Jaki Shelton Green’s Poetics of Oyster Knives

By Jameela Dallis, PhD

“Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little
pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
— Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to be Colored Me”

“we are all the poems that will not be quiet / we are all the poems waiting to sharpen our oyster knives”—
—Jaki Shelton Green, “No Poetry”

&

Jaki Shelton Green sharpens her oyster knife, sharpens her oyster knife, sharpens her oyster knife. These words are litany, invocation, invitation, and view into the poetic realm of Jaki Shelton Green—a poet who believes poems should be physical and immersive and that “writing is about listening.” She is a poet for whom “joy is resistance” and writing is “full of light.”[1] And it’s within such light that we form, as Audre Lorde says, “ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized” (24). Shelton Green’s poems hold, reflect, remember, and project experiences across a range of identities, ways of being, and possibilities of being.[2] Shelton Green is North Carolina’s ninth Poet Laureate—the third woman and first African American to have been appointed to the role—and she is one of my dearest friends.

March 2018, I knew she was someone I should know. In fact, a mutual friend said so. Our first meeting, following a Natasha Trethewey lecture at the Nasher Museum of Art, was brief. I was instantly enamored with Shelton Green’s style—her signature vermillion round glasses (à la Iris Apfel), her bespoke jewelry, her full head of big curls. She was approachable, asked me about myself, and mentioned a few presses to have on my radar. Later that year, fresh with the grief of a lover’s passing, and the uneasy elation of a new Visiting Assistant Professor position, I received my first assignment for a regional independent newspaper, Indy Week. Editor Brian Howe was familiar with my scholarly background and trusted me to interview Shelton Green in her new role as North Carolina’s ninth Poet Laureate. I wasn’t very familiar with Shelton Green’s work, but I googled everything I could and read as many excerpts, interviews, and poems that I could find online. Shelton Green and I met on a hot Sunday morning in September. What was meant to be an hour-long interview stretched for at least two. She graciously answered my questions. I took copious notes. We shared insights off the record and become fast friends. She invited me to her home for dinner a week later.

This essay is part love letter, part introduction to and meditation on Shelton Green’s poetry and vision. Here, I’ll spend time with selected poems from the span of Shelton Green’s career. Many of her early poems explore the richness and complexity of love in its myriad forms. But, even so, her earlier collections remind us that “history has never left us” and her later poems reveal a matured romantic love and the palpable, inscrutable grief of losing one’s child. As a documentary poet, Shelton Green’s poetry bears witness to individual, familial, and communal histories and shows us her art—her ability to “create a language for what she wants to hold without sending people running.”[3] Yet, Shelton Green uses her figurative oyster knife to agitate and open us to the beauty of reading, listening to, and being moved to act by the narratives, the images, the feelings, and the people we encounter in her poems. For poetry, as Audre Lorde says, “forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action” (25).

Dead on Arrival and conjure blues

From her debut, Shelton Green has moved freely from the personal to the historical and maintains a sense of intimacy and agency throughout. In the preface to the first edition of Dead on Arrival (1977), poet and reviewer Lance Jeffers writes, “The winged and delicate imagery of Jaki Shelton . . . may be a harbinger of poetic greatness. . . . Should this idiosyncratic development continue, she will move, I believe, into a circle of greatness” (vii). The book sold out and a second edition with new poems sold out again in 1983. The collection holds poems of understated sensuality as in “shadow,” which begins with “those white shoulders have never / locked / around / black thighs” (1-4). While “and in my old days—“ alludes to the last king of Dahomey opening with “agoliagbo! / agoliagbo!” and the speaker warns, “do not try to / renew me / I am fluid,” asserting her freedom and, perhaps, slipping from the grasp of French colonists (3-5).[4] 

The poem, “the moon is a rapist,” is bold for its time and operates on several levels as it’s hard to ignore that Roe v. Wade was decided only four years before the arrival of Dead on Arrival. The poem’s speaker asks the moon, “why do you kneel there peeing in my window / you kneeling there upon my earth / impregnating the night crawlers with glow,” and Shelton Green’s ability to anthropomorphize the celestial body into a night creeper, an exhibitionist Peeping Tom in three lines is simply astounding (1-3). The moon’s “soft yellowness penetrates” the speaker’s walls and the speaker says,

                        you entered as you were
                        yellow streams of pee
                        leaving traces upon the bed
                        rapist you are
                        beating your rays into my buttocks (6-10)

The violence of the “soft rapist” moon is the caress of its glow, its yellow urine-colored light that is only a reflection of the sun that “knocks loudly upon [the speaker’s] door” (14, 15). We see the female speaker, nude in her bed, bathed in violent light that not only impregnates the night crawlers but her as well. These “moon babies i shall abort / moon babies come out of my birth pouch” she says (12). Though we know people with uteruses have been aborting fetuses for millennia, the landmark decision provided unprecedented agency and access to safe abortions. Though the moon is a rapist, the speaker isn’t bound to birth its children.

