Saturday, July 18, 2020

Reading Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Evie Shockley during a global pandemic

By Laura Vrana

Though I balked at having to shift a course of this type online, it turned out to be a blessing that I was teaching a Master’s-level introduction to literary criticism/theory this spring. The course sought to deconstruct canonical literary theory by pairing key white Western thinkers to whom students needed to be exposed with a range of voices, especially black feminist ideas. As a result, we had already set up an environment predicated on two values: (1) that the link between intellectual work and “real life” is vital to incorporate into academia; and (2) that so-called diverse voices have much to teach about how the sociocultural formations of the present academy have evolved. Expanding that lens to grapple with how sociocultural formations of American life have evolved to get us to an “unprecedented” moment worked well.

So the course shifted not just in form, but in content and context of discussions. I still felt obligated to expose students, for their future careers, to Foucault and Derrida and Barthes. But we leaned ever more both into discussing the overt ways such theorists could (or could not) offer resources for the present crisis intellectually and personally, and into pairing those thinkers with a wider range of non-white peers, especially women of color.

We discussed theorizing in terms of destabilizing claims that this crisis constitutes unprecedented rupture. We talked about Native thinkers who have a direct connection to the experience of viral pandemic wiping out populations. We addressed black feminist theorists like Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe grappling with slavery as continual, ongoing. We talked about Afrofuturist authors. All these frames richly helped us (as a group of white women—also key matter of discussion) discuss ethical modes of response to the world and even the academy, given Barbara Christian’s evergreen query: “For whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?” (77).

The ever-escalating toll of the pandemic has left me with no answers about how to incorporate these concerns going forward, with students of all sorts. I have been thinking about a couple texts in newly pressing ways that I am still weighing teaching. I’d like to highlight here just a couple such works, especially black queer “troublemaker” feminist theorist and poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s triptych Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (2016), M Archive: After the End of the World (2018), and Dub: Finding Ceremony (2020). The second feels especially apropos to our moment. Its stunning poetics riff on the tradition of black women adapting to the unsurvivable. The text illustrates, as Nikki Giovanni puts it cheekily in “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars),” that enormous adaptations mandate that our nation “needs to call Black America” for guidance.

So I was delighted to encounter in my inbox this week through the free email list Poem-A-Day feature of The Academy of American Poets (featuring only black writers through summer’s end) a new poem by Evie Shockley, “sonnet for the long second act.” In the accompanying statement, she describes the poem as a piece that “attempts to leap from the encounter with” M Archive to a course Shockley taught this spring, while “carrying with it my distillation of the balm I found there.” I too have found balm in Shockley’s new poem this week and in Gumbs’s work over the past few. Whether we are seeking solace or guidance for ethical responses to the world, I urge you (now as always): read and #CiteBlackWomen, especially these two.

In particular, Shockley’s “sonnet” and Gumbs’s “For Phillis” (M Archive) seem to echo one another in their evocation of Phillis Wheatley as poetic foremother, with Shockley’s opening line “your body is still a miracle” paralleling June Jordan’s deeming her “Phillis Miracle Wheatley.” Gumbs’s haunting descriptions of Wheatley open: “what she needed was the heat. not the cute little desk in the portrait. not the windowed room looking out on Cambridge, not the white mother mistress to believe in her. what she needed was the heat, and without it she died” (122). But despite this, Gumbs goes on, Wheatley’s “every breath was made for prayer. and she was here. so this was what it looked like” (122). These pages’ stunning counter-portrait of Wheatley, alongside Shockley’s image of “veins mining the mud for poetry’s o” to get one to a place of “bathe breathe believe through drought you survive / like the passage schooled you till rains arrive,” will not leave my brain this week. I hope they can offer others (and perhaps my future students) something as well, however currently undefinable.

Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Feminist Studies 14.1 (Spring 1988): 67–79.
Giovanni, Nikki. Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems. New York: William Morrow, 2010.
Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. M Archive: After the End of the World. Durham: Duke UP, 2018.
Shockley, Evie. “sonnet for the long second act.” Poem-A-Day. The Academy of American Poets. 16 July 2020

A notebook of entries by Laura Vrana

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