Evie Shockley: “women’s voting rights at one hundred (but who’s counting?)”

women’s voting rights at one hundred (but who’s counting?)

eenie meenie minie moe
catch a voter by her toe
if she hollers then you know
got yourself a real jane crow

* * *

one vote is an opinion
with a quiet legal force ::
a barely audible beep
in the local traffic, & just
a plashless drop of mercury
in the national thermometer.
but a collectivity of votes
/a flock of votes, a pride of votes,
a murder of votes/ can really
make some noise.

* * *

one vote begets another
if you make a habit of it.
my mother started taking me
to the polls with her when i
was seven :: small, thrilled
to step in the booth, pull
the drab curtain hush-shut
behind us, & flip the levers
beside each name she pointed
to, the Xs clicking into view.
there, she called the shots.

* * *

rich gal, poor gal
hired girl, thief
teacher, journalist
vote your grief

* * *

one vote’s as good as another
:: still, in 1913, illinois’s gentle
suffragists, hearing southern
women would resent spotting
mrs. ida b. wells-barnett amidst
whites marchers, gently kicked
their sister to the curb. but when
the march kicked off, ida got
right into formation, as planned.
the tribune’s photo showed
her present & accounted for.

* * *

one vote can be hard to keep
an eye on :: but several /a
colony of votes/ can’t scuttle
away unnoticed so easily. my
mother, veteran registrar for
our majority black election
district, once found—after
much searching—two bags
of ballots /a litter of votes/
stuffed in a janitorial closet.

* * *


* * *

one vote was all fannie lou
hamer wanted. in 1962, when
her constitutional right was
over forty years old, she tried
to register. all she got for her
trouble was literacy tested, poll
taxed, fired, evicted, & shot
at. a year of grassroots activism
nearly planted her mississippi
freedom democratic party
in the national convention.

* * *

one vote per eligible voter
was all stacey abrams needed.
she nearly won the georgia
governor’s race in 2018 :: lost by
50,000 /an unkindness of votes/
to the man whose job was
maintaining the voter rolls.
days later, she rolled out plans
for getting voters a fair fight.
it’s been two years—& counting.



Copyright © 2020 Evie Shockley and reprinted here with permission of the poet. This poem was co-commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and the New York Philharmonic as part of the Project 19 initiative and appeared in the Spring-Summer 2020 issue of American Poets.


Evie Shockley is the author of semiautomatic (2017), winner of the Hurston/Wright Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the L.A. Times Book Prize, and available for order at here.  She has published four other collections of poetry, including the new black (2011), which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and a critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (University of Iowa Press 2011). Shockley’s first collection, The Gorgon Goddess, was published by Carolina Wren Press in 2001. Born and raised in Nashville, Shockley received her BA from Northwestern University. After studying Law at the University of Michigan, she earned her PhD in English from Duke University. Her honors include the 2015 Stephen E. Henderson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Poetry, the 2012 Holmes National Poetry Prize, a Leo Maitland Fellowship from the Millay Colony for the Arts in 2011, and residencies from Hedgebrook and MacDowell. She is a Cave Canem graduate and spent 2018-2019 as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Shockley is a Professor of English at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. For more information, visit her website. (Author photo credit: Nancy Crampton)

Read a previous (11/4/18) Poetry Sunday feature that showcases Evie Shockley’s poem “Life Line” here.

Listen to Shockley reading and talking about her poems here and here.

Read reviews, interviews, and articles about Shockley and her work at these sites.


Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Today’s poem is the first of a special Poetry Sunday series extending through the end of November that will feature poems about America and voting, all written by women over the age of forty. In the coming weeks, you’ll read powerful political poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Marilyn Chin, Joy Harjo, Sonia Sanchez, and others. These poems are superb examples of craft, but in order to highlight their message, the accompanying commentary will be briefer and less technical than usual in these columns.

