is the author of OBIT (2020), which received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN Voelcker Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited 11 books, including Works & Days, winner of the 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize, and Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly (2023).
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