With her first book of poems, Even Shorn, Isabel Duarte-Gray has carved out a new and haunting polyvocal poetics of kinship, orature, rurality, fear, and loss. Loosely inhabiting four generations of Duarte-Gray’s maternal family’s history in rural Kentucky, Even Shorn is a devastating refashioning of the pastoral lyric tradition, spoken from a place of sharp insight and deep mourning. 

Isabel and I spoke on Zoom recently: about Even Shorn, ideas of the dark pastoral or ‘pastoral with teeth’, historiography and political narrative-making, Spivakian spaces, problems of representing violence, strangely shattering encounters with beautiful things.

Edith Clare: The title of your book, Even Shorn, comes from the KJV bible translation of the Song of Solomon. In its source context, right, it’s a neat shearing of sheep-wool, a sacrosanct ideal harvest. I also encounter it as suggestive of the human body, perhaps a woman’s body: “with her hair cut evenly”, or “even though her hair is cut off.” Even as the source text seems to celebrate abundance, it seems to me there’s a kind of violence tangled in with “shorn,” or a kind of forced loss — and having read the book, that meaning seems to echo in the text. What was it about those words that first spoke to you? 

Isabel Duarte-Gray: So the quotation is: “Your teeth are like a flock of sheep which have come up from the washing; every one bears twins, and none is barren among them.” And yes, it comes from a poem, the Song of Solomon, the King James Bible version — when I was a kid, everyone had the King James Bible, it was the only one that we read. And I didn’t grow up in a super religious household, myself, but almost every family member of mine was either Pentecostal or Southern Baptist of some kind, and so the poetry of the King James Bible was just what “Bible” sounded like. 

That poem is actually a reference to teeth — “Your teeth are like a flock of sheep” — it uses agrarian metaphors to talk about the woman’s body, her teeth. My own title poem is in reference to my cousin Cindy, who lost her teeth at a surprisingly young age. In my family, it’s not uncommon to get dentures at a surprisingly young age. I think that generation didn’t have fluoridated water; that came later than you’d expect — but what struck me about it was that for medical care among this generation, teeth were pulled, not saved. There was this expectation of fatalism in the preservation of the body. That poem ends, “I’d as soon shake my ashes /  loose on the the cattail slough / the way you’d wait a death that’s quick.” There was originally another line there — “you’d wait a death that’s quick / as shaking the flour off your hands / come the sound of knocking.” The idea was: death arrives, and you just go. Because why would you fight death? Why would you fight decrepitude, why would you fight the inevitability of dying? Partly that the approach to living is just that death is inevitable. Partly that hope is not something that was in great supply in our community and family, because of poverty. 

The cover of the book is an illustration of a flower, a Solomon’s seal, with teeth coming out of it. And one premise of the book is that it’s from the pastoral tradition, like the Song of Solomon, but it’s a pastoral with teeth. I teach classes on eco-criticism and ecological writing, and a lot of the research I did for those classes was looking into the history of the pastoral tradition, reading Classicist summaries of the pastoral, and so much of that history of the pastoral derives from cities. It doesn’t come from the country. It coincides with a time when there are dense urban populations, and urban centers for administration and commerce, where there’s a sense of urban corruption, of sin. Density, crime, things like that. So you have the romanticization, a nostalgia for pastoral spaces, Edenic spaces, cradles. You end up basically fetishizing agrarian spaces as innocent, or more innocent than cities. And if you’ve actually grown up in a space like that, you know it’s not innocent at all. Pastoral labour, agrarian labour, is violent; it is back-breaking; it is very difficult. Especially under modern conditions with large-scale farming and also under modernity and capitalism; especially in the United States, where it’s associated with slavery, exploitation, and even just social isolation. There isn’t a lot of infrastructure or necessarily a lot of justice. 

I wanted to re-evaluate the pastoral tradition not from this nostalgic space of “it reminds us of Eden,” “it reminds us of the time before original sin,” “an echo of Christ’s redemption” — no. What if the pastoral is not redeemable? What if the pastoral is about trauma as much as anything else? So that’s the premise of the book: that the pastoral tradition is no more innocent than any other lyric tradition. Which may not be a wholly Wordsworthian point of view, but it is how I see it — it’s dark just like any other space. So let’s look at a dark pastoral. (Which is a very Timothy Morton thing to say!) 

