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Queer Echoes: Reading ‘The Faerie Queene’ with Evie Shockley
by Hannah Crawforth

In her Afterword to the recent special issue of Spenser Studies on Spenser and Race (co-edited by Dennis Britton and Kimberly Coles), Ayanna Thompson makes several suggestions about how we might read, study and teach Spenser in ways that fully acknowledge the structures of systematic racial oppression that underpin both the poem and our discipline. We need new editions of The Faerie Queene that are both cheap enough to be accessible and that also fully and honestly annotate the poem – glossing ‘Sarazin’ as ‘Muslim’, for instance. ‘Second, we may need to rethink where The Faerie Queene belongs in our curricula,’ she writes. Noting that upon first encountering Spenser herself  ‘there were ways that the text made more sense to me when read alongside Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison than next to Virgil and Ariosto,’ Thompson asks, ‘What would it mean to free Spenser from being trapped solely within the early modern epic course, or the survey of early modern literature, or the early modern poetry course?’ Finally (in Thompson’s list, although of course this is really just the beginning of the work that needs to be done), we need to engage with scholars outside of the immediate field, asking their perspectives on Spenser: ‘I would love to read an Africanist’s take on the epic poem,’ writes Thompson, ‘or to think through Spenser with the African American theorist Fred Moten, or to reconsider the poem with scholars of Islam.’[1]

 

I’ve been thinking about ways to constructively de-centre Spenser in this way, to read The Faerie Queene not – as our professional infrastructures and pedagogical obligations so often demand – along what are so often still strongly periodized lines, but rather to hear the poem amongst very different voices, voices far removed from Spenser historically and in terms of their own positionality. What does it mean to read Spenser not in the company of Shakespeare and the Sidneys and Donne and Wroth and Milton and Cavendish but rather – as Thompson suggests – ‘alongside Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison’, or, in my own recent work, alongside the writings of the African American poet and critic Evie Shockley, whose formally innovative poetics engage explicitly with Spenser’s work in ways both critical and creative.

 

In my previous paragraph the most important word is that preposition of Thompson’s: ‘alongside’. This is a practice of reading with, reading beside, reading together. This is not about using Shockley’s work to help us understand Spenser or to do the work of making Spenser relevant for today (nor, for that matter, is it about using Spenser to read Shockley). I am not looking for influence or allusion here. I am emphatically not seeking to show what Shockley’s poems ‘owe’ to Spenser, in the extremely limited way in which notions of literary canons construe the relationship between past and present texts – a method of approaching Early Modernity that only reinforces (racist) hierarchies of oppression by insisting upon the supremacy of the past in relation to the present. Rather this is about how Shockley and Spenser speak to, with, and through one another, an idea that Shockley formulates in her critical writing as an act of ‘negotiation’ (I’ll come back to this).

 

Shockley’s poetics are both innovative and also highly engaged with the history of literary forms, in fact the relationship of her poems to literary forms of the past is one of their modes of innovation. Her poem, ‘a-lyrical ballad (or, how america | reminds us of the value of family’), from her 2017 volume, Semiautomatic, invokes Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), for instance, to question both what modern ‘america’ values and what a ‘family’ – actual or symbolic – might go through in this time and this place. ‘The main title nods at William Wordsworth,’ Shockley writes in her note to the poem, but it also belongs to another literary history, another lineage, joining ‘the tradition of elegies for unjustly slain black people in the United States’.[2] What does ‘tradition’ mean in such a context? What does it mean when what it memorializes is injustice, racism, and violence? What does it mean that there is now a poetic tradition, a genre, even, of poems dedicated to the unjust killing of black people? What does that say about ‘america’? What does that say about us?

 

Shockley dedicates ‘a-lyrical ballad’ to ‘Emmett Till, Sandra Bland, Amadou Diallo, Renisha McBride, Travyon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, and…’. I returned to the poem when George Floyd’s name was added to this list last year, and when Andrew Brown’s name was added last week. I will return to it again. Shockley’s ellipses look into the future, a future in which the list is unlikely to stop growing any time soon. The final lines of the poem read:

 

she was a vibrant young woman, hanging in the park,

enjoying outdoors, chillin with her crew,

making some noise as good times often do,

                          

   when an off-duty cop, mad that they refused to get quiet and worried

   that someone’s phone was a gun, shot from his car into the crowd,

                       

and the young woman’s death was all he achieved.

