Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing by Charif Shanahan
Southern Illinois University Press, 2017
Review by Emilia Phillips
“They told me again today that I was not Black,” Charif Shanahan writes, opening an epistolary poem in his debut collection, Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing. Like many of the book’s poems, “Asmar” concerns itself with the ways in which race, as well as the particular constructs of blackness and whiteness and their conditions of belonging, are defined by individuals within, outside, and on the margins of those identities and their communities and cultures. It’s important to note that Shanahan, whose book-jacket biography reveals that he was born to “an Irish-American father and Moroccan mother,” has the ethos to explore these concerns. As such, many of his poems feel compelled by the imperative of autobiography, if not by its facts but by its emotional truths. That being said, this review on principle will not conflate the poet and the poems’ speakers, only note that many of the poems explicitly or subtextually identify their speakers as being of mixed race, like the poet. “Asmar” continues:
Allison says Even though you are Black and what I know she is saying is
I can’t believe I have to call you that.
A friend says Just be glad you can walk through the world and be free.
A friend says You tan well and I want to ask what he is defending.
Implicit in this catalog of statements are questions of belonging, even ownership over a racial identity, of what it means to be black or be white. One friend sees the speaker’s light skin as a blessing, a way for him to avoid discrimination, even violence: “you can walk through the world and be free.” While well intentioned, this statement still others the speaker from his blackness. Another friend seems to suggest that the speaker only tans well, as if he’s defending blackness as a construct of corporeal features, specifically skin color, and, arguably, the attendant racism one with darker skin would experience. It seems that the poem’s Allison understands blackness in a way that usually excludes the speaker, likely also because of his light skin. The reader can’t be certain whether or not Allison actually thinks, “I can’t believe I have to call you that,” or if the speaker assumes that that’s what she’s thinking and projects it onto her. Regardless, the speaker feels excluded from what he believes Allison’s definition of blackness is. It’s this very kind of conflict that charges many of the dramatic situations and meditations in Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing, demanding that the reader interrogate their own ideas about race, identity, and appearance.
This conflict doesn’t just center around blackness but often scrutinizes whiteness in equal measure, as the book’s penultimate poem demonstrates. “‘Your Foot, Your Root’” begins with the scene of a mixed-race speaker and his white father at lunch, an outing during which the father pronounces his son “Cosmetically…white.” To this the son replies that he has “never felt white a day in my life” and that “race isn’t only about the body—you should know that by now.” Identity isn’t just about the body, its appearance; rather, a complex network of signifiers combine to create one’s sense of self. “I don’t mean who we are to each other; I mean / Who we are to ourselves,” Shanahan writes in “Single File,” but the book goes on, again and again, to further complicate this notion of “Who we are to ourselves,” allowing the speakers the dynamism of humanity, of not living within a static sense of self but accounting for those biased perceptions and ever-fluid manifestations of selfhood.
As with Allison in “Asmar,” Shanahan’s speakers sometimes project what they think others see of them reflexively back onto themselves. The poem that does this most overtly is the poem “Passing,” near dead center of the book, with its title that references the speaker’s ability to “pass” for white. The speaker situates themself (and I purposely use the gender neutral “them” for the singular speaker here, as another pronoun is not provided by the poem) on a train, where they ask: “If I arrive, // who will greet me as brother, / as owner, who will greet me // at all”? These questions provide the emotional heart—indeed, inciting motivation—of the meditation, but the poem later intensifies as the speaker goes into the train bathroom:
I laugh at the mirror, an animal,
to see what they see
in whatever I am standing here—Then
the train slides into a long tunnel.
The speaker seems to lose sense of self, becomes “an animal, / unhinging,” in their imagining of others’ perception of them. The use of “whatever I am” as opposed to “whoever I am” is especially telling. The speaker doesn’t feel exactly comfortable in, even available to, personhood—at least until the “train slides into a light tunnel.” This is perhaps the most extreme moment of disassociation in the book, one that sends aftershocks throughout the rest of the poems in the collection.
Elsewhere, Shanahan takes on whiteness. “‘A Mouthful of Salt… / I Came Through Numb Waters,” dedicated to poet Morgan Parker and in conversation with her poem “I Know Why the Jive-Ass Bird Signs,” begins:
I know my suffering is loud but my skin
is light as sky and I was told to let it
open doors, shake hands, slip the cover
over their eyes, so I could be.
Whiteness, the speaker’s been told, opens doors, shakes hands, obfuscates; the speaker’s instructed to take advantage of their skin color, but they immediately deny this “easy out,” its privileges:
is not a negro doused in white, blanched,
bleached, and sent down the path. Free
almost never means alive
. . .
How do I move the line when it is buried
in the earth. Why do you think my face
is the face you think you see.
Inherent in these statements are the questions of what it means to be “free”? What does it means to be white? Black? What does it mean to be seen as one thing, or as another? What happens when those two identities conflict? In “Unbearable White,” the speaker says of whiteness, “I did not know / I’d been running from it,” but an earlier poem, “Wanting to Be White,” offers an extended metaphor for the poet’s conflicting sensibilities regarding whiteness. “How easy for the waterfall to turn back / into the river,” the poem begins, and later:
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.
One’s sense of self breaks on one’s sense of self, the self’s whiteness breaking on the self’s blackness, “its own negation.” Shanahan encapsulates and interrogates a kind of racial liminality here, finding “no way to extract / itself from its own circular endurance”.
Intersecting the book’s concerns about racial identity are Shanahan’s poems about sexuality and queerness, especially the ways in which queerness is contextualized in different places and cultures. “Homosexuality” is a sectioned poem in six parts, each of which are subtitled with place names like New York and Florence. In the Casablanca section, the speaker says that “My uncles find wives at the souk” but then reveals that they stand “at the window calling down / to boys on bicycles.” The most affecting section of this poem is the third:
The blank section, which takes up nearly half a page, devastates in its suggestion that Laramie has little—or, rather, a silenced—queer community. Elsewhere, the book describes fraught moments between men who love men, as in the oversized-sonnet “Briefs”:
I knew that he would say “I love you”
To his wife on the phone from Canada.
Stood in my underwear in the doorway
Of their bedroom, arms around my stomach,
Thinking first, “Who is he trying
Even in relationships, the speakers of Into Each Room express or demonstrate an isolation from others. “Why / am I alone in thinking / I am not living the right life?” Shanahan writes, underscoring the fact that even his doubts feel unique. What’s so compelling and brilliant about this collection is the way in which its candid expressions of doubt make the text so emotionally vulnerable to the reader. The internal life, its cultivation as well as its desirous honesty, is privileged here, demonstrating Shanahan’s allegiance to lyric poetry, the “labor of word, lyre, bark,” and the ongoing resonance—yes, relevance—of the I, especially as it confronts its boundaries, floods its banks.
Charif Shanahan is the author of Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing (SIU Press, 2017), winner of the 2015 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. He holds degrees in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and Dartmouth College and an MFA from New York University. His poems have appeared in various journals, including New Republic, New York Times Magazine, PBS NewsHour, Poem-a-Day of the Academy of American Poets, Poetry International, and Prairie Schooner, which awarded him the Edward Stanley Award. His translations from German and Italian have appeared in Circumference, A Public Space, RHINO Poetry and have been performed by the Vienna Art Orchestra.
Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), and three chapbooks, most recently Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poems and lyric essays appear widely in literary publications including Agni, Boston Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and elsewhere. She’s an assistant professor in the MFA Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her third book, Empty Clip, will be published by the University of Akron Press Spring 2018.