New Poem by Charif Shanahan

February 24, 2016  By Charif Shanahan

Is any poem’s title, or any artwork’s for that matter, intrinsic to the text itself, absolutely necessary or totally superfluous; or is it something of an add on, a supplement, a feuilleton inserted above and before we start reading? Auden proposed the distinction between poems that one could guess the title without knowing it already, and those you couldn’t. Reading Charif Shanahan’s new poem, Wanting to Be White, one could never guess its title. What seems to be an evocative, gorgeous description of a waterfall, the mind embracing the natural world, an homage to Jorie Graham, now demands to be reread as flowing from a source that anchors the poem in a profoundly historical, racial—and I’d argue powerfully personal—context. These two parts, title and body, play back and forth in my mind endlessly until I am more conscious not only of the poem’s speaker, whom I imagine as a person of color, but also conscious once more of “nature poetry” itself as a predominantly Euro-American, white, historical phenomenon. The allegorical torque of this opaque hymn leads me finally to the word “source”—and it is there, in Shanahan’s meditation I am forced, powerfully, humbly, to reconsider poetics and race, distinct yet indivisible in the American grain.

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—Adam Fitzgerald, Poetry Editor




How easy for the waterfall to turn back

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into the river, the long, silent face

holding all that has passed through it

as though untouched,

undisturbed…. Then, within it,

a shadow moves—a turtle, or

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kelp wavering, drifting, reaching,

trying to exist beyond its own watery nest—

and the face darkens,

quickens, stills. The waterfall

insists on its own incessant breaking, an anxiety,

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a completion at once its own negation,

merging at its most opaque

with the waiting body, froth gathering, evaporating.

Sometimes I’ll come this far from home

merely to taste the air,

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the always witness to this relentless constructed flow

unable to hold itself

beyond the falling of its own nature,

asserting itself only to destroy

itself. The sky is

sunless, ill-fitting, unhinging, barely awake. The river,

taking its motion from the surging above, urges,

persists, knowing

no way out, no way to extract

itself from its own circular endurance,

tenacious, whole, singularly minded

until it carries itself back to its own source.



after Jorie Graham


Charif Shanahan
Charif Shanahan
Charif Shanahan is the author of Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing, a Lambda Literary Award and Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award Finalist. His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, PBS NewsHour, and Poetry. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Stegner Fellowship Program, and the Fulbright Commission. An Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Northwestern University, Charif lives in Chicago, Illinois.

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