Abigail Ardelle Zammit on Shanta Lee’s Black Metamorphoses

If you want to experience the multilayered, allusive richness of Shante Lee Gander’s Black Metamorphoses (Etruscan Press, 2023), the way in which she transmutes a classical text by a white male living in antiquity in order to write her own hybrid work of epic transformations, taking slavery and the atrocities committed in the name of empire as her impetus, make yourself familiar with Ovid’s mythological tales.  Shanta Lee Gander, a visual artist and the author of Ghettoclautrophobia: Dreaming of Mama While Trying to Speak Woman in Woke Tongues (winner of the 2021 Vermont Book Award for Poetry and the 2020 Diode Press full-length book prize), has crafted a voice that knows how the inflections of language and vernacular, the mastery over line and musical phrase, can express the anguish of severed tongue, of the black body raped and plundered, torn apart, ‘forcibly travelled’.  This is a voice that is genre-breaking and transfiguring, intoning spells, incantations, bearing an incredible capacity for resurgence and resistance, re-shaping itself from a dust that ‘knows nothing of settlin’ (Book V).

In the very last book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses lies the touchstone for Lee’s thematic concerns: hunger, a ravenous desire that has the capacity to destroy a whole race, but fails, because of its almost antithetical other, that shapeshifting ability which allows the silenced to speak again, words echoing through the generations that follow in their stead, carrying history and memory and hard-earned empowerment: ‘Energy, like the Black body, can shapeshift’ (Book II).  So in Book XV of Ovid’s work:

All things change, but nothing dies: the spirit wanders hither and thither, taking possession of what limbs it pleases, passing from beasts into human bodies, or again our human spirit passes into beasts, but never at any time does it perish [...] so I tell you that the soul is always the same, but incorporates itself in different forms.  Therefore, in case family feeling prove less strong than greedy appetite, I warn you, do not drive souls that are akin to yours out of their homes by impious killings, do not nourish blood with blood.[1]

In an ambitious collection that is spread over five books and that seeks to rewrite the blank spaces of historical amnesia, both Europe’s and America’s, it makes sense to start with the myth of Erysichthon, the nobleman who cut down a black poplar tree from Ceres’ sacred grove; in Lee Gander’s workshop, the tale becomes a black genesis story where the Famine that punishes the usurper is a greed that makes ‘Black bodies...a synonym for Empire’, a cannibalistic craving that allows white men to believe that they ‘can dine on Black bodies for generations’.  While in Ovid’s tale, insatiable hunger is sent to inhabit the protagonist’s body until he is devoured by it, here Erysichthon pulls Hunger ‘out of his bowels figurin, / If I can’t soothe her, I’ll marry her / We can eat the world together’, until she leaves him to give birth to the other allegorical figures of Lust and Appetite, equivalent to centuries of insatiable lust, listing all manner of lootings from the African continent – ‘Something bout diamonds, rubber, cocoa / Something bout cotton, copper, tin, tea, and all them spices’.  This genesis poem also serves to illustrate the collection’s formal experimentation, the text incorporating words from the Abolitionist Equiano, and from Geronimo – ‘White eyes, they speak hunger’ – travelling all the way back to cannibalistic survivors on whaling ships, writing the unsaid, repopulating the world with the voices of the oppressed.  The page itself is split into columns, with words on the left threatening to devour the right side where the song-like italicized text has been retelling a history of pillage and rampage, the black print appearing to metamorphose into the way imperialist acquisitiveness has been ‘feeding tongues to language’.  The counter discourse is allegory and personification; here the language is huge, archetypal, carrying tales from African myth, allowing continents to speak to each other, like the curse America levels at Europe: ‘May your hunger drive you to your own end / May you have no choice / but to eat yourselves’ (III, Europe and America).

