‘Trace Evidence’ by Charif Shanahan: Worlds Apart

Valerie Braylovskiy

Trace Evidence (93 pages; Tin House Press) is the second collection of poetry by Charif Shanahan, author of Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing. These poems use language and form to peel back elements of Shanahan’s identity and show how markers like nationality, race, and sexuality intersect within one’s lived experience. The poems feel deeply personal yet rooted in the universal as Shanahan raises profound questions about human nature and what it means to feel displaced in the world.

Born in the Bronx to an Irish American father and Moroccan mother, Shanahan— a professor at Northwestern University— discusses his mixed-race identity throughout the collection with honesty and depth, touching on the various ways society categorizes people. In the poem “Not the Whole Thing, but a Large Part of the Story,” he writes:

To her, Black meant African American,

Which she was not.

(She was thinking about history, not color.)

(She was thinking about language, not history.)

This juxtaposition in parentheticals underlines the tension behind aspects of his identity, as each poem continues to unravel layers of the poet. In “My People,” the speaker is interested in disarming notions of belonging and the loaded question of “Who am I?,” deconstructing the meaning of “you” by using the couplet form. It ends with:

Banal in its assertion:

If you are on this earth,

You are of this earth.

In a time when so much of society is fixated on labeling, Shanahan uses poetry to show how the specificity of experience can actually help bring people together. The second section, “On the Overnight from Agadir,” consists of a fifteen-page poem. In it, as the book begins to play with the boundaries of prose and poetry, Shanahan recounts his trip to Morocco and a near-death bus accident. He tells this story line by line:

A razor of light slits my eye down the centersuddenly

The bus on its side, dirt in the air, stars in the dirt.

These bleak and neutral descriptions that precede the poem’s first-person perspective mirror the shock one experiences after a traumatic accident. Shanahan writes at length about waiting and the progression of healing after this catastrophe:

Once I feel comfortable more often than I do not or

Once I can provide for myself in a two-bedroom apartment

Where it will begin once I no longer look outside myself for an answer

Or once I no longer feel drawn to Morocco to our pain or once

The anaphora of “once” shapeshifts in these lines, moving toward the conditional and hypothetical as the speaker tries to accept a new reality.

While suffering is present in these poems, Shanahan allows for joy and growth to take up space as well. At the end of the poem “Thirty-Fifth Year,” the speaker reminds himself that “You are actually very good at joy.” This poem, and two others with similar titles, read like letters to the speaker’s past and future selves on how to continue to live. A key theme of this work is preserving a sense of urgency within transient moments, which is captured by poignant titles such as “While I Wash My Face I Ask Impossible Questions Of Myself And Those Who Love Me.” He takes the quotidian and layers this experience with provocative reflections such as:

Is it possible my function is to hold

All the intricate, interstitial pain

And articulate clarity?

Shanahan embeds readers in the present, yet details how our experiences are constantly infused with other tenses and lifetimes. For instance, the poem “The Present Moment” focuses on one day but spans multiple cities, including New York and San Francisco. Shanahan ends the piece by asking, “Am I really 35? What time is it?” His refusal to solely write in the present, questioning things others are afraid to ask, is a form of resistance in itself. Trace Evidence not only compels readers to expand upon Shanahan’s reflections, but also challenges them to question their own place in the world.

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