In conjure blues (1996), Shelton Green writes several poems for her children, paints intimate moments between lovers, and conjures people living through historical events both tragic and illuminating—the essence of the Blues. Read these poems aloud. Feel their rhythm. They are meant to be experienced. One poem, “insult,” brings Carrie Mae Weems’s iconic 1990 Kitchen Table Series to mind with a woman sitting “with elbows at attention” waiting on breakfast (12). The poem begins, “bacon is burning again / overdue notices form a multicolored border / around the dresser mirror” (1-3). The speaker admires her woodworker lover’s “rich redbrown” back (5) and then “bacon is smoking the kitchen / why does he not cook it in the oven” (8-9). With those lines, we see the smoky kitchen—the bacon is doing the action—and the speaker’s question carries with it the closeness of a well-lived-in romance. We imagine the repeated suggestion that he cook the bacon in the oven for this very reason. There’s a relatability and maybe we think of someone in our lives who never takes our advice and yet we love them madly anyway. In my head, I hear Nina Simone’s version of “Suzanne” as the woman sucks on “mandarin orange slices” (13) and the final lines of the poem feel like a nod to and revision of “the moon is a rapist”:

                        it is a yellow bedroom
                        the egg yolk is running
                        splashes on this thigh
                        she wants to start there
                        licking the spill from his
                        hardness
                        only he’d push her aside and never understand
                        that she doesn’t want to fuck
                        just enjoy breakfast (19-27)

Here the yellow is the color of the bedroom and yolk The woman is the agent of desire, but her desire isn’t for sex, but rather for the sensual experience of the viscous yolk. The “insult” is both experience and implied. There’s the implied insult of cooking advice ignored and the implied insult of being denied (undesired) intercourse. That Shelton Green paints such a scene in less than 30 lines is a testament to her poetic brilliance.

Rememory and Remembering
In several poetry collections, Shelton Green works with the concept of rememory and takes on the task of remembering historical events, putting flesh back on the bones of lost peoples, people who’ve been silenced, and people whose lives have been devalued. Toni Morrison describes rememory as “recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past” (324). One such poem in conjure blues is “tribute to the men and women who perished in the Imperial Chicken Plant fire in Hamlet, North Carolina.” The September 3, 1991 fire injured 55 and killed 25 workers trapped behind locked fire doors. Many believed racism and poor oversight contributed to the high death toll because during the processing plant’s 11 years of operation, there had never been a safety inspection. The plant never reopened.[5] The poem conjures both the Blues and those killed in the fire:

                        there is still a sadness stuck in my mouth
                        that makes me wanna suck
                        on something that i have not tasted
                        for so long
                        what does it mean to not be able to remember
                        your mama’s breast
                        bronze nipples, rising, falling,
                        but the blues remember
                        so without being able to explain
                        i feel this song surging inside of me
                        grinning, shouting
                        i feel this song my every question,
                        my why for, my how come,
                       my what did i do to be so black and blue (1-14)

The poem moves from the present moment—that moment the speaker longs to remember their mother’s breast, a return to innocence that also acknowledges their untimely death due to racist, classist, and anti-worker practices. Shelton Green’s poem begins and ends with the same image of the mother’s bronze nipple and moves readers and listeners through a dirge that remembers the victims of this preventable tragedy.

In Feeding the Light (2014) “an eclipse of skin” is an ekphrastic poem remembering a lynching.[6] The poem tells the larger story of an enslaved man, William, whose owner accuses William of touching his wife’s apron. The poem’s entire sixth stanza is a runaway slave reward advertisement. With phrases such as “He is a / shiny black, lean built with large limbs, long fingers, he is hung / like a race horse” and “He has usually small feet for a nigga and / missing the toe next to this great toe on his left foot,” we are reminded of the dehumanization enslaved people endured and the paradox of being deemed both white men’s property and a sexual threat to white women (22-25). William is hanged for the offense. In the poem’s seventh stanza, a new speaker says, “masa hung my william” (28) and continues:

                        had him hung from the chinaberry tree
                        same tree my william plant for masa
                        when william was just a child
                        masa make me and my baby liza watch
                        from the kitchen
                        liza my child and masa child too (25-34)

Shelton Green captures the cruel hypocrisy of a slaveowner who rapes and impregnates an enslaved woman and lynches an enslaved man who we learn in stanza five was coerced by the slaveowner’s wife. The same wife callously complains “bout how william blood gone kill / the grass” (43-44). Yet, this passage recalls the ending of Zora Neale Hurston’s short story, “Sweat,” wherein protagonist Delia Jones waits under a chinaberry tree for her abusive husband Sykes to die from a rattlesnake bite. Here the mention of the tree may suggest that retribution for William’s death is on the horizon.[7]

