Transforming Trauma: Reclamations and Exclamations In R.E.I.L.’s Ashes to Justice
By Corinne Shearer
For those missing in-person Poetry Slams, here’s one for you.
Pre-pandemic, live Slams were uniquely charged events. More than a simple reading, the spirit of these events falls somewhere between a theatrical performance and a community rally. These two elements – performance and community – are essential to the form. As a regular in the D.C. open-mic scene and frequent reader in series like Split Dat, Busboys and Poets, and the D.C. Poet Project reading, Shaquetta Nelson (under her stage name, R.E.I.L.) gets this. In her forthcoming collection, R.E.I.L. keeps the spirit of Slam at the heart of her poetry despite it being presented on the page.
Ashes to Justice features poems that look outward as much as they look inward: outward to the Black community in “Tired” and “Untitled” or to young girls who have experienced the kind of sexual abuse by a family member that R.E.I.L. herself suffered in “I Know You Can’t Speak,” and inward as she hashes and rehashes those childhood traumas. The poems are confessional, raw and diary-like, reading like a stream of consciousness. As R.E.I.L. writes in the book’s preface, it is her conflicting experiences of family (one of deep love as for her grandmother to whom the book and first poem are dedicated, and also of deep pain for the abuse she endured) that inspired the “true voice” she uses in her poetry.
Befitting her role as an educator and community leader in D.C. middle and high schools, R.E.I.L.’s poems frequently end in calls to action, lending the poems the feeling of an impassioned sermon as much as they are deeply personal accounts. Faith, in particular, is a subject R.E.I.L does not shy away from– it is more akin to the very environment in which these poems live, informing all that R.E.I.L. writes. In her own words: “In God I must trust.”
Photo: R.E.I.L. (Shaquetta Nelson) performing at DC Sexual Health Launch
Faith is not the only thing which infuses this work. Like the pop-music-esque momentum of these poems, R.E.I.L. frequently inserts snippets of familiar sayings or references like “Am I my sister’s keeper,” political mantras like “STAY WOKE,” hashtags like “# I said what I said,” or lines of music like The Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.” R.E.I.L. is constantly tying her work to the here and now, a useful device in poems which constantly reach out or speak directly to the audience. At times, however, the familiarity of these lines ruptures the poetic world R.E.I.L. herself has built, allowing the reader’s other associations to flood in and steal the focus. The more successful use of familiarity in R.E.I.L.’s poems is when she manipulates it, as in the title of the poem “Feud for Fuel,” or in “To Be a Godmother” when the familiar leads us deeper into the specific:
“Until all my beliefs and thoughts
In a bundle of joy
A bundle of you”
R.E.I.L. speaks here of her goddaughter, but her concern is not just for her own. The poem “I Remember” which references 90s TV shows like Keenan and Kel, That’s So Raven, and Blue’s Clues among other things like hopscotch and playground hand games will fill any Millennial reader with nostalgia, but R.E.I.L. uses this as contrast to the comparably very adult and distant things that kids today interact with like Facebook and iphones.
If this collection of poems were an album, “Her Testimony” would be its single. In it R.E.I.L. tells the story of a young girl’s sexual abuse in unflinching detail. Towards the end of the poem, she throws off the guise of fiction and reveals that she is that child. Despite its dark and graphic beginning, the poem is one of positive transformation, ending in a single, soaring “Amen!” Beyond just claiming this story as her own, R.E.I.L. imagines herself, as she is now, literally embracing her childhood self in the poem’s pivotal moment:
“She felt like God didn’t love her
Wondering why he didn’t touch down from the skies about her
But I stepped in and hugged her
Said “Shaquetta, stop crying, and stop lying to yourself”
From that day on I began to love me!”
This split narration evokes how slippery our position in the present really is; how porous the separation is between us then and us now. The question that emerges: What is our relationship to our past? R.E.I.L. once was haunted by hers, but now confronts it– and, most remarkably, she does so not to destroy it but to understand it. R.E.I.L. chooses empathy towards her past, not its erasure.
The poems all maintain a distinct, bouncy rhythm; buoying even poems with darker content like “A Real Man” and “I Know You Can’t Speak.” R.E.I.L. often finds her flow in repetition – playing heavily on a reiteration of words, ideas, or sounds – sometimes to a fault. Repetition can have a unique and captivating power in performance; it evokes the magic of freestyling. Perhaps, if heard live, some of the repetition used in this collection would sing, but on the page it falls flat at times, hindering trains of thought with real potential for revelation.
Admirably though, R.E.I.L. stays true to her own voice throughout the entirety of the collection. This is despite several of the poems’ desire to reconfigure or reimagine language: the way we speak about feminized beauty in “Sexy Redefined,” or how we speak to children in “I Remember,” or how we define “A Real Man,” or Nelson’s own assumption of the name “R.E.I.L,” whose meaning is in constant flux. From “Raped Early In Life” to “Reborn Early in Life,” R.E.I.L. embodies the kind of radical changes she calls for; changes which require we constantly reassess our values and the things which form our individual sense of identity. In “H.E.R.,” R.E.I.L. exposes her own process by deconstructing and re-imagining the word “her” into various acronyms:
His Every Reason
Helpful Empowering Resources
Hurt Exposed and Resurrected
Hidden Emotions Reconciled
…How Energy Revolves
Her Eyes Registered
Both life’s ups and downs
Voices of angels worthy of their crowns”
Though this poem collapses somewhat in the middle, its overall sentiment is strong and resonates with the theme of this collection: Woman as a powerful entity; as a thing which can heal or remake itself at will. This is an appropriate message for R.E.I.L.’s likely audience of women and girls living with the effects of trauma or any who have experienced similar disenfranchisement. Throughout this collection, it is apparent that what R.E.I.L. lacks in technical chops she makes up for with gusto and lots of heart. Many may find comfort simply in the force of R.E.I.L.’s delivery and the repeated heralding of female empowerment.
Ashes to Justice, published by Day Eight, is out now.
Corinne Shearer is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York City, and OyeDrum’s new Book Review Editor. She has been featured as an artist-in-residence at The Triple Nine Festival, named “Director’s Choice” at Spoke The Hub’s Winter Follies, and was recently commissioned to create new work for Dixon Place and One Day Dance. Corinne is also the founder and curator of Spitball, a performance series for artists of varying disciplines.