Shanta Lee Gander’s critique of the male gaze has recently been the subject of an exhibition entitled ‘Dark Goddess: An Exploration of the Sacred Feminine’, with large-scale photographs installed around the Fleming Museum of Art.  In this poetry collection, defiant female protagonists also populate the text, including historical figures like Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar, who commands her people to ‘Get [white men’s] Gods out of your veins, rinse their prayers from your mouth’, and the African American millionaire Madam C.J. advising black women: ‘Let your crown glory be’.  Likewise, a black marble Galatea shaped from an ‘[a]uction block’, escapes Pygmalion’s white gaze:

                                                Firm hands, a reminder of force

Like clay remembers its shape,
                this marble remembered its Creatrix,

this marble refused to wake
                to this slumber. Warmth gave way to blood,

gave way to adrenaline that enlivened feet to flight    (‘Flight From Pygmalion’s Pedestal’)

In one of the most politically triumphant feminist poems, a girl takes her mother’s advice, conjuring a spell on a rare blue moon’s night so that she may transform herself from a black ‘bed wench’ into her abusive white master: ‘Gimme skin fuh skin, rake fuh whip / Me fuh you, you fuh me, all and whole’; in the last act of this brief play the roles have been switched and the slave is enraptured with how firmly her hands grip the power-whip. (‘Wager: In Five Acts’).  In ‘The Witness Tree’, which is a remaking of the Daphne and Apollo myth, a slave woman is transformed into a tree just before she is violated by the plantation owner whom she nursed as a child.  The inspiration for the story, however, is a real life narrative recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.  This is how Lee Gander reclaims the buried histories of African Americans, asking readers to reconsider their true heritage, the way ‘the orgasm of trespass’, the ‘birthmark of lust’ (‘Echo’s Revenge’) is revisited on the generations that follow.  The only way out is the search for truth, the recovery of memory, and the admission of generational trauma/guilt, depending on the reader’s racial identity:

Follow the foortprints of want around

                the world, go where lust has struck,

Wander past where they’ve hung the bodies,
                 past old China looming out of place,

enter a hall.  Look between
             The partitions, the white space. Look there.

Look for...        (‘Echo’s Revenge’, V.)

Through stage directions, the reader is embroiled in this telling, a witness beckoned to leap out of complacency, as in the ekphrastic poem based on Tomas Eakins’ offensive photograph, ‘African-American girl nude, reclining on couch’, here re-contextualized via Philomela’s tapestry of scarlet thread inscribed on a white background; the severed tongue of the violated is transformed into the speechlessness of the shocked viewer:

Take me out of the archive. Place me in the open

Let your tongue go missing

What makes Black Metamorphoses feel so radical and incendiary, is its capacity to inhabit both the written word and the spoken speech act.  Direct speech, dramatic monologue, dialogue, asides, lists and indents, ellipsis, blackout erasure, unfinished sentences – all of these contribute to a vast compendium of formal experimentation, but the most memorable moments are when the text erupts into song, incantation or contemporary ballad, with strong beats and thumping alliterative patterns, as in ‘If You End Up in Jangare: An Incantation for Remembering’, its nine sections featuring throat, mouth, hair and the body’s inexhaustible music:

seat of rhythm, of movement
                  Seat of making and unmaking of universe,
seat of source, the cor in courage
                  Let this drive the move and groove of hips child
as in dance as in Gnostic speak as in,
                  To the universe belongs the dancer

The most haunting of Shanta Lee Gander’s rhythms appear to go back to an oral poetic inheritance.  Because the Black American experience is one of forced exile, the open wound of origin bleeds of lost names and lost countries.  Most poignant are the verses that keep going back to the beginning, the human spirit wanting to retrace its steps, hungering for that which has been brutally obliterated, and is often irretrievable.  I found these terse couplets from ‘Tereus, Procne, and Philomela’s Children (Part I)’ to be particularly poignant:

You beat me blind with the devil’s claw
             you call switch as if chasing a spirit

As if trying to return to that place
             we can’t name. Opportunity’s caravan

bound displaced souls
             with Spanish moss while the South’s light

laid imprint upon ears.  Blue bottled
             haint trees translate windpipes, chimes eluding

twined tongues humming Mahalia Jackon [...]

We tell our children,
             Follow the fallen feathers. Find that place.