and the family grieved ~ o ~ the black family grieved

 

he was a black kid playing in a Cleveland park,

not the first or last boy to have a toy gun,

just goofing off, not pointing it at anyone,

 

   and the rookie cop, responding to the caller concerned that the kid might

   have a real weapon, arrived and, in II seconds flat, shot him dead…

           

… and the story goes on: the privileged are aggrieved,

or their eyes are “deceived,”

and another family’s bereaved ~ o ~ the black family be grieved

 

Shockley’s lyric puts an unendurable pain into poetic form. In the famous Preface to Lyrical Ballads (which Shockley responds to here) Wordsworth and Coleridge suggest that while metrical verse ‘divest[s] language in a certain degree of its reality’ (distancing us from what is being depicted) this can also allow the portrayal of emotions that might otherwise be unbearably heightened: ‘there can be little doubt,’ they say, ‘that more pathetic situations and sentiments, that is, those which have a greater proportion of pain connected with them, may be endured in metrical composition, especially in rhyme, than in prose’.[3] Maybe. But in ‘a-lyrical ballad’ metre and verse form seem another thing to be endured, seem to exacerbate the suffering being depicted. The customary oscillations of ballad metre – between shorter and longer lines – are here turned to lethal effect; each tercet of (mostly) pentameter lines describing what is happening here is then brutally disrupted by a hexameter couplet that turns that reality into a violent mis-reading of the situation (‘the kid might | have a weapon’) with fatal consequences each time (‘in II seconds flat, shot him dead…’). The continuation of the form speaks to the seeming endlessness of this ‘tradition’.

 

In a cover blurb for Semiautomatic the poet Erica Hunt describes the volume as a ‘source book of poetic form’ and writes of what she calls Shockley’s ‘historically grounded black aesthetics’. (Rowan Ricardo Phillips – whose poetic forms also incorporate elements of the Spenserian stanza – calls his own 2014 collection The Ground.) Hunt’s important essay, ‘Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,’ describes work of ‘historical reconstruction’ as ‘common to all contemporary oppositional intellectuals in America,’ noting that ‘The goal of these reconstructions, traditionally, is to find orientation, example and value with which to fuel present resistance’.[4] The idea that the forms of the past might provide resources for remaking the present (and future) is fundamental to Shockley’s poetics.[5] So too is the idea that ‘black aesthetics’ involve a commitment to poetic form, both innovative and historical. In the introduction to Renegade PoeticsBlack Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (2011), Shockley cites Hunt’s work ‘to dismantle the false dichotomy that has been constructed between writing communities that identify themselves primarily in terms of shared aesthetic values and those that ground their common aesthetic concerns in a shared racial or gender identity’.[6] Dorothy J. Wang puts this even more starkly, writing of the ‘double standard’ by which critics ‘are more likely to think about formal questions—say, poetic tone and syntax’ in relation to white writers, ‘but almost certainly to focus on political or black “content” when examining the work’ of writers of color’.[7] Attention to the politics of form is ubiquitous in Spenser studies; what are the politics of eliding form from discussions of the work of poets of colour in this way? As Shockley asks in her own critical writing, how can we more fully recognize the formal innovativeness of contemporary black aesthetics? Reading Shockley with Spenser might help us to begin this work.

 

In an interview with Sarah Blake for the Chicago Review of Books to mark the publication of Semiautomatic, Shockley says: ‘My aesthetics – including this openness to both formal patterns and formal unpredictability – ask a lot of readers, who must be willing to imagine freedom within apparent constraint and to look for structure where there appears to be none’.[8] The idea of ‘freedom’ within ‘constraint’ is a powerfully resonant one for readers of Spenser and Early Modern poetry more generally (expressed most memorably, perhaps, in Milton’s note on the verse of Paradise Lost). Shockley goes on to describe the work of reading through and across history (in its different forms) as a process that works ‘like metaphors: the poet points to a similarity between things that are in other ways different. The power of a metaphor is sometimes felt in the shock of seeing a like-ness that was previously obscured by more readily apparent distinctions. I’m interested in the ideas that present themselves for consideration in the moment of uncovering that like-ness, while creating a poem, and in the moment of encountering it while reading a poem.’ To read Shockley with Spenser is to look for those moments of ‘like-ness’ as well as those of difference or ‘distinction’ (to use Shockley’s word).