Absolutely. It seems like the traditional pastoral’s projection of innocence onto the landscape reflects a lack of knowledge of place — that those writing onto place lack knowledge of what exists there? So if you’re writing a pastoral from a starting-point of knowledge of land and its history and myths and people, that’s a much different kind of understanding. I’ve been thinking about the intense specificity that demarcates this book — how deeply this book engages with knowledge of place. For instance, how you attach a specific place-name to the name of almost every poem: Kuttawa, Kentucky. Dycusburg, Kentucky. Dresden, Tennessee. When you are doing this labeling work, what makes a poem of the place that it’s of? Did you draw from stories or myth or the lives of people sited in this place; was it something looser or more associative? 

Some of those aren’t actually places anymore. Driscoll, Kentucky is in here — Driscoll used to be a place, but it’s gone now. I confused the hell out of someone who was doing an interview who was local: she was like, where is Driscoll? I did a lot of research, I looked at census records, I listened to a lot of oral histories as well. So there are some places in here that used to exist but no longer do.

When there’s a specific place name, it’s usually a reference to a specific person, it’s where they lived. The Kuttawa ones can get messy — sometimes it’s a reference to a specific family line, because there are several people who live in Kuttawa, several in Eddyville, several in Murray and several people who live in Dresden. It’s often a family unit that I’m talking about, because my family is enormous, so it can be hard to pinpoint exactly who we’re dealing with. But I wanted to talk about four generations of my family’s history without being aggressively literal about it. And Dycusburg is a very interesting one in particular, because it’s a town that barely exists. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t have police jurisdiction, and the last time my husband was there, somebody told him that you had to be invited to Dycusburg. 

You mean like a speakeasy?

Right. There are gambling parlors, it was a huge hub for bootlegging (because most of the counties used to be dry), and — other things. A lot of underground economies. It used to have a “real” economy; it was a river hub on the Cumberland for shipping tobacco. They had a huge storage house back then, but they blew up the storage house during the Night Rider wars, which started around 1906. 

If I had to specify the approach to place, there are a few things I would say. One is something that Jorie Graham, our mutual mentor, once said to me: that this whole book takes place at the point of a knife touching a map. The very prick of a knife. It takes place within a small span of location, but it’s talking about the breadth of human experience, the American experience in particular, even though it is the tiniest space. And a lot of the people in this book don’t leave this space, almost ever. And they’re living entire lives, they’re suffering, they’re gentle people, they’re cruel people. I think they deserve to be written about. 

So there are two reasons why I write on this subject. One might be historiographical and the other political. From a historiographical point of view this is a place that has seen some wars, seen slavery. The Tennessee Valley Authority flooded whole towns in this area, had to move huge populations. There’s a history of sharecropping. When I was researching the space I learned it used to be quite common for Roma populations to move through — Romani populations were not uncommon in the United States in the early twentieth century, and only more recently have they largely assimilated or no longer as wholly recognized. But a lot of our handicrafts and folk arts in Kentucky come from Romani populations. A lot of our wicker-working and willow-working in particular. And then we had that Night Rider war, when a sort of unofficial union developed among sharecroppers to fight Gilded Age monopolism — something that also involved a lot of racial violence and a lot of local policing that was unofficial. It destroyed whole towns. So there’s this entire history that doesn’t really get written about and talked about, which is worthy of documentation.

When we first talked about doing this interview, I promised I wouldn’t bring up Agamben — but there are a lot of relevant scholarly approaches to historiography from the twentieth century, ones that are fairly new. You might call it: looking at a history of failure, or a history of rupture, rather than a straightforward “history of the United States.” From Agamben’s perspective, you might call it “Homo Sacer,” the “exemplary person” or subject of the twentieth century — that might be somebody who is marginalized, who is cast out from community. Somebody who is a victim of late capitalism rather than someone who benefits from it. David Scott, who is a historian, might call them “conscripts of modernity,” those who are cogs in a machine of late capitalism. I think tobacco sharecroppers are absolutely exemplary of all of these things, and that’s one reason I want to write about this history.

