Race is fiction, naturally. Biologically, I mean.
I am trying to say something about interdependence, which I don’t believe in.
It implies separateness, which is false. I am trying
To say something about being varied expressions of the very same thing. The very same.
From “Fig Tree”
Charif Shanahan exploded onto the scene with his debut collection, Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award, as well as winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. Now, Shanahan returns with his follow-up, Trace Evidence, a complex and fraught collection that boldly solidifies Shanahan’s place in American poetry. Trace Evidence explores mortality, belonging, and race with glaring honesty and technical precision. Its urgency and timeliness make it one of the most important collections of the year.
Shanahan separates Trace Evidence into three sections, physically and chronologically grounding the narrative with a tragic accident at its center. The second section, “On the Overnight from Agadir,” is a long form poem that chronicles Shanahan’s visit to his mother’s homeland, a journey which ended abruptly after Shanahan broke his neck in a bus crash. Structurally, the first section offers a window into Shanahan’s childhood and complicated relationship with his mixed race identity, while the third section offers a stark contrast to the first section, acting as a space of revelation and healing in the wake of his accident.
The most prominent theme throughout Trace Evidence is the question of race, which Shanahan immediately signals in the very first line of the book, “At intersections I knew to look both ways.” Readers quickly realize that Shanahan is speaking not just of literal intersections, but of the intersection between his racialized identities. Following “Colonialism,” which precedes the first section, Shanahan offers readers “‘Mulatto’ :: ‘Quadroon,’” in which the speaker comes to the realization that
If to speak in a particular social world I must
Occupy a position and that world consists
Of positions that are clear but none
Of which clearly I occupy
Then it may be that I cannot even if I want to
Tell you what for me it has been like
The abrupt ending to the poem is a technique that Shanahan employs several times throughout the collection, most often to signal that the moment captured inside the poem does not offer a clear or defined resolution.
Charif Shanahan continually returns to the question of Blackness in the first section, including: a conversation with his mother about her inability to identify as Black because she associates it with African American, a searing rebuke of an African diasporic journal whose editor asked a third party if Shanahan himself was Black, a chance conversation with another multiethnic man during bocce, and awkward pronoun usage from a boss while discussing diversity and inclusion. Still, the section offers a layered consideration of identity and mortality. “Control” offers a heartbreaking confession against the backdrop of sexuality and alienation, the speaker admitting that “When I tell you/I don’t know what to do with my life,/I mean I don’t know how to stay inside it.”
These questions of mortality follow Shanahan as he makes the decision to visit Morocco against his mother’s advice. The second section begins with a conversation between the speaker and Ladybug, in which Ladybug tells the speaker, “Why did you come here Tell me why/If you want to die go ahead and die do it quickly/If you want to be dead You can be dead.” As the poem progresses, the speaker comments flatly, “If you don’t want to live you don’t want to live anywhere.” The underlying question of suicidal ideation manifests numerous times, which helps to contextualize the speaker’s revelation in the wake of the bus crash that he no longer wants to die. This culminates in the final phrase of the collection, in which the speaker recalls that he once wrote, “‘I want to enter my life like a room.’”
One of my favorite parts of the collection is the way that Shanahan turns toward the metapoetic in the final section. “Fig Tree” references the act of writing the poem and explicitly calls on the reader to render meaning lest the author have no meaning of his own. “Worthiness,” too, speaks directly to the reader as Shanahan investigates iterations of the chokehold and alludes to George Floyd’s execution. The author’s decision to invoke the reader in what acts as the most revelatory section helps to solidify the healing and self-awareness that pervade the final poems of the book.
Trace Evidence is intensely complex and immediate, layered and poignant, positioned perfectly as a deeply personal and yet deeply relatable collection for anyone and everyone who has struggled with questions of belonging. The poems are rich with nuance and often demand that readers return to them, each time gleaning something new and moving ever closer toward actualization. If this collection is any indication, Charif Shanahan is one of the most vital voices in American poetry.