What strikes the reader first in “women’s voting rights at one hundred (but who’s counting?)” is the poem’s innovative mechanics: no capitalization (even of the title or of proper names), ampersands used in place of “and,” punctuation omitted or used unconventionally (slash marks and doubled colons), and incomplete sentence fragments in its centered, italicized stanzas. Also striking is the unusual format of the poem, one that makes tremendous use of blank page space. Three of the nine stanzas are right-justified, three are centered, and three are left-justified, so that the words seem to be ranging over the entire page and, as a whole, resemble a winding staircase. These formatting decisions are formal poetic devices, something that contrasts with the informality imparted by the poem’s lack of capitalization, nontraditional punctuation, and lack of meter or rhyme in most stanzas.

Shockley is known for using both free verse and formal structures, sometimes (as here) in the same poem, to span the divide between traditional and experimental poetics. When forced to choose “between innovation (what’s ‘new’) and tradition (what we already ‘knew’), Shockley “picks all of the above” and assembles it with a virtuosity that, “like Prince’s, is less a gift of making from scratch than a genius for making it new” [Los Angeles Review of Books review,cited above]. Her reported influences include Lucille Clifton, featured here on 2/9/20, and Gwendolyn Brooks, who will be featured next week.

In today’s poem, the right- and left- justified stanzas are of roughly equal length (ten or eleven lines) and are unrhymed in a fact-centric, prose-influenced style called docupoetry, described by Poets and Writers Magazine as “socially engaged poetry that often uses nonliterary texts—news reports, legal documents, and transcribed oral histories.” [“Where Poetry Meets Journalism,” Poets & Writers Magazine, Nov./Dec. 2019 issue, www.pw.org/content/where_poetry_meets_journalism] Within the staggered frame created by these stanzas, three shorter italicized stanzas are centered, using rhyming quatrains and a couplet to sing the poem’s haunting, lyrical core.

The phrase “collectivity of votes” introduces another poetic device: use of collective (or “group”) nouns. A collective noun is a singular term such as “family” or “flock” that designates a group. You may be familiar with “terms of venery,” atradition of naming animals collectively that dates back to medieval times. A list currently available on Wikipedia includes those old terms along with others still in common usage, a fun read that reveals the collective noun for mules (a “barren”) and for penguins (a “convent,” “creche,” “raft,” or “tuxedo).” Familiar to many poets, James Lipton’s An Exultation of Larks (Penguin 1993) unearths gems like a “slouch of models,” a “shrivel of critics,” an “unction of undertakers,” a “blur of Impressionists,” a “score of bachelors,” and more.

The collective nouns referenced in this poem all relate to votes, introduced with the term “a collectivity of votes” and thereafter italicized and set off between slash marks:

/a flock of votes, a pride of votes,
a murder of votes/

Those lines hearken back to terms of venery: “flock” normally pertaining to birds (Emily Dickinson’s feathered symbol for hope), “pride” to lions, and “murder” to crows. Later in the poem, we find three more references:

“/a colony of votes/”

“/a litter of votes/”

“/an unkindness of votes/”

When the vote is not thwarted, the collective nouns seems to suggest, it is capable of mighty things. But when obstructed or downright stolen, it is an abomination and even a menace.

In this poem, the speaker’s mother is one of of several remarkable black women who affirm the power of exercising their vote. The first, “Jane Crow,” is a metaphor for simultaneous gender and race discrimination. The second is “my mother” who voted faithfully year after year and as a “veteran registrar / for our majority black election district,” unearthed and foiled an attempted election fraud. Ida B. Wells-Barnett marched with white suffragettes even when they didn’t welcome her, Fannie Lou Hamer triumphed over efforts to steal her vote, and in the more recent past, Stacey Abrams, who served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 2007 to 2017, “nearly won the georgia governor’s race in 2018.”

This catalogue of women finding and exercising their political power is one reason I chose “women’s voting rights at one hundred (but who’s counting?)” for today’s feature, a little over a week before election day. Another is that wonderful image of the speaker as a young girl going with her mother to vote, as I hope we all are all going to do on or before this Tuesday. I love this lyrical call to action:

rich gal, poor gal
hired girl, thief
teacher, journalist
vote your grief

I love the poem also for its assertion that voting always matters and that “a collectivity of votes . . . can really / make some noise.” Women, and most especially black women, have been disenfranchised in our country dating back to its inception, but since 1920 have at least had the legal right to vote. We have the numbers to make our voices heard, readers. Let’s show our collective power in this election—let’s “really make some noise!”

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