But the other reason is political. You know, I’m not white. I’m Mexican-American. Almost every living person in this book either voted for Trump or is incredibly close to someone who voted for Trump. And obviously, I did not. My father immigrated from Mexico when he was eight, unaccompanied, with his three siblings. The oldest was twelve and the youngest was I think three. And though they were technically legal immigrants, prior to the 1960s the distinction between legal and illegal immigration was pretty negligible, especially when you consider from an international legal point of view: asylum is alway legal immigration. That’s what it says in the UDHR from 1948. Seeking asylum should always be legal.

From where I’m standing, these family members [in Kentucky] say they love me, they say they care about my body and selfhood, but they voted for someone who would — and did — imprison people like me, who are children, in cages. I think it was in 2019 that Congress did a whole hearing on ICE detention, the hearing was called “Kids in Cages,” and a Texas lawmaker spent his entire time — after hearing very harrowing testimony about a woman whose eighteen-month-old died in ICE custody — arguing about the definition of a “cage,” because he felt that the detention centers, which packed people in like sardines, were “chain link” and not “cages.” Which is nuts! We keep dogs in chain-link fences when we put them in humane facilities. Which is just bizarre to me — that cognitive dissonance. So my question is: what leads two groups of people, who have more in common than they have apart . . . I mean, my family is Catholic on one side, Pentecostal on the other, both very religious; they both come from agrarian communities; both sides have heavy history of agricultural labor. Big families; a pretty traditional set of values; and a very scatological sense of humour — my mom and dad are very similar people, you know what I mean? So what leads these people to be at such political odds?

I think a lot of it has to do with a teleological point of view toward history. My mother’s side of the family is getting an extremely triumphalist, extremely comforting, and very false narrative of how history works: that this is the greatest country of all, ever. They’re getting a white supremacist narrative that is comforting and easier to swallow than one in which structural change is absolutely necessary. Hannah Arendt would say: fascist movements tend to seize power at the expense of common humanity. If democracy is premised on common humanity, well, we are denying the humanity of asylum-seekers, of children, for the sake of power. Another expression of that might be trying to disenfranchise millions of voters for the sake of seizing power to defeat Joe Biden. Literally, the denial of common humanity for the sake of the comfort of having power, the comfort of this narrative. And how can you undo that? How can you unwrite that?

Do I think poetry is going to solve this problem? No. But — how do you study it, how do you look at it, how do you ask questions about it? In many ways that’s what the project is trying to do. 

When you mention how every living family member in this book voted for Trump or is close to someone who did — how that indirectly aligns with a denial of your own humanity, as a Mexican-American woman whose paternal family immigrated as unaccompanied minors — it seems like such a complicated task of radical empathy, to take on the project of inhabiting these voices. And Even Shorn is such a polyvocal text. It’s not all that frequent, in contemporary poetry, that a book asks us to read every lyric “I” as something other than a version of the poet’s self. And the book seems to direct us to refuse that assumption at every turn. You take on the voice of your great-grandfather. There is a poem in the voice of the bullet with which your cousin shot himself.

That one was horrible to write. It scared me to write it.

I’m sorry. It must be an enormous emotional as well as conceptual project, to work within this span of voices.

I mean, I think you’re right. That a lot of it is about trying to find common humanity. As someone who studies ethnic imaginaries: empathy and sentimental literature have their limits. You can’t just read a work of ethnic literature — you can’t just read Native Son and say, “I get it. I understand racism now, the work is done.” But one reason to put a polyvocal tone into this work is: you know, in the United States we often misunderstand the work of Emerson, we often misunderstand this idea of self-reliance and individualism to such an extent that we try to use individualism to solve problems. We think the free market works! And so even when we are trying to move progress along we’ll often do it in messianic ways. We’ll choose one leader in order to solve problems, we’ll rally around the beliefs of one particular thinker, rather than trying to implement structural change through grassroots movements or collectivist structures. I don’t think messianic solutions work. I think they place too much pressure on flawed individuals who are not going to solve problems on their own — they can’t. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. 

