Shannon Vare Christine on Tennison S. Black’s Survival Strategies

“If everything I leave or that has left me doesn’t miss me, then / over here at invisible o’clock I still want to feel...being seen / but I don’t.” Such is the element of concealment, an extended theme which is revealed in various elements throughout Tennison S. Black’s Survival Strategies. Every character in some fashion or by some means is either wrestling with what they are hiding, or dealing with their own obscuration. At times, this occurs in the physical, concrete made visible sense, while others arrive in poems that delve into the absence of abstract concepts. Set largely against the landscape of the Sonoran desert and its unforgiving flora and fauna, the poet aims to figure out how to accept themself, despite many misgivings. The stark desert terrain provides the harsh backdrop which allows for the critiques and self-reflections to occur, in silhouette from the ever-present sun. From start to finish, the poet wrestles with their shadow self: “…the deal is if I can see this, all of this, as beautiful, then / for once, I will see myself that way.”

The vast majority of these poems are set in “the sunniest place on earth,” which on the surface sounds like a joyful, idyllic locale, perhaps even a bit reminiscent of a certain corporate theme park. However, the Sonoran is anything but bucolic, it is scorching and oppressive and forces its inhabitants to consider whether they actually belong there, and ultimately can they make it out alive. It’s a setting where “you can’t imagine the glory of a jackrabbit / on the run at full tilt fleeing... / until you’ve seen it, and you can’t / know yourself until you know who you’re rooting for.” And how can one champion themself, if they are unsure if they are even worthy of such recognition? “The Sunniest Place on Earth” serves not only as the title of an individual poem, but also as a section title in the book (in lowercase), and additionally appears three times as a line in three separate poems. In these instances, this phrase appears in the beginning, middle, and end sections of this book, serving as a mantra that pushes the poet to endure. If they can escape an environment which is “the / filth-driest dot on the marble,” where this “salted valley can’t cry, but it’s made of tears,” then surely Tennison S. Black is able to prove adaptable, to persevere. But this resolve comes at a steep cost levied at times on them, and at other times on their mother.

“I’m sad for young me for whom the word Woman / was a wound infected with the cowboy gaze.” So many poems and pages spotlight the plight of the speaker in their reckoning with who they are becoming. The speaker doesn’t belong and fakes their assimilation, by trying on names and roles as “Nameskins,” whether self-chosen or other-appointed. All the while, death is a common feature of desert life and inserts itself with repeated mortality reminders, whether in the form of scorpion/stepbrothers or a swinging dead pig, which “rocks life back and forth.” There are also dead animals, dark nights, raging fires, and extremes in climate and personal temperament. “The night spiked frigid—that breeder of shivers chasing after an escaping sun” battles against days parched and dusty, feverish and unsure of what the morning will bring. These tensions intensify further when the opposite natures of girls vs. men, prey vs. predator, and worker vs. daydreamer, collide with their inherent contradictions both overlapping and distinct. “Life is noise. Life is twisting in the sand, hurt, bleeding,” and the speaker and their mother need to learn how to assert themselves against the cowboy hubris, who “isn’t known for being patient with rebellion.” The desert is a place where sweat forms even when one is simply “standing, am’ing, be’ing, staying put,” which also makes an apt metaphor for what the speaker and mother are struggling to accept or to defy in response. 

And so the life cycle continues. This push-pull, fight-or-flight counter of the speaker and their mother is a driving force here. Staying silent and choosing peace over chaos is a shield from the vehement cowboy ways and mores, to combat a man who “isn’t known for being patient with rebellion.” The speaker literally and figuratively burrows, like the companion rabbits, while the prey and predators of the desert live at odds with one another. So too does the speaker of the poems as they are preyed upon by their predator cowboy father. “What is resilience if not the red flag of a failed system, / if not the cultural black eye behind her sunglasses, / if not the last look in a broken mirror?” In this way, the speaker can bury themselves away from harm, while bolstering their strength and femininity, despite having their core identity revealed and attacked time and time again.

But all the while, the speaker was learning the ways of their mother with her bajada strengths and wisdom, who carried the baggage of a complicated lineage, rife with generational trauma. The speaker’s mother was always searching for mountains, until she was able to transport herself and her daughter to the Pacific ocean. The water there, almost baptismal, allowed the mother to pass along her power, “This is a tent made by every woman who ever—ever ever. With doors to every woman whoever you might possibly become.” This singular mother’s gift allowed her daughter to visualize their own limitless potential, rather than a role existing as a fixed and static identity. From this vantage point, the speaker shifts her perspective and is able to begin the circular process of grief and healing, “on my knees with remember.” They “sit in the desert and scrape it away,” discovering that they are part desert, part sea, one foot firmly in each, but no longer having to choose.

Shannon Vare Christine is a poet, teacher, and critic living in Bucks County, PA. She is an alumnus of The Community of Writers and Tupelo Press 30/30 Project. Her poems are featured in various anthologies and publications. Additionally, her poetry reviews and literary criticism were published or are forthcoming in The Lit Pub, Cider Press Review, Sage Cigarettes, Compulsive Reader, The Laurel Review, Vagabond City, and Tupelo Quarterly. Archived writing and more can be found at, her periodic newsletter, Poetic Pause, and on Instagram @smvarewrites.