Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing
Finalist, Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry
Finalist, Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award
In this affecting poetry debut, Charif Shanahan explores what it means to be fully human in our wounded and divided world. In poised yet unrelenting lyric poems, Shanahan—queer and mixed-race—confronts the challenges of a complex cultural inheritance, informed by colonialism and his mother’s immigration to the United States from Morocco, navigating racial constructs, sexuality, family, and the globe in search of “who we are to each other . . . who we are to ourselves.”
With poems that weave from Marrakesh to Zürich to London, through history to the present day, this book is, on its surface, an uncompromising exploration of identity in personal and collective terms. Yet the collection is, most deeply, about intimacy and love, the inevitability of human separation and the challenge of human connection. Urging us to reexamine our own place in the broader human tapestry, Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing announces the arrival of a powerful and necessary new voice.
Shanahan breaks fresh ground in this painfully raw debut, dissecting the self in its cultural context via speakers who fearlessly claim both vulnerability and culpability. Shanahan, the Bronx-raised child of a Moroccan mother and an Irish-American father, superimposes Morocco's multiple colonial legacies over American racial politics. The opener, "Gnawa Boy, Marrakesh, 1968," establishes an uncompromising documentary tone and a grasp of resonant polarities: "One palm faces down to show the black/ Surface of hand, the other facing up/ White as his desert's sky." Shanahan binds the personal and political in his deft free-verse lyrical suite "Homosexuality." Meanwhile, "Passing" conflates the notion of ethnic camouflage with the experience of journey by train: "The train slides into a long tunnel/ The lights flicker off// and I am back inside my mother." As locations Ticino, Switzerland; Zurich; Budapest fly by in chromatic snapshots, the travelogue turns psychological. Thematic symmetries, subtly sonorous internal rhymes, and emphatic cadences weave into a fine, fray-resistant fabric. The reader gets caught in mesmerizing "untold cascading reflections," as if identity were the waterfall of which Shanahan writes in "Wanting to Be White." Shanahan's is a vital and profound new voice, and his eyebrow-raising interrogation leaves the reader with afterimages "as the eye/ after the shock flash/ still sees/ the lightning."