So I tried to create something that was less individualistically oriented. In part because I don’t think my voice is as important as something larger, something more historically grounded. I didn’t think the book was really about me. I mean, I’m in it — I’m obliquely referenced in most of the poems, and my point of view is there, but there was something communal and joyful and participatory and shared about ventriloquizing my family members, and particularly the dead ones, because some of them are loved ones of mine, whom I knew and who are dead now. The book started as an elegy cycle before it became what it is.

I didn’t write any poetry for eight years before I wrote Even Shorn. I took one workshop in college, and then I didn’t write anything at all. Then I started writing the book in late 2017, and it started pouring out of me like grief. Elegies to people that had died; things I felt needed to be said. That I needed to find a way to talk to or for or with the dead. (There’s something very Pentecostal about that, by the way.) There was something terrifying about it, but even the scarier stories have humour and grace in them. There’s something fun about occupying, or trying to occupy, these other people’s voices. It allows the possibility that my truth is not the only valid or beautiful point of view, which is something I find really important to acknowledge.

Right. And as you describe taking on that historically grounded voice, and the kind of archival research you’ve done — I was wondering if you think of your own work at all within the genre of documentary poetics? In terms of carrying responsibility to a broader truth. 

I didn’t think of myself as writing in that tradition, perhaps because it’s so much closer to myself and the people I knew. I thought of it as closer to orature — a lot of the process of the book was me talking to people. Or I’d call my mom, and she’d say, “I thought of something else that you should know” — and then once she knew I was writing the book, she’d just be like, “Somebody told me something crazy today!” and she’d tell me the story, and I would write it down. And I would think about it for a month or so, and then write about it as a poem. I’d keep a running list of “Things that have happened that are wild” — and think about how I would translate them into a poetics that fit what I’m doing.

It wasn’t long after I taught Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove that I started writing this book. So she might be more in the tradition that I’m playing with. Before this interview, you mentioned to me you wanted to ask about my influences, whether they were Faulknerian or not — and they are, a little bit, but I’d describe them as more Morrisonian. I read a lot of Toni Morrison (who is Faulknerianly influenced), and I think I’m in conversation much more with the generation after Faulkner. Gabriel García Márquez, whom I read constantly — Toni Morrison — people who are interested in the orature of Faulkner, and tend to take departures that he would not take. Like, I’m interested in racial justice, in a way that Faulkner isn’t. In a way that may not be very obvious in Even Shorn, but it’s there, because of who’s writing the text. There’s a degree of remove from the whiteness of the subject matter, always, because it’s me writing the book. So it’s about family orature seen from the perspective of someone who is never quite entirely part of the family.

As an aside, now that you mention García Márquez — I see that so vividly. You’re talking four generations back into family history, to a distance where stories are also myth, right? Like, my mother, whose mother immigrated from Panama, would point at A Hundred Years of Solitude and say, “That’s what the family history looks like.” The stories her aunts would pass along. She told me one about a stillborn baby with a pig’s tail, just like he writes about in that book — a kind of myth-orature.

We had one — my dad likes to tell this story, and I’ll write a poem about it one day — once, a relative decided to go visit his brother, whom he hadn’t seen in many years. And his wife told him: “No. You have to bring your coffin with you, in case you die on the way there, or coming back.” And she made him bring a coffin with him, to go visit his brother. Because it would be so inconvenient if he were to die. Like, “Let’s not inconvenience anyone else with your death.” Which is so Mexican. Death is so practical that it practically doesn’t exist. Death and life are so intertwined. When you die, you’ll just be around, like another family member.

I know we’ve moved on from Faulkner, but can I just say— what an echo of As I Lay Dying!

Right. Faulknerian, in a way. I think the way Faulkner approaches U.S. literature — like in Conscripts of Modernity, it’s about poverty, and it’s about being beaten down by the experience of farming and labour and violence. And he’s not as interested in an individual’s experience, he’s more interested in the interrelatedness of different kinds of people. 