The poem continues:

                        masa had him hung
                        passed out cigars and cups of peach brandy 
                        made me suck him off in the kitchen
                        in front of aunt sue
                        making apple fritters (45-49)

The rapist slaveowner’s cruelty is endless reminding readers and listeners that in a society where people own other people, there is no room for sexual agency or consent but, alas, there is sometimes space for retribution. In the ninth stanza, Aunt Sue speaks to the apples, sugar, and fire—she conjures—and nature “remember[s] in all the languages / of storm” (56-58). By the eleventh stanza, the sky is black: “black like masa blood up yonder / black like missus scalp / rolling off the bed” (60-62).

In “an eclipse of skin,” Shelton Green remembers the lynched man by empowering the Black women who loved and survived him. When Aunt Sue speaks to the ingredients, she invokes the power of conjure—the power to speak a desired outcome into being. The women transmute their pain, their mistreatment, the violence done to their bodies into speech, into memory, into magic. Ultimately, the power of Black women’s voices, our imaginations, our dreams, and our poems “give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare” (Lorde 27).

Shelton Green’s most recent poetry collection, i want to undie you (2017), is a lament, a space to hold the inscrutable sorrow for her daughter, Imani Muya Shelton Green, who died in June 2009. The first five lines of the title poem, “i want to undie you,” are full of both searching and deep knowing:

                       i have come to this new place whose trees have no medicine
                       barren ground that has never tasted a thimble of blood
                       where birds fly backwards and sky is afraid of falling
                       it is here that i say goodbye to my woman-child who is remembering her
                       true
                       name and searching for the river where her story was born (1-5)

Poetry becomes a space where Shelton Green can reconnect with her daughter while connecting us with a most private form of grieving. Shelton Green’s language gestures toward what can’t be fully comprehended but has still been experienced. It is this paradox of feeling that lends this collection its heartbreaking beauty.

In “i want you to un-die, come back said the mother,” the speaker lists all the ways she wants her daughter to undie—from “i want the dust of you unscattered” and “i want the grief of you un-grieved” to “i want the verb or you un-verbed” and “un-diagnose the diagnosis of you” (1, 3-4, 8, 12). It is hard to find the language to describe this poem. It is at once a poem of negation and desire, of remembering and remembering. In the final poem of this collection, “now,” the speaker says “i write books. store grief upside down on the top pantry shelf where seldom / used wedding gifts rest beside oversized serving platters the antique tea service / and those tacky fake porcelain teacups i can’t bear to toss” (1-3). The grief here is palpable, but it is also shelveable. Yet, it remains. Grief inhabits an interstitial space resting between the treasured and what we hold on to because we feel we must. Grief is like that. It’s the evidence that we loved someone—that we still remember and remember someone through poetry, conversations, and dreams.

In conversation with oyster knives

Here I return to the beginning and bring together Hurston and Shelton Green once more. The Hurston epigraph, from her renowned 1928 essay, “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” embodies Hurston’s unconventional and anachronistic approach to race and identity—in the sense that she refused to be confined by her contemporaries. Hurston’s full passage is worth reproducing here:

But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (153)

Hurston refuses to embrace a defeatist point of view or be easily categorized. She sees the world as full of potential and is bent on experiencing as much of it as possible. Arguably, Shelton Green inherited a similar spirit from her grandmother who she describes as “a wild woman” who “was always present in a very large way” and was the “first horticulturist” Shelton Green had known (Shockley 121). Her grandmother both “loved living things” and “the texture of nice things” and could be “very feminine” and “girly” (121-22). This juxtaposition, this “openness” taught Shelton Green “not to fear things that are different” and to be a “risk-taker” and, she says, “To stand outside of who you are. To widen your lens of how you view your world and how you invite other people’s perspectives into that world” (122).

