Until 2020, I had consistently found joy and refuge in making art.
Poetry has been my way of recording and processing my journey, particularly the paths I’ve taken toward understanding the social, physical, and geopolitical world; the forces shaping these distinct yet overlaid and deeply intermeshed configurations of the planet; and my place as one creature among many on the earth. Working out ideas, beliefs, questions, and commitments by filtering them through research, observation, conversation, emotion, language, and imagination, and trying to make something illuminating, delightful, provocative—that is, memorable—in the process: this multifarious act of poetry-making is fundamental to who I am. Even when the subjects I take up are vexatious or agonizing, there is pleasure in the artistic endeavor, satisfaction in gaining a new purchase on the problem or pain.
The first half of this year strained my relationship to my poetry beyond anything I’ve previously experienced. Coming into the period of the pandemic, I’d not had much time to bring the poems bubbling inside me to the surface. As distressing as it was to see social circulation grind to a halt for so many around the world—and to watch those whom we couldn’t live without come rushing into view, in all their vulnerability and essentiality—I assumed I would fill the hours left free with poetry. But within days, as the names and photos of the dead began to appear in the media, it was clear I’d been wrong about that. I was “free” to anxiously pore over maps and charts of coronavirus cases and to obsess about under-resourced public hospitals in Queens or the maddeningly high per-capita rate of infection in the Navajo Nation. I could temporarily “escape” into long, engrossing novels—especially dystopian fictions depicting problems worse than ours and people surviving them. Poetry, however, seemed out of reach. And three weeks later, when I unexpectedly lost a beloved friend and mentor under circumstances aggravated by the pandemic, if not due to the virus itself, my impulse to create poetry shut down altogether.
I could barely look at my notebook. Oh, I read reams about the developing science around COVID-19; I played political podcasts and fumed at the White House’s indefensible incompetence at managing the pandemic; I consumed more novels and whole seasons of a long-deferred TV show. I even finally got back to work on my scholarly writing. But poetry? No. Poetry requires you to be open and attuned to the interplay of your thoughts and emotions, to stay with them long enough to fully perceive and unpack them. William Wordsworth famously wrote: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Well, I had very powerful feelings, but I was doing everything I could to keep them suppressed. I couldn’t simply “recollect” my grief and anger; I was still swimming in these emotions, and the shore of tranquility was nowhere in sight. I had to function: to teach, advise, report, plan, and show up for my family and friends. Poetry seemed to threaten all that.
I now recognize I was mourning death in forms that were not unprecedented, but certainly new to my firsthand experience: death on an incomprehensibly large scale, and death unexpectedly, piercingly near. I couldn’t yet process it, didn’t want to.
Slowly, over the summer, as I wondered if the rupture in my art-making circuitry would ever heal, I found my way back to poetry. Sadly, it was the atrocious killings (I’d call them murders) of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Daniel Prude, among others, surfacing in the national consciousness—and, finally, the national
conscience—that gave me my direction. These were an all-too-familiar kind of death: authorized by the white supremacist, anti-Black racism that generally inscribes Black people with criminality and deputizes white people, in or out of uniform, with state policing power. I returned to Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1968 poem “The Second Sermon on the Warpland,” which offers solace and encourages resistance. Her words speak resonantly to the pain and radical vision of those working to make Black Lives Matter in this warped land—not just vis-à-vis policing and gun violence but also the broken health-care system and unfair labor practices that disproportionately endanger Black lives, as the pandemic has made clear.
Brooks writes: “This is the urgency: Live! / and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.” Her poem’s refrain, these words realign my spirit. I hold space for my deeply felt and necessary grieving, but I will not let it consume my work and my joy. I am a Black poet, living in “the Warpland,” and my inheritance charges and equips me to “nevertheless, live” and bloom—to make art that reveals and cultivates the “furious flower” of these perennially harrowing times.
In Memory of Dr. Cheryl A. Wall
This essay appeared in the fall issue of Radcliffe Magazine.
Evie Shockley was a 2018–2019 fellow at the Radcliffe Institute. She is a professor of English at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and a poet whose most recent collection, semiautomatic (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and a winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in poetry.