As we talk, I think I’m coming to understand Even Shorn better as a braiding of real histories and voices. The poems are anchored by their speakers in specific real histories, places, lives. And from that perspective I’d love to discuss a particular poem that seems to have as much to do with voicelessness as voice. The poem titled “Echo” —its  form is of a husband’s monologue, right, in which certain lines end in italicized words. As we read we come to understand that those italicized words make up their own sub-poem, spoken by the wife, who seems unable to speak in her own voice, and can only repeat what he says — the form is reminiscent of a golden shovel, also of a contrapuntal poem, but very much distinct at the same time. I’d love to know your thoughts on gender and voice in relation to this poem, and what was on your mind when you conceived of this form for the poem.

So that husband and wife, Ray and Wilma, appear several times in the book. With this poem, I was thinking about how to give her a monologue without giving her a monologue. Ray was famously a blowhard. He talked a lot, and a lot of what he said was ridiculous. But he was also violently abusive of his wife — very violent. I don’t remember this, but apparently when I was a child, he used to chase Wilma around with a shotgun. He’s also in the poem “the shrike took his  name from crying” — he’s the one who stabs his wife with a fork. And there are other things. It was very common for her to run and hide at people’s houses, because he’d get drunk and chase her around. He was also a Korean War veteran — I’ve just been reading Minor Feelings, and Cathy Park Hong writes about how in the U.S. the Korean War is considered almost a minor incident, whereas it decimated the Korean population. A huge percentage of the Korean population died in that war. And I don’t know what my grandfather Ray saw, or what he did, during that time. But they came back with PTSD and all had drinking problems. They came back, got married, were severe alcoholics . . . I spent a lot of time thinking about this weird Spivakian space, these women who were subjugated by their husbands, in a time when there were no spousal rape laws. From an epistemological point of view, spousal rape doesn’t quite exist for them. They didn’t have control over what their husbands did. Their husbands would disappear for long periods of time. I don’t know if Ray did, but a lot of men in that period would bootleg, or just go to Dycusburg and drink for long periods of time, and then come back. 

So the women are both the space of local historiography for our family and they’re also voiceless in making family decisions. I wanted to find a way to acknowledge that fact: that they could make no legal decisions, they often don’t own property, they’re completely at the mercy of these men. That translates into the larger fabric of this text. There’s a lot of subtext of sexual violence in the poetry, (and I myself have had some pretty public battles with rape culture in Kentucky), because most of the people who make decisions don’t acknowledge rape culture in any kind of meaningful way. So I wanted to think about that from a semiotic and artistic point of view: what does that history look like on a page? 

To use end-of-line italics in Ray’s speech to represent Wilma’s voice — how did you make that formal decision? Is there a name you’d give this form?

Originally, I’d added a couple spaces before every word that was supposed to make up Wilma’s poem. And nobody caught it, it was too subtle. So I sent the poem to friends in a more informal workshop — I basically said, “This is the intent of the poem. How do I make that legible so people will catch it?” And they helped me decide to do it in italics, and to add that line “I hear you Wife” in the center of the poem, so it’s clear that it’s a dramatic monologue. But it’s a dramatic monologue with three people. Ray is narrating to a third person, and Wilma is in the room, not speaking. So perhaps it’s a tripartite dramatic monologue, or a dramatic monologue of the margin? Anyway: a form that required three people, not two. 

On the subject of violence, and gendered violence — Even Shorn is a book that takes on the difficult task of documenting that. The poems often address violent subject matter, unflinchingly, without looking away. At the same time, it’s an incredible lyric work: there’s a complex aesthetic and emotional beauty that feels so central to the artistry of the text. A “dark pastoral”, right — a space in which the elements of lyric have to balance with the fact of real violence. How do you personally navigate the task of representing violence in lyric poetry?

