Book review: 'Ghettoclaustrophobia,' Shanta Lee Gander | Poetry | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Book review: 'Ghettoclaustrophobia,' Shanta Lee Gander

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Shanta Lee Gander - COURTESY OF MACLEAN CHARLES GANDER
  • Courtesy Of Maclean Charles Gander
  • Shanta Lee Gander

What happens to the world when God's thermostat is broken? Shanta Lee Gander explores the answer to this haunting question and others in her debut collection of poetry, Ghettoclaustrophobia: Dreamin of Mama While Trying to Speak Woman in Woke Tongues. For her, storytelling is the door and language is the key.

Gander asks us to rely on memory, no matter how unreliable or in flux, to unlock the answers to generational trauma and fraught legacies. More than that, Ghettoclaustrophobia urges readers to look back at the past in order to understand and embrace the intricacies of the future.

Brattleboro-based Gander is well equipped to guide us on this journey. Her work has appeared in publications such as PRISM, ITERANT, Palette Poetry, BLAVITY and DAME magazine. As much griot as poet, she's earned a stellar array of accolades and awards — including, in 2020, the prestigious Arthur Williams Award for Meritorious Service to the Arts.

Gander continues to advocate for Vermonters on and off the page as the director of publicity and outreach at Mount Island, a literary magazine dedicated to "rural LGBTQ+ and POC voices."

The full spectrum of her writerly concerns is addressed in Ghettoclaustrophobia, where her speaker goes on a celestial and earthly journey of self-discovery through language. Gander celebrates the power of Black creativity as an agent of change and light. She writes, "We be the alchemists, the meaning / of magician, fashioning ourselves from the wreckage of memory[.]"

Gander's preoccupation with memory and Black identity becomes the life raft that carries readers through the text. We come closer to understanding what it means to be a Black woman navigating a racially and socially fraught world.

She accomplishes this in part through exciting experimentation with form. Gander writes like a child at play with metal jacks — careful, deliberate and strategic in the way she picks up and gathers each delicate subject.

With the poem "Surviving R. Kelly and Michael Jackson When They Are Your Childhood's Soundtrack," she fearlessly explores hotly debated subjects in the social landscape of cancel culture. The poem's speaker wonders how to separate artists from their art when they've committed unspeakable acts of abuse against vulnerable people.

Gander asks, too, what is to be done with the wreckage these artists have left behind. She writes, "Can we un-paint all the pain that's / been on the walls in the rooms of our psyche? Can we remove all / the wallpaper from our childhoods?"

Ghettoclaustrophobia: Dreamin of Mama While Trying to Speak Woman in Woke Tongues by Shanta Lee Gander, Diode Editions, 100 pages. $18. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Ghettoclaustrophobia: Dreamin of Mama While Trying to Speak Woman in Woke Tongues by Shanta Lee Gander, Diode Editions, 100 pages. $18.

The poet links childhood innocence and sexual trauma in a way that is as skillful and nuanced as it is crushingly honest.

Gander is evenhanded in her praise of these artists: "Didn't they remind us of flying / with our feet on the ground?" But she also addresses our societal and cultural complicity when we blindly support them: "Q. What does a sacrifice to a god look like? / A. Our daughters. / Our sons. / Ourselves." She places blame where it's due and asks readers to look more closely at themselves in the process.

Gander further explores this juxtaposition of innocence and loss in "Cthulhu's Diaries," one of the most visceral poems in the collection. Here she employs the poetic form of a palindrome, a mirror poem that can be read forward or backward, to explore the horror and intensity of childhood sexual abuse.

"Cthulhu's Diaries" perfectly illustrates how the poem's speaker navigates painful and traumatic memories. A reader may wince and look away from the words: "Against the concrete walls, he dry-fucked me / in Auntie's garage while homemade vanilla ice / cream dripped down our chins. / I wanted his hands / on my 8-year-old body."

The contrasting imagery of sweet, sticky ice cream and a grotesque sexual act takes the reader to the depths of revulsion.

Luckily, Gander does not leave us to wallow there. Elsewhere in the text, she transports us to an almost celestial realm. In "Black Book of Creation," she writes about motherhood and the gifts this goddess-like being has bestowed:

Mother sits fashioning her children.

       Cosmic clay, stardust, and obsidian 


for resilience, dreams for seeing, 

      and the things not contained by language, 

and hardships sometimes cloaked as nightmares

The poem is reminiscent of work by celebrated poet Joy Harjo, who often elevates domestic elements to an empyrean plane. Gander uses the mother figure as an avatar to remark on the Herculean tasks of the Black mother: showering her children with beautiful gifts but also preparing them for the inevitable harsh realities of a cruel world.

In the third section of the book, Gander presents us with an abrupt visual shift. Each poem is rendered in the form of a communication by letter. Even the italic font that she employs resembles handwriting. On first read, this section is perplexing, but it becomes evident that these "letter" poems are, in fact, answers to one of the poet's most pervasive questions: What does happen when God's thermostat is broken?

We see Gander explore how the world she's created turns topsy-turvy beneath unrelenting heat. Everything goes awry. Gander writes, "Sometimes boredom has a way about it, / a kind of saunter like its twin, Trouble. // They both show up when it's hot."

Gander uses sophisticated personification to flesh out these characters. The abstract concepts suddenly spring to life before us. Tellingly, she explains, "...when God's thermostat is broken, / all of the irrational has a reason for existing[.]" The poet's predisposition toward the fantastical is on vivid and surreal display in moments like these throughout the text.

As a whole, Ghettoclaustrophobia is a stunning work that places exacting demands on us as readers. Gander commands not only our attention but also our accountability as human beings. She leads us in a surgical exploration of the whimsical.

More importantly, Gander encourages us to seek the truth that lies at the very heart of poetic storytelling. She asks us to look inside ourselves to examine the fragile nature of our pasts and fraught memories. Ghettoclaustrophobia shows us the beauty that exists in the piercing shards of a broken world.

"Dreamin of Mama" from Ghettoclaustrophobia

Here, Mama be like,

I'm gonna carry your bag

sharing the burden she's put in it


Here, we argue like sisters

screaming the trauma

that created us


We show up

lulled into forgetting

startin where we ended to do it all again


If I arrive awake,

she shows me

how to read the witness marks sayin,


Our bodies


      the clocks,


Our Mamas


Multiplied by greatness


They be


      horologists...

The original print version of this article was headlined "Telling Memory"