“No Poetry,” on The River Speaks of Thirst is one space where I find Shelton Green and Hurston in conversation and where I’ll end this essay.[8] Shelton Green’s poem begins:

                       no poetry for these hands
                       no poetry for these trees
                       no poetry for these men
                       no poetry for the time you chase
                       no poetry for the dreams that hold you hostage
                       no poetry for the truth brewing inside crooked hallways, crooked courtrooms, crooked jail houses
                       no poetry for the fog covering the blood
                       no poetry for the noose flapping against the wind’s tongue

The speaker continues declaring “no poetry” for the wrongs Blacks have known past and present and then shifts, and cracks the poem open into something different. The speaker declares:

                      we are all the poems lurking in the shadows
                      we are all the poems that cannot be forced into cages
                      we are all the poems holding up the sky
                      we are all the poems that will no longer sacrifice our seeds to a toxic wind
                      we are all the poems rattling the ghost bones of the Middle Passage
                      we are all the poems pissing on bloodstained flags

The shift is significant. The poem moves from all the spaces either bereft of or unworthy of poetry to a collective chorus of living poems, potentially dangerous poems for those who attempt to cage or silence the speakers. Then:

                      we are all the poems that will not be quiet
                      we are all the poems waiting to sharpen our oyster knives

And finally, “we are all the poems we need to start a revolution.” And that’s what Jaki Shelton Green’s poetry is always reaching toward—a revolution of feeling, of thought, and of we acknowledge and reckon with our history, our ancestry, ourselves, and our futures.


Notes:
In the second epigraph and final section of this essay, I cite lines from Shelton Green’s 2020 poetry album, The River Speaks of Thirst. Note that although the album has been released, not all of the album’s poems have been published. Thus, line breaks are approximate and I have done my best to cite the work faithfully and have consulted with Shelton Green when necessary about language only.

I have capitalized Black when referring to people of African descent. I have not changed the capitalization of black in quoted material.


Works Cited:
Green, Jaki Shelton. “an eclipse of skin.” Feeding the Light, Jacar Press, 2014, pp. 18-21.

—. “and in my old days—.“ Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, p. 27.
—. “insult.” conjure blues, Carolina Wren Press, 1996, pp. 44-45.
—. ”i want to undie you.” i want to undie you, Jacar Press, 2017, no pagination.
—. “i want you to un-die, come back said the mother.” i want to undie you, Jacar Press, 2017, no pagination.
—. “No Poetry.” The River Speaks of Thirst, Soul City Sounds, 2020.
—. “now.” i want to undie you, Jacar Press, 2017, no pagination.
—. “shadow.” Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, p. 47.
—. “the moon is a rapist.” Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, p. 10.
—. “tribute to the men and women who perished in the Imperial Chicken Plant fire in Hamlet, North Carolina.” conjure blues, Carolina Wren Press, 1996, pp. 34-37.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” The World Tomorrow, May 1928, reprinted in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive Paperback, CUNY Feminist Press, 1979, pp. 152-55.
—. “Sweat.” Fire!! 1926, reprinted in The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1914-1945, 9th ed, W. W. Norton, 2017, pp. 517-25.

Jeffers, Lance. Preface to the first edition. Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, vii.

Morrison, Toni. “Rememory.” The Source of Self-Regard. Knoph, 2019, pp. 322-25.

Shockley, Evie. “Lifting Veils: An Interview with Jaki Shelton Green.” Obsidian 10/11 (2009/2010), pp. 121-28.

[1] Green made several remarks about her approach to writing on during a talkbalk I facilitated March 14, 2021 after the second priemere of the theatrical production of The River Speaks of Thirst, directed by Kristi V. Johnson and produced by The Justice Theater Project.  

[2] Here I use “remember” in the style of Toni Morrison’s “rememory as in recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past” (324).

[3] Quotations are from Green’s remarks on March 14, 2021. See endnote 1 above.

[4] Read one version of the last king of Dahomey’s story at Face2Face Africa.

[5] Read more about the Hamlet chicken plant fire on Wikipedia.

[6] Green says the poem “was in a collaborative exhibit called Lullaby Plantation. I offered poetic responses to the images. This poem responds to a photograph of a lynching” in a March 2, 2014 comment published on the website When Women Waken.

[7] Zora Neale Hurston is one of the several influences and beleoved writers Greens mentions in the interview “Lifting Veils: An Interview with Jaki Shelton Green” by Evie Shockley published in Obsidian 10/11 (2009/2010) pp. 121-128.

[8] On The River Speaks of Thirst, “No Poetry” is performed by Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s first Poet Laureate, CJ Suitt—a queer, Black person.

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


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Jameela F. Dallis, PhD is a writer and scholar who has been teaching, leading conversations, and facilitating workshops for more than a decade. A former Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Elon University and UNC-Greensboro, Jameela has worked with several museums and arts organizations such as the North Carolina Museum of Art, Ackland Art Museum, and Nasher Museum of Art. Her poems, interviews, arts journalism, and literary scholarship have appeared in several publications including Honey LiteraryThoughts on the Power of Goodness, Our State, Decoded: A Duke Performances JournalIndy Week, Monsters and Monstrosity from the Fin de Siècle to the Millennium, and Undead Souths: The Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literature and Culture. She holds a Ph.D. in English from UNC-Chapel Hill. Learn more about her work at jameeladallis.com.

 

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