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.

—Adam Fitzgerald, Poetry Editor




How easy for the waterfall to turn back

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

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,

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,

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 (Southern Illinois University Press, 2017), winner of the 2015 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Prize. He is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and twice a semi-finalist for the “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Apogee, Barrow Street, Boston Review, Literary Hub, The Manhattanville Review, The New Republic, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. His translations from Italian and German have appeared in A Public Space, Circumference, and RHINO Poetry, among other publications, and have been performed by the Vienna Art Orchestra. A Cave Canem graduate fellow, he holds degrees from Princeton University, Dartmouth College, and New York University. Formerly Programs Director of the Poetry Society of America, Charif is poetry editor of Psychology Tomorrow Magazine and a Fulbright Senior Scholar to Morocco.

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