April 26, 2019KR Reviews

“Iridescent Everything”: On Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing

Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017. 90 pages. $16.00.

“All I ever really wanted you to know about me / was Fullerton Avenue,” writes Eve L. Ewing, in a poem named for that Chicago thoroughfare that becomes a testimony gradually yielding revelations: taking in Motion City Soundtrack at the Fireside Bowl, a long walk looking for work, one very disturbing bus ride.

An implied transposition courses through this poem and Ewing’s new collection, Electric Arches. For the anaphora that runs through “Fullerton Avenue,” All I ever wanted you to know, could easily be turned on its head: I wanted you to know all. Against a world that might not always listen, there is so much Ewing has to say.

Ewing may embody all that is Fullerton Avenue—and still, the picture is more layered. Consider “how I arrived,” with its nod to the Middle Passage, the natural world, and the reach of the Diaspora:

1.
in flight from a war for my own holy self,
clinging to a steamship. . . .

2.
they mailed me from Mississippi
in a metal ice chest.

I taste salt at the sight of honeysuckle . . .

3.
I rode in on a bumblebee.

4.
I fell out of the dirt.

5.
I disguised myself as a painter in a time of artless men. . . .

If “how I arrived” captures many voices in one poem, then it’s the key to a Ewing ethos: multiple perspectives must be heard. Her poems sample a multitude, from Koko Taylor to the Polar explorer Matthew Henson, from Zora Neale Hurston to Terrance Hayes. Time and distance can always be collapsed. Indeed, in “On Prince,” a little girl finds affinity with a pop icon:

I didn’t know what a Corvette was but I knew it was small
and that it made you sad, and I wanted to have a
trembling, breaking voice like that, and I wanted
a motorcycle and something to be sad about.
I wanted to play guitar with the rain falling
all off my body, and shake my shoulders when I walked.

The poem’s surface innocence is upended by the line breaks, which suspend objects of desire just out of reach. Even the child speaker has a dawning grasp of how life both lifts and troubles: “to play guitar with the rain falling / all off my body . . .” Turns out the narrator’s true story harbors a “secret revolution,” a desire to locate the world’s “filthy cute magic.”

Elsewhere, there’s nothing secret about the revolution. “Excerpts from an Interview with Metta World Peace, a.k.a. Ron Artest, a.k.a. the Panda’s Friend” offers voices as intemperate and imaginative as the former NBA star himself:

yes, I am the Red Storm. that’s why I made your eyes hurt.
that’s why your shirt is that color now.

Queensbridge is me. I am the stone path over the water
from one monarch to the next,
trodden by ladies-in-waiting with rubies for eyes.

because the old world order was trash. next question?

The pivots in register at times seem too sharp to be believed, but perhaps that’s the point. A voice that can invoke the Queens projects in the same breath as ruby-eyed mistresses forces us to sit up and listen. Especially to the subtle indictment of capitalist extraction: the interviewee, no matter his triumphs, remains a “stone path . . . trodden” by others bound for riches. Next question, indeed.

Ewing herself is out to fashion a new world order. A series of poems subtitled [a re-telling] begin as snapshots of bigotry and oppression. We see the white neighbor scream at a six-year-old Ewing to “Go back to your nigger Jesse Jackson neighborhood!” We meet four boys seated on a curb, police overhead, lightbars flashing. And we’re reminded, in the pointedly-titled “another time [a re-telling],” that the streets transecting Harvard, that bastion of elite progressivism, where Ewing, now a professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, completed her doctorate, still isn’t free of that most terrible derogation.

Ewing’s surprise is how she “re-tells.” Halfway through each piece, the typeface yields to handwriting, the vignette to an unexpected, magical-realist ending. Ewing even recasts the nose-wrinkled Harvard passerby, now “possessed by a mighty and exuberant ghost-spirit,” into a “spinning” and “hollering” spectacle. Here Ewing reclaims the very act of minstrelsy, foisted on an unwilling oppressor—on that most iconic of public squares, no less. In these times, we’re reminded how often citizenship has had to be subversive in order to survive.

To this white male reader, it is always an urgent experience to witness the extent to which the black body becomes a contested site on which the ambitions and perversions of our republic continually play out. The title of Electric Arches’s first section is “true stories,” and perhaps that’s a preventive measure against some readers’ disbelief—yes, listen, this really happens. But I suspect Ewing also offers “truth” as a kind of faith, an insistence that the world as it is need not constrain the world as it could be. Where there is plunder and anxiety, so is there resilience and reclamation. Any story can be rewritten.

So it’s no surprise that Ewing’s poems seem always in the act of creation. Take “what I mean when I say I’m sharpening my oyster knife”:

I mean I’m here
to eat up all the ocean you thought was yours. . . .
I’m a bad seed. I’m a red-handled thing
and if you move your eyes from me
I’ll cut the tender place where your fingers meet. . . .

I mean
when I see something dull and uneven,
barnacled and ruined,
I know how to get to its iridescent everything.

Destruction is its own form of creation; no “barnacle” or “ruin” will keep the speaker from their fair share. A perhaps literal hunger for oysters (check the double-meaning in “tender . . . meet”) later twists into a hunger for affirmation: “I mean I eat them alive. / what I mean is I’ll eat you alive, / slipping the blade in sideways, cutting nothing/because the space was always there.”

Just as Ewing’s “re-tellings” suggest alterable realities, she also has an equally malleable view of memory. Out of memory comes affirmation, Ewing suggests; out of affirmation comes a different way to tell stories. This is especially true in the collection’s final section, “letters from the Flatlands,” which contains some of the book’s most elegiac, moving, and structurally ambitious poems. “Hood Run: A Poem in Five Acts” is a defiant meditation on survival and energy. “Montage” dreamily gathers a lifetime of scenes from the car into a prose poem with line breaks preserved in dividing double-slashes. And in “one good time for Marilyn Mosby,” the subject is the state’s attorney for Baltimore, best known for her (unsuccessful) prosecution of six police officers in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray.

The poem imagines

the day they all gathered to hear you count them
like a desperate man counts a pistol’s hailing
one through six . . .
your eyebrows furrow till your face is the jagged graphite
they love to spit at. they count your sniffles
and gasps. they whittle your yell, in their heads.

Mosby may be the one under the pressure of the klieg lights, but it’s her audience who’s reduced to spitting and counting and whittling. In the world of badge and flag, Mosby’s changed who wields power: “They don’t like how sharp your knife was / when you slid it between the pewter eagle / and the blue polyester fabric / and sliced . . .” The compressed energy of the poem is best captured in these cutting lines, yet it’s also one moment in Electric Arches where the electricity fizzles. “They whittle your yell, in their heads” has enough punch without the too-obvious last three words. There’s plenty of wattage coursing through Electric Arches; in Ewing’s urgency to get her stories out, one would only urge her to fully trust the “iridescent everything” already at the heart of so much of her poetry.

Christopher Vaughan
Christopher R. Vaughan is a teacher and poet based in Minneapolis. His poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Hawai’i Pacific Review, Off the Coast, Review Americana, Canyon Voices, Del Sol Review, Connecticut River Review, and What Rough Beast. His poetry reviews have appeared on Kenyon Review Online. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015.