Evie Shockley & Mary Oliver

January 24, 2020
Recently my thoughts have been full of poems by Evie Shockley and Mary Oliver. Paths to becoming an acclaimed poet are sometimes mysterious, but usually there are early signs of a fierce intellect. Evie Shockley came to poetry after earning a law degree at the University of Michigan, practicing environmental law at a Chicago firm, and departing to earn a Ph.D. in English at Duke. Along the way she wrote poetry, and her third collection, semiautomatic (2017), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Shockley, I’m thrilled to announce, will be the keynote speaker at our September conference, and you can read more about her in our press release. Here is one of my favorites from her second collection, the new black (2011):
where you are planted
he’s as high as a georgia pine, my father’d say, half laughing. southern trees
as measure, metaphor. highways lined with kudzu-covered southern trees.
fuchsia, lavender, white, light pink, purple : crape myrtle bouquets burst
open on sturdy branches of skin-smooth bark : my favorite southern trees.
one hundred degrees in the shade : we settle into still pools of humidity, moss-
dark, beneath live oaks. southern heat makes us grateful for southern trees.
the maples in our front yard flew in spring on helicopter wings. in fall, we
splashed in colored leaves, but never sought sap from these southern trees.
frankly, my dear, that’s a magnolia, i tell her, fingering the deep green, nearly
plastic leaves, amazed how little a northern girl knows about southern trees.
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.
By the final stanza, the speaker’s beloved southern trees with their “charred bitter fruit” have become a reminder of the history of lynchings that shadowed Shockley’s childhood in Nashville. Notice the repetition of “trees” in many line endings and realize that you are reading a very specific form known as the “ghazal.” See here for a description of that unusual form, which will help you appreciate how much is going on in the poem and how form can spur content.
Mary Oliver, who passed away in January 2019 at the age of 83, is not usually thought of as a political poet, but in “Skunk Cabbage,” from her Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1984 collection, American Primitive, I read a paen to the kind of toughness that is called for in any battle for change, personal or political:
Skunk Cabbage
And now as the iron rinds over
the ponds start dissolving,
you come, dreaming of ferns and flowers
and new leaves unfolding,
upon the brash
turnip-hearted skunk cabbage
slinging its bunches leaves up
through the chilling mud.
You kneel beside it. The smell
is lurid and flows out in the most
unabashed way, attracting
into itself a continual spattering
of protein. Appalling its rough
green caves, and the thought
of the thick root nested below, stubborn
and powerful as instinct!
But these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again—a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not
tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn
pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.
Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle
refinements, elegant and easeful, wait
to rise and flourish.
What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.
I’ve always loved this poem since I first encountered it in a mid-1980s college course on contemporary poets that featured all women writers, because the (male) professor said that all the best work at the time was written by women. Isn’t that a refreshing counter-narrative compared to most syllabi of the time? I spent many early springs of my childhood tramping through cold marshes with smelly skunk cabbages and had never thought of that plant as heroic.  In the wake of the marches of January—for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the Women’s March—it’s good to read a great poem about trailblazing.