I don’t think it’s possible to write about the space — and certainly not about my family — without writing about extreme violence. “Eclogue,” for instance, is about my cousin Cindy, who’s in the poem “Even Shorn.” She was found dead in a puddle by the highway in 2016. There’s my mother’s mother, who grew up in a tobacco tenant farming family, moving from shack to shack as they moved from farm to farm — she had almost a dozen siblings, and they moved around constantly. They lived in a Pentecostal disciplinarian’s house, and had no money, and would pack the walls with rags. A state of privation for their entire childhoods. And that carried over: patriarchy is incredibly strong in the family. The women dote on men and treat their daughters badly as a rule. To some extent, what presents as trauma or psychological issues is a kind of human grief that goes back to the beginning of time. It’s a grief that exceeds myself, a grief that exceeds my mother, a grief that exceeds her mother. I can’t entirely forgive them for giving me this pain that I carry with me everywhere. But I can’t entirely blame them for it, either. It’s sort of the substance in which humans move. Which is a little bit beautiful even as it’s also horrible. 

So I don’t want to flinch at representing it. I don’t want to flinch at thinking about it as painful, and I don’t want to shy away from violence, because it is part of the human experience. If we say that violence is not a place for poetry, or that poetry is not a place for violence, we should be afraid to look at or talk about it, then we are not looking at or talking about some of the most fundamental parts of human experience. I almost think it’s important to look at it almost how you’d look at any inherited family heirloom. I collect quilts, and I wrote a lot of the poems named after kinds of quilts — some of those got cut from the book, but a couple remain. “Drunkard’s Path,” which is a kind of quilt, is an incredibly violent poem. It’s about a man who murders his wife. It’s not set in my family; it’s from a newspaper article from very near where I grew up. He murdered his wife very shortly after she gave birth. And another is called “Cutter Quilt,” which is a more abstract poem. When quilts outlive their usefulness — and they can live for a hundred or two hundred years — you can still recycle the quilt, cut it up and use some of the blocks for other things. Feedsack quilts are very common in Kentucky, where you use agrarian equipment for feeding animals, and then you dye it and use it again to make quilts. There’s a way in which I’m trying to recycle violence into something that is more sustaining and sustainable for the human psyche. 

Right — so it wouldn’t be a meaningful representation of experience, without representing that violence in some way, and the question is how to find the means of representation?

Yes. There’s a critique that people often get — the idea that they are “fetishizing violence” — and so it’s been on my mind. I really don’t want to fetishize violence. I’m not trying to say that it’s good, or pleasurable. I think the affect that’s most common in the book is fear — that’s what’s underneath most of the grief. So if you feel afraid while reading the book, you’re experiencing it correctly. I don’t think fear fetishizes violence. But I don’t think that you should look away from it. 

Passing through the lyrical moment, in your poems, often heightens the grief for me. It’s not only, “how horrific that this violence can exist” — it’s also, “how horrific that this violence can exist and beauty can continue.” The pain and grief of having to encompass both.

I’ve been feeling that a lot lately. In her class, Elaine Scarry calls beauty a ribbon from heaven, something that sustains justice. I disagree, although I respect her opinion, because I don’t think beauty is intrinsically linked to justice. But I can understand why one would believe that, in that beauty can often be a tendency toward tenderness, and a desire to replicate that tenderness. But it can also be not that: a desire to hold, or withhold. Sometimes I feel contempt for my own appreciation for beauty. If I’m in pain, and I’m tired of things, and the fact that I’m also experiencing this small joy in the midst of an unbearable day — some small crumb of joy — almost hurts more. It’s almost more unbearable, to see cherry blossoms in the trees. Or I’ll go out and see a beautiful dog, and then that’s what breaks my heart, something beautiful, not something that’s ugly. When something beautiful shows up, you’re alive to it; alive to the thresholds of birth and death.

Last question — what are you working on now?

I’m writing a book of  epistolary poems about sexual violence and rape culture. A lot of it is considering the nature of rape law and social contract theory, relative to my own intimate and private experience with sexual violence and rape culture. Intimate experiences of the aftermath of trauma in relation to more theoretical ideas about rape culture. I’ve been reading a lot of legal scholars and feminist scholars about: the right to have rights, the degree to which we allocate humanity to women, through the enforcement and non-enforcement of the right to bodily autonomy. 

Even Shorn
Isabel Duarte-Gray
Sarabande Books
May 2021

Edith Clare is a poet, translator, and first-year MFA candidate at the Michener Center for Writers. Her work has appeared in Colorado Review, Peripheries, Twin Cities: An anthology of twin cinema from Singapore and Hong Kong, and elsewhere.

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