 

I want to turn now to another poem from Shockley’s 2017 collection: ‘the way we live now’, which is again historically ‘grounded’ in relation to forms of the past, notably (though by no means exclusively) rhyme royal and its close relative, the Spenserian stanza.[9] The poem mixes pentameter (and tetrameter) lines with alexandrines and its rhyme scheme (ABABBCC) abbreviates and compresses that of The Faerie Queene stanza (ABABBCBCC), which Spenser derived from Chaucerian rhyme royal (a form he uses in ‘Hymn of Heavenly Beauty’). We might ask what it means for Shockley to choose to engage with historical forms that both her poem itself and the wider critical tradition so clearly show to be complicit in colonialism, violence and racial oppression. In the introduction to Renegade Poetics Shockley argues that the politics of form resist narrow identification with particular racial, historical, sexual, political or social identities, but rather provide a means of ‘negotiation’ between such forces (‘in the context of a racist society’). She sets out a powerful case for not a singular “black aesthetic” but for a plural “black aesthetics” – ‘a multifarious, contingent, non-delimited complex of strategies that African American writers may use to negotiate gaps or conflicts between their artistic goals and the operation of race in the production, dissemination and reception of their writing.’[10] Rhyme is a particularly rich site for thinking about the process of negotiation that Shockley’s own “black aesthetics” might involve, bringing with it echoes of the past and existing always in relation to another moment. Shockley’s distinctive use of punctuation – repeatedly employing a double colon (as in her title) as a signifier of a particular kind of simultaneity – also bears upon the poem’s modified use of the Spenserian stanza. George Puttenham reminds us that ‘plaine and distinct’ speech depends upon regular pauses (in the form of either a comma, a colon, or a period), requiring ‘some space betwixt them with intermission of sound, to th’end they may not huddle one vpon another so rudly & so fast that th’eare may not perceiue their difference.’[11] Shockley’s double colon, borrowed from the discipline of logic, serves in the poem as both a break, a caesura, a moment of separation or distinctness, and also a bringing together, a point of connection, an assertion of ‘like-ness’.[12]

 

the way we live now::

 

            when the cultivators of corpses are busy seeding

plague across vast acres of the land, choking schools

            and churches in the motley toxins of grief, breeding

virile shoots of violence so soon verdant even fools

            fear to treat in their wake :: when all known tools

of resistance are clutched in the hands of the vile

            like a wilting bouquet, cut from their roots, while

 

the disempowered slice smiles across their own faces

            and hide the wet knives in writhing thickets of hair

for future use :: when breathing in the ashen traces

            of dreams deferred, the detonator’s ticking a queer

echo that amplifies instead of fading :: when there-

            you-are is where-you-were and the sunset groans

into the Atlantic, setting blue fire to dark white bones.

 

In a note to the volume Shockley tells us that this poem was written ‘shortly after the murders at the Emanuel AME Church of Charleston, South Carolina (June 17, 2015)’, in which a white supremacist shot dead nine African American members of a Bible study group: Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson (sometimes collectively referred to as ‘the Emanuel nine’).

 

I want to take that extraordinary phrase of Shockley’s – ‘a queer | echo that amplifies instead of fading’ – as a way of thinking about the poem’s relationship to Spenser and to the past more broadly, a ‘metaphor’ for that relation (to borrow Shockley’s term above). The suffering of the past is vividly present in the poem, in which the pain of our current moment (the ‘now’ in which we live) is an amplification of what has gone before, notably the genocidal practices of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which appear here in a ‘queer echo’, millions of people ‘cut from their roots’. This is further evoked in Shockley’s closing depiction of the way the ‘sunset groans | into the Atlantic, setting blue fire to dark white bones.’ Many slave-ships were lost; many ‘dark white bones’ lie in the Atlantic, unburied, unmourned, unrecognized, deprived of these basic human rights by the brutalities of slavery. ‘For me, narrating counter-histories of slavery has always been inseparable from writing a history of the present,’ writes Saidiya Hartman.[13] The murderous past of trans-Atlantic slavery is not only inseparable from the present in which we live now; it is amplified by the brutal murders of African Americans that show no sign of abating, but which echo into the future in the resonant rhymes of Shockley’s verse.

 

The world of this poem is one in which violence proliferates uncontrollably, ‘choking schools | and churches’. This form of growth results in nothing nourishing or sustaining but instead generates only the ‘toxins of grief’. The ‘cultivators’ of ‘the way we live now’ seed corpses and a ‘plague’ of violence (that perhaps takes on another further resonance in this, our plague-year, in which the global Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing racial inequalities and systematic disparities in global healthcare). The image is of our moment, but it is also, metaphorically, of Spenser’s moment too. As many critics have shown, scenes of cultivation in Spenser are often allegorical depictions of the enforced settlement of Ireland by the Elizabethan English. ‘The concern with breeding at the heart of A Vewe [of the Present State of Ireland] turns on the pun on “planting,” which pertains as much to people as to place,’ Urvashi Chakravarty reminds us in the latest issue of Spenser Studies, going on to describe the ‘racialized topography’ of Spenser’s Ireland, ‘which is articulated in a rhetoric of both savagery and civility, “wildness” and orderliness, lightness and darkness.’[14]