At times the collection’s lexicon is brutal, visceral, unsparing: ‘Isabella, on her knees             Isabella, / Fucked on the floor’ (‘Scylla and Glaucus at Melrose Hall: A Cautionary Tale’).  Violence must be rendered in its truest form, so the text revisits misrepresentations and elisions, as in the American silent epic Birth of a Nation, its Gorgon spell where ‘Black bodies / turn[] stone in America’s gaze’, or a compendium of atrocities committed on black communities: ‘White rage: 1923 Rosewood, / the 1919 Red Summer that reigned three seasons, 1917 East St. Louis, / 1906 Atlanta, 1834 Philly’s flying horses’ (‘Blessed Black’).  In the rendering of La Mulâtresse Solitude, a light-skinned girl whose mother was raped by a Frenchman on a slave ship, and who fought against slavery in Guadeloupe until she was hanged a day after giving birth, the language blooms with the strong alliterative ’b’s of physical assault and the rage it engenders: ‘A body bloomed in slick film of runny shit, blood, / chunks of home that flipped from bellies’ (‘Medusa’s Otha Sistah, Solitude or For the Yellow Gal Who Refused’).  Lee Gander forges a new language for unspoken atrocities – untwist, unwarned, unlearn, unbranded, unseen, unnamed, unquenched –  this becomes the vocabulary of defiance and resurgence, the body that refuses to be buried, but comes back as spirit, haint, voice, as a new generation that will reclaim the lost, like birds, like Philomela, Tereus, Procne, brutishly transformed, now going back to their home.

The rich allusive textures of this hybrid work are not superficial post-modern addenda, but the warp and weft of the artist’s tapestry, bearing political engagement and self-reckoning.  The myth of Scylla and Glaucus, for instance, is now transferred to Melrose place, which bears its own legend of hauntings and a kept woman who starved to death while her abuser was away.  Shanta Lee Gander draws a parallels with Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason, that other ‘mad woman in the attic’, and the postcolonial feminist prequel to the novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, as well as H. Rider Haggard’s She; entangled in these layers is Isabella’s story, not a love-sick native American Iroquois princess, as some versions of the legend would conveniently have it, but a ‘full blood negress’ turned prisoner: ‘call her Isabella / For this story, she from that dark place’.  She, the incarnation of the black female body ‘hellhound bound’, like Scylla: ‘Glaucus seein Scylla, / white man seein African body’.  This is how anger and outrage from unmitigated generational abuse work themselves into the text’s metanarrative:

West Indian Merchant: Slave Trader
Dark: Black
From Jamaica: A slave from the sugar plantation
Love: Rape                                                                         

Ultimately, however, Black Metamorphoses is a bible of hope, etched with the suffering of people that have travelled far against their will, but that can take root and flourish in the most adverse climates.  In the beautifully-wrought ‘Poisonwell Diaries’ sequence, for instance, the violated slaves, forced to become the wet nurses of so many white babes, are given a voice that is powerfully resilient and declarative: ‘This be no romance [...] for treatin me like your Persephone, / you must ansuh to my people’ a slave-woman tells the Hades-like plantation owner.  In ‘The Mistress’ section of the sequence, another female slave who seems to have been her mistress’s lover, speaks of a beauty that will not permit any distortions, irrespective of history’s perversions:

They all say we unspeakable,

but this nectar bathes wounds
This...this kinda feel good can’t be twisted into they kinda wrong

The most insurgent by far is ‘The Ghost’ section, a black girl raped and killed but haunting the present with the self-confidence and defiance of a much-wronged ‘Mitochondrial Eve’:

Nameless, nationless, I root where I am thrown
Centuries of science bloom from my womb, I be the world’s original balm

Without name, without place, I root at my command [...]

Yet this kidnapped body be not yours, I neva gave you all this
An American nightmare of your making [...]

Reader, the author says, wherever you hail from, know that: ‘Some debts can’t be paid Disremember the archive, imbibe this truth’.

[1] The Metamorphoses of Ovid, trans., Mary M. Innes (Penguin, 1955)

Abigail Ardelle Zammit holds a doctorate in Creative Writing and has had poetry and reviews published in international journals including Matter, Boulevard, Gutter, Myslexia, Poetry International, The SHOp, Iota, Aesthetica, Freefall, Ink, Sweat and Tears, High Window, The Ekphrastic Review and Tupelo Quarterly.  Abigail’s two collections of poetry are Voices from the Land of Trees (Smokestack, 2007), and Portrait of a Woman with Sea Urchin (SPM, 2015).  She is also a translator and the author of The Poetry Buddy – A Seamus Heaney Guide for Advanced Level Students (Malta, 2020).  Her most recent manuscripts have been shortlisted in three international competitions and she will be featured in the Montreal International Competition anthology.