REVIEW: Eve L. Ewing’s “Electric Arches”
In the introduction to Electric Arches, Eve L. Ewing’s new poetry collection, Ewing tells an anecdote about riding her bike in her Chicago neighborhood as a child, from one end of the block to the other, and describes the way that she would narrate adventures in her head. During these rides, she writes, “the space in my head was as real to me as the dirt beneath my feet.” As the collection begins and Ewing’s stories unfold, this childhood truth becomes a kind of vessel that holds Electric Arches’ beautifully wrought content.
Electric Arches holds multitudes, but its scaffolding is the experience of being a black woman in America––the beauty of this experience, the daily and historic trauma of it, the light and joy. Made up of thirty-five poems and a number of interspersed pieces of Ewing’s visual art, each poem is surprisingly different. At the same time, they all maintain the thread of her meticulously moulded imagery, sense of place, and cultural commentary. Reading this collection for the first time is a particular joy––there is no formula for predicting what path you’ll be taken down next. It is a book to fall into fully.
Ewing’s language is precise, and as commanding as it is still. She renders some of the most beautiful and visceral imagery I have encountered in a long time. Yellow, green, and red become “saffron yellow,” “kool cigarette green,” and “Georgia clay red,” in the collection’s first poem, “Arrival Day.” There is also a frankness and often a humor that feels refreshing––she doesn’t mess with hyperbole or frill. There is a sense that she is simply telling it like it is. Ewing holds on to this tone even as some poems travel into the landscape of the speculative—many encompass a duality of stark reality and the brightness of the imagined.
One example of this are the three “re-telling” narrative prose poems that deal with racism of the toxically everyday and systemic kind. Ewing begins each piece with type font on the page, and then seamlessly transitions to her own handwriting at the precise moment that the teller of the story transcends the aggression at hand. In tandem with the transition to handwriting, the story takes a turn into the magical.
In this mode of “re-telling,” reality isn’t the object to be examined. Space and time collapse, and Ewing makes it clear that the border between the real and the imagined is obsolete – as she says in her introduction, every story in the collection is “absolutely true.” In one of these, “four boys on Ellis [a re-telling],” the speaker writes that she closes her eyes on a scene she happens upon, of the police about to arrest four young boys. She writes “When I opened them, the police were shouting and jumping into the air, grasping at the boys’ shoelaces as they drifted upward into the clear night. Their bikes went up, too, and they managed to climb atop them midair, which was impressive.”
The direct and quiet humor of this moment, in the face of a deeply entrenched community trauma, is a part of what Ewing does so masterfully. Not to say that she makes light of the situation––actually its gravity is heightened by this juxtaposition, and by the underpinning truth that these are kids who want to be left alone to ride their bikes. With these “re-telling” poems and others, Ewing is searing and honest in dealing with white America’s moral crisis in its treatment of the black community. In another moment, from “Arrival Day,” the speaker encounters a neighbor boy who, Ewing writes, “the police had recently declared a man, stopping / him mid-two-step to ask questions he could not answer because the query beneath / them was ‘why are you alive’ and none of us can say…” In these few lines lies a continual thread of the American story— its versions past and present.
Running parallel to these pieces are many that navigate and often celebrate girlhood and the subsequent pathway through adolescence to adulthood. In “appletree,” Ewing writes, “I learned that everything about me could be round and full if I let it, / that under my skin were cyphers of humming and laughing and buzzing.” In this moment of self-discovery is a willingness to love the body in its fullness and vibrancy. This moment is simple and at the same time movingly radical in the context of a culture that does not teach girls to celebrate their bodies.
Along this same vein, in many of these poems everyday objects are cast in a new light. In “one thousand and one ways to touch your own face,” a tin of eyeshadow is “coiled as it is in the crevice between turquoise / and electric blue / with extra electric.”
In the beautiful poem “at the salon,” hair becomes something moving and breathing, a lens through which the world can be viewed:
I am in the universe and it is my hair.
each strand arched electric and perfectly still
before my eyes, dancing, crooked,
arranged just so in the air
like the last humming chord of a song.
In the quiet and pared down, “The Discount Mega Mall (in memoriam),” a name, Eve, is
of things beloved.
One inevitable takeaway from “Electric Arches,” is that within the messy, complicated, and chaotic lives that we live, sometimes simply being alive and staying alive is a thing of beauty in itself— especially as a black person in America. In the last poem, “Affirmation,” Ewing writes, “Put a finger to my wrist or my temple / and feel it: I am magic.”