Monday, October 10, 2011

Decoding Evie Shockley’s “mesostics from the american grammar book” Pt. 1

By Cindy Lyles

Even at first glance, Evie Shockley’s poem “mesostics from the American grammar book,” from her volume the new black, captures attention with its distinct arrangement of words on the page and selection of letters in bold print. A closer look, not to mention the title, reveals that Shockley utilizes the mesostic form in which a vertical phrase intersects horizontal text. Notably, all the words of the poem consist of the names of black women.

[Related: “mesostics from the american grammar book” Pt. 2]

Shockley presents 28 names, both fictional female characters and real women; each name comprises a line of the poem. The names appear in the following order in the poem: doroThy dandridge, yellow maRy peazant, hAlle berry, helGa crane, marIah carey, Clare kendry, maMa day, lAni guinier, consolaTa, zora neale huRston, anIta hill, ntozAke shange, sapphiRe, aliCe walker, peacHes, saartjie bArtman, seThe, sallY hemming, nOla darling, maya angeloU, harRiet jacobs, joSephine backer, janEt jackson, margaret gaRner, Vanessa williams, desiree washIngton, sappho Clark, and cElie.

There are a plenty of connections to make amongst these women, particularly that of creator and creation, writer and character. For one, the women writers include Zora Neale Hurston, Ntozake Shange, Sapphire, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Harriet Jacobs. The fictional characters in the poem, from novels and films, include:

1) Yellow mary Peazant (Daughters of the Dust novel and film),
2) Helga Crane (Quicksand by Nella Larson),
3) Clare Kendry (Passing by Nella Larson),
4) Mama Day (Mama Day by Gloria Naylor),
5) Consolata (Paradise by Toni Morrison),
6) Sethe (Beloved by Toni Morrison),
7) Nola Darling (She’s Got to Have It film),
8) Sappho Clark (Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South by Pauline E. Hopkins)
9) Celie (The Color Purple by Alice Walker)

This gathering of writers and characters in Shockley’s poem gives readers a quick catalog of some pivotal, black women authors and memorable black female characters. The snapshot of so many different real and imagined black women gives us much to consider.

In addition to characters and authors, Shockley presents the names of entertainers and historical figures in the poem. She appears to establish a kind of meeting ground for the varied group of women, but for what purpose? And why are they grouped in the manner in which they appear? Furthermore, what is the poet getting at with her mesostic message, “TRAGIC MATRIARCH AT YOUR SERVICE"? I plan to address these kinds of questions during the course of the week as I provide more decoding of Shockley’s poem.

Evie Shockley Week

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