Crab Orchard Series Poetry First Book Award Winner
Southern Illinois University Press, 2017
Recently, the poet Joy Katz asked me if I wanted to collaborate on a writing workshop organized around multiracial and transracial experiences. I told her I couldn’t quite imagine what this workshop would look like, what it would entail. I was thinking: What would we ask participants to do? What would we ask them to make? I might have gone a step further and thought: What would we invite them or compel them to be?
Charif Shanahan’s debut collection, Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing, circles around questions of being and naming. If we understand that race is a construct, why is where we are placed or where we place ourselves within it of such supreme importance? Within the exasperatingly circular dialogue of an aphoristic Q&A in “‘Your Foot, Your Root,’” Shanahan’s biracial speaker asks, “Can the thing matter and not matter at once?” When it comes to blackness, the speaker is going it alone—his Moroccan mother appears black but identifies as Arab rather than African, and his father is a white man who casually drops the n-word as a slur. In “Asmar,” Shanahan writes, “Often I ask But if I am American and my mother, wherever she’s from, is Black,/ Does that not make me—Always I stop, knowing both answers.” Neither “yes” nor “no” will satisfy this speaker, who is—who must be—African American and not African American at the same time. Can blackness be a choice? Can a mind choose blackness though a body cannot? Can a body choose blackness though the mind has been drilled in another narrative? “Can the negro be white, the white man a negro?” Shanahan’s speaker asks in “‘Your Foot, Your Root.’” The answer: “If the room is neither cold nor hot.” In other words, when no one cares to notice.
But people do notice. They notice constantly. In “Persona Non Grata,” the child speaker is browbeaten by a bully:
Hovering over that dark,
Thick line means Neither nor, means
Can’t sit here, means Save the “half,”
You’re just a nigger.
Seeking acceptance, the child speaker tries out the word: “I said what you said, held it up/ To the sun to glint, then swallowed/ It back down.” He is cast out anyway. I am not sure if the bully in “Persona Non Grata,” whether a particular bully or the composite bully of childhood memory, is white or black. It doesn’t really matter because, either way, the mixed-race child will not be tolerated. I am reminded of the girl in kindergarten or first grade who one day decided that she would not play with me because I was “brown”—not black or white or Korean like the others but brown. It wasn’t racism exactly, because the girl’s intent was not to exclude any race, just those outliers she could not pin down. My transgression was being difficult to place.
Shanahan’s speaker is transgressive on more than one plain. “Homosexuality,” among the most formally innovative poems in the book, consists of seven parts named for locations scattered across the globe. The forms of the sections shift from lyrics to blank space to fragments and back to the lyric. We move from a bar in New York City, where the speaker gazes at marionettes hanging from the ceiling, to Casablanca, where his uncles, within earshot of their wives, call out the window to boys on bicycles. Then we are on to Laramie, the word itself evocative of Matthew Shepard, rendered here as blank space (because what can you say?), and from there to Florence, where the speaker searches for “dear Brunetto,” an echo of Dante finding his guardian, poet Brunetto Latini, amidst the sodomites in The Inferno. Next stop is California, a scrap of text from Proposition 8. Then on to several U.S. cities and towns where gay teenagers committed suicide (the fragment a suicidal Facebook status update) to Zurich, where at last, the speaker finds a resting place, “like at night when I enter the room to join you in bed/ and you, still asleep, reach out for me.” This scattershot trek feels less like a quest or a geography of gay life than a gaze moving across a constellation—you are focused on one star until someone swerves the telescope and you’re on to another. Though the poem ends on a tender moment between lovers in a room, I am not sure that it’s a permanent respite or that the speaker, who seems less to be searching for home than trying to find home in himself, will linger there for long. In “Trying to Live,” Shanahan writes, “I want to enter my life like a room.” Of course that also entails the freedom to sit awhile and wander out.
Shanahan and I were born into interracial families in the same year on opposite coasts. When I identify myself as black, I feel not that I am lying but that I am stating an incomplete truth. Yet at some point geographically and historically, choosing to publicly identify as black and queer is as much about declaring with whom I want to stand as it is understanding that the choice has already been made for me. (In my twenties, when I would have been more likely to say “My dad is black” than “I am black,” Tisa Bryant asked me once, “OK, but when are you white?” I thought, “On the phone.”) For the speaker of Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing, whose father says “Cosmetically you are white,” choosing blackness—if it is a choice for someone who answers “I’ve never felt white a day in my life”—is complicated by the fact that most black people are not given a choice between opting in and opting out. “Can the thing possess both shame and privilege?” Shanahan asks. In “A Mouthful of Salt.../ I Came Through Number Waters,” an anchor poem in the collection, he writes:
I know my suffering is loud but my skin
is light as sky and I was told to let it
open doors, shake hands, slip the cover
over their eyes, so I could be. Free
is not a negro doused in white, blanched,
bleached, and sent down the path. Free
almost never means alive, so please try—
At first these lines seem counterintuitive—haven’t mixed-race black people been passing as white for centuries in order to be free and stay alive? But at what cost, “doused in white,” did they surrender their blackness? Who, upon entering the room of whiteness, is free to get out alive? In the final poem in the collection, “Whiteness on Her Deathbed,” the speaker prepares a corpse tenderly, meticulously. He bathes her, braids the hair “She had worked/ To keep straight,” and when all is prepared, there remains “The blackness of her body/ Cold inside my hands,/ Which know nothing.” The ending effectively subverts a title that otherwise would seem overblown. The ritual of bathing may not liberate either the speaker or the dead woman, but stripped down to their essentials, both are left without pretense.
Should the workshop of multiracial and transracial experience be an exercise in not knowing? Following Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing, I keep thinking about a workshop of coated windows, locked doors, and open rooms. What do you produce when you are unseen or mis-seen? What do you make by passing notes across a threshold, straddling what you cannot name and what you already are but are not allowed to say?