on Trace Evidence by Charif Shanahan

A trace is a small, but non-negligible amount of a thing implying a larger amalgam of it elsewhere. A trace is a presence, however miniscule, that points away from itself toward an absence. Say, a fallen autumn leaf that conjures in mind the birch from which it fell. But from which birch did it fall? Traces make negatives of their own presence. While evidence, though inhabiting a similar existential timbre, is taken up a notch—evidence is a presence that points toward (one might even go as far to say, searches for) more presence. Traces are, paradoxically, whole, while evidence reveals itself to be a sort of nested presence—a particularity that searches for the larger material it roots from. And perhaps this is the difference: traces are metaphysical, while evidence is material. This becomes even more knotty (and bold) an assertion when trying to imprint it on the human endeavour of writing poetry. Are poems traces that point toward their own absence, their own lack, that points toward the metaphorical absence from one’s life the poet had to subsume themselves into at the moment of writing the poem? Or, are they evidence, artifacts that illuminate the radical act of presence one must summon to practice craft, to describe their interior worlds, obfuscated and dark as they may be? 


Trace Evidence, Charif Shanahan’s second collection, revels in questions like these formally, with long, philosophical, and chiasmic thought-lines, but also thematizes this quandary head on, beginning with its silence-breaking opening couplet: “At intersections I knew to look both ways / As she had taught me” (“Colonialism”). Within these two lines alone is compressive magic; one identifies (sees traces of) the collection’s subjects: necessary poetic and spiritual ambivalence; an introduction of a “she” who had “known to look both ways / At the port of arrival—”; what is passed between mothers and sons (phenotypes, temperaments); and most frighteningly, most urgently, the dialectic of doom and survival: 

From windows—Mrikani!mrikani!—and I


Dashed through the exhaust of four lanes

Not exactly a highway 


But still too wide to be crossing—

It is a glad thing the little boy looks both ways, but we are asked to hold in mind what tragedy would loom if “she” had not taught him. 

This philosophically erudite and searching collection is driven by the singularity of the voice as it careens over various geographical and emotional landscapes. Regular themes that arise are the speakers’ felicitous disagreements with a mother character, a chronic feeling of loneliness—inside the speaker’s own body, in the presence of an other—and the knotty, insufficiently callous concept of “mixed-race identity.” These themes also suffuse the poems of Shanahan’s first collection, Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing (2017). For example, take the final line of the final poem in Trace Evidence, “Worthiness”: “Though years ago, I wrote ‘I want to enter my life like a room.’ ” The “years ago” poem (six to be exact) to which Shanahan refers is titled “Trying to Live,” which sees the speaker enter and exit their attic bedroom before going down to a café and ordering tea:

I want to enter my life like a room. Blue walls. 

A floor painted green. Three large windows. Light.

I study the faces that pass. Count each one.

It is a long time before my eyes meet another’s.

A poet’s preoccupations are a poet’s preoccupations, yet Shanahan does something different by weaving a deliberate intertextuality through Trace Evidence. Shanahan is not revising his thoughts as they were, so much as he is revising the methods by which his thoughts are rendered. Important note: while Trace Evidence is more accomplished than Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing, the latter should not be labeled, as many poets who decry their early work do, as simply belonging in the loose accountability of juvenilia. The title poem of Charif’s first book suggests a scene of burgeoning sexuality, a boy (later “child”) in a “club’s deep bass hum” as “[o]lder men / on display by the bar slip off their tees.” He goes, perhaps is lured—not so much by the men, but by that internal drive that craves novelty of sexual encounter (we’ve all been there)—into a back room, “[slips] his tongue / through the body’s shutters” (foreskin?), and gives, maybe receives, a toothy blowjob. The aborted thirteen-line sonnet ends with a question, a timidly successful attempt to achieve lift-off from the carnal to the metaphysical: “What pattern of occasion will free him?” The speakers in Trace Evidence have slow-roasted, the social replaced with the domestic, and Shanahan’s technique of eroticism movingly improved: 

I’m not seeing anyone else except the men on my tv.


“Deconstruction is a form of creation,” Donnie Darko says to his teacher. 


The betrayals hurt not because they happened; I mean,


I barely care where you put your dick.


You can’t ask me into the room, then tell me to stand in the corner.


No one feels one thing at a time, you know: Even now I love you, see?


Do you see?



Here, the speaker’s seemingly anxious attachment style elevates what could have been decorative vignette to spiritual predicament. What were, in the first collection, moments of inert silences, almost from an impersonal voice, have risked the fine line of sentimentality, the ultimate “Do you see?” pleading the reader, in its repetition, to corroborate the uncorroboratable: that the speaker loves the other. But still the speaker must turn away from the other to gain the certainty he desperately requires. I’d thought this conjecture too until I read, a few poems on: “I cannot love you if you do not / show yourself to me / I plead” (“Inner Children”).

And yet, the problem persists: how does a poet craft the feeling of absence and/or presence on the page? Shanahan delivers with nuance in his repeated use of the rhetorical questions, and more syntactically resourceful, the continued deployment of the aborted hypothetical, “ifs” without their accompanying “thens”: “If you are on this earth / You are of this earth” (“My People”); or, in the searingly accomplished long poem at the center of this collection, “On the Overnight from