 

Shockley’s poem shares with Spenser a vision of planting – plantation – that is synonymous with murder and brutal oppression. There is (Spenserian?) alliteration in Shockley’s ‘virile shoots of violence so soon verdant,’ a queer echo here of The Faerie Queene book II, in which the character, Verdant, appears in the Bower of Bliss imprisoned by his lover, the malevolent Acrasia – whom critics have long read as an allegorical depiction of the supposed threat the Native Irish women posed to the colonial settlers (who really posed a danger to them). In a prelude to Guyon’s violent destruction of the Bower, the Palmer ‘formally did frame’ a ‘subtile net’ (II.xii.81.4-5) (as Spenser forms his epic within the net of his intricate stanza form) in which to imprison Acrasia and Verdant, who will be ‘bound | In captiue bandes’ and ‘chaines of adamant’ (II.xii.82.5-6) (lines that take on further resonance when read with Shockley’s closing invocation of the murderous practices of trans-Atlantic slavery). This net that echoes the silken web (finer than any Arachne can spin) in which she is veiled in her Bower and which mysteriously serves not to ‘hide her alabaster skin | But shewed more white, if more might bee’ (II.xii.77.5-6). Acrasia’s hyper-whiteness is itself part of her deception in the world of the poem that figures fairness as beauty; Kim F. Hall’s work has shown us the ‘racialized nature of the language of fairness and beauty’, and the way that the ‘bodies of white English women become the map upon which imperial desire and national identity are marked.’[15] This moment of ‘like-ness’, as Shockley terms it, sounds between the contemporary moment of ‘the way we live now’ and the mythical Early Modern world of The Faerie Queene. Reading Shockley with Spenser imbues her image of ‘verdant’ growth and uncontrolled proliferation with a literary pre-history of violence and deception. Reading Spenser with Shockley shows how the often violent allegorical action of his epic is inseparably bound with the politics of race and how the ‘captiue bandes’ of the Spenserian stanza form are inextricably tied to the poem’s roots in colonization and oppression.

 

The distorted growth and violent proliferation of ‘the way we live now::’ recalls Shockley’s earlier poem, ‘where you are planted’, from The New Black (2011), six unrhymed heptameter couplets, the final phrase of each of which is ‘southern trees’, the opening words of Billy Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’: ‘Southern trees bear a strange fruit | Blood on the leaves and blood at the root’. The poem reflects on the speaker’s upbringing in an American south in which nature is both verdant and violent: ‘fuchsia, lavender, white, light pink, purple : crape myrtle bouquets burst | open on sturdy branches of skin-smooth bark’ (ll.3-4); even this image of natural abundance has something ominous in its elision of bark and skin, something shocking in the bouquets of flowers that ‘burst | open’ (with Shockley deploying that line break to full effect there).

 

i’ve never forgotten the charred bitter fruit of holiday’s poplars, nor will i :

it’s part of what makes me evie : I grew up in the shadow of southern trees.

 

Shockley’s poem speaks through and with Holiday, it speaks with her voice; ‘southern trees | as measure, metaphor,’ as she writes here, a point of ‘like-ness’ (ll.1-2).

 

In her critical work Shockley uses the term ‘polyvocality’ to describe this act of “speaking in tongues,” to quote Gwendolyn Henderson’s theory of black women writers’ ‘ability to “speak in a plurality of voices as well as in a multiplicity of discourses”. […] To survive and thrive, she submits, black women have had to learn to speak dialogically in ways that can be heard by our “others,” both through similarity and across difference.’[16] The ‘southern trees’ of ‘where you are planted’ – and of Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ – speak in this polyvocal way. Renegade Poetics contains readings of Gwendolyn Brooks’ ‘The Anniad,’ Sonia Sanchez’s Does Your House Have Lions? and Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge (along with a brief discussion of Albery Allson Whitman’s Twasinta’s Seminoles, Or, The Rape of Florida [1885], an epic poem of colonial oppression and violence written in Spenserian stanzas). All of these texts, Shockley writes, ‘tap into the possibilities opened up by the insistent combination of the epic poem’s lofty expansiveness and the stanzaic form’s intricate constraints. Together, these formal structures create spaces in which the three poets can circumnavigate or productively engage with the limitations the concept of voice proposes for them’.[17] The idea that ‘intricate’ formal constraints can be liberating is one very familiar to readers of much early modern literature, and especially Spenser’s epic, where critics have argued that the obscurity of allegory and the restriction of a tight stanza form together permit the poet to hint at things that he could not otherwise publicly express.  

