topsy’s notes on taxonomy

Literary Hub Poem of the Week

June 10, 2015  By Evie Shockley

Let’s not forget how much the social construction of race, an effect of the slave trade, was codified and articulated in the age of Enlightenment, alongside the birth of modern science. In Evie Shockley’s lexically deft, explosively punning new poem, the legacy of Linnean taxonomy is newly overthrown and deconstructed. It’s a poem that asks us to remember not only how well our definitions of the human were once historically determined, but also how their bloody consequences continue to this very day. Quack pseudoscience is chastized in the poet’s slow-fire wordplay (opposable/opposed; complex/complexion; specious/species, tender/tender). But Shockley isn’t just questioning the whole project of European secular humanism; after injecting some much needed vernacular reality-checking, she’s boldly rejecting it. 

—Adam Fitzgerald, Poetry Editor






your thumbs may be opposable (i’m opposed
to being under them) ~ and your communication

may be complex (colored, coded) ~ but the closer
the ocean gets to cauldron, the more specious
your current classification seems to be ~ if you

love your specie more than you love your
species, maybe a reorganization is in order ~

the darwinian emphasis on descent is quaint,
but perhaps he’s not acquainted with the finer
distinctions of nineteenth-century science ~ see,

i’m my master’s flesh and blood ~ he tends
to me, to them, as if they were his own (raw-

hide, quick kiss, intimate, hit it), as tenderly
as if i were legal tender ~ but pound for pound,
he’d never take the likes of me for human ~

o believe me, whippersnapper, i’m whip-
smarter than i look ~ linneaus’ system made
sense ~ shared characteristics is what matters

~ let me put it to you plain ~ if i can’t tell
the difference between you and kudzu, it ain’t
‘cause my plaits’re too tight ~ look at how

y’all do ~ invade a foreign territory ~ no
invitation, no departure date ~ and jes’
grow ~ Man o Man, you’re not my kind ~


[“following sylvia wynter, i use Man to designate the modern, secular, and
western version of the human that differentiates full humans from not-quite-
humans and nonhumans on the basis of biology and economics.”
—alexander weheliye

Evie Shockley
Evie Shockley
Evie Shockley is a poet and scholar. Her most recent poetry collections are the new black (Wesleyan, 2011) and semiautomatic (Wesleyan, 2017); both won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the latter was a finalist for the Pulitzer and LA Times Book Prizes. She has received the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, the Stephen Henderson Award, the Holmes National Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Cave Canem. Shockley is Professor of English at Rutgers University.

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