 

In reading Brooks, Sanchez and Mullen’s use of poetic forms long associated with the oppressive structures of imperialism and a particularly masculine brand of martial violence (from Homer’s Greece and Virgil’s Rome onwards), Shockley is acutely aware of the irony ‘that such structures as the epic (and the long poem generally) and rhyme royal (and other received stanzaic forms) might lend themselves to African American women’s liberatory poetic projects, given their construction as male and European forms.’ (17) But it is, in fact, the ‘potentially inhospitable’ nature of these poetic structures that makes them a site of the kind of polyvocal praxis Shockley is interested in, as a critic and – we might add – as a poet. What does it mean to think of The Faerie Queene as a ‘potentially inhospitable’ structure in this way? As a poem that is open to polyvocality not despite this inhospitality but because of it? As a poem to be read oppositionally and also dialogically at the same time? These are modes in which Shockley’s own poems engage with Spenser and, in so doing, offer us models for our own readings (and re-writings) of the poem in ways that reflect the way we live now.

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

Evie Shockley’s poems are reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and Wesleyan University Press. Grateful thanks to Evie Shockley, Jeff Dolven, Joe Moshenska and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann for conversations that informed this essay.

 

 


[1] Ayanna Thompson, ‘Afterword: Me, The Faerie Queene, and Critical Race Theory’ Spenser Studies 35 (2021), 285-90, 289.

[2] Evie Shockley, Semiautomatic (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017), 104.

[3] William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads (1798 and 1802) Oxford World’s Classics, ed. Fiona Stafford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 110. ‘The Female Vagrant’ is written in Spenserian stanzas.

[4] ‘… if it [is] said by those who deny us now that we have no past, then we have to insist we have a past as deeply as we have a present.’ Erica Hunt, ‘Notes for an Oppositional Poetics’ in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, ed. Charles Bernstein (Berkeley, CA: Roof Books, 1990), 201.

[5] See also Tripwire 5, ‘Expanding the Repertoire: Continuity & Change in African-American Writing,’ a journal special issue based on 1998 symposium hosted by Small Press Traffic and featuring critical and creative work by Nathaniel Mackey, Harryette Mullen, Wanda Coleman, Erica Hunt, and others.

[6] Evie Shockley, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), 14

[7] Dorothy J. Wang, Thinking its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (2014), xx.

[8] Sarah Blake, ‘A Poet Reflects on the Horrors of America,’ Chicago Review of Books, 29th September 2017. [https://chireviewofbooks.com/2017/09/29/a-poet-reflects-on-the-horrors-of-america/]

[9] Gwendolyn Brooks and Sonia Sanchez both employ versions of rhyme royal in their epic poems, ‘The Anniad’ and Does Your House Have Lions? respectively, as discussed by Shockley in Renegade Poetics, 41 and 64.

[10] These strategies might be “recognizably black,” as with Langston Hughes’s successful experiment in bringing the blues lyric into poetry, or might not seem particularly concerned with issues of race (and, specifically, “blackness”) as in the fragmented voice, disjunctive logic, and paratactic lines of Erica Hunt’s poems…’. Renegade Poetics, 9

[11] George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936), 74.

[12] On the punctuation of The Faerie Queene see Promise Li’s brilliant essay, ‘The Faerie Queene’s punctuations,’ The Explicator 77.3-4 (2019): 107-11

[13] Saidiya Hartman, ‘Venus in Two Acts,’ Small Axe 26, 12.2 (June 2008): 1-14, 4.

[14] Urvashi Chakravarty, ‘“Fitt for Faire Habitacion”: Kinship and Race in A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland,Spenser Studies 35, (2021), 21-46, 25.

[15] Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995) 177.

[16] Renegade Poetics, 17-18; quoting Gwendolyn Mae Henderson, ‘Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition,’ African American Literary Theory: A Reader, ed. Winston Napier (New York: NYU P, 2000): 348-68, 352.

[17] Shockley, Renegade Poetics, 17.

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51.2.3

Cite as:

Hannah Crawforth, "Queer Echoes: Reading ‘The Faerie Queene’ with Evie Shockley," Spenser Review 51.2.3 (Spring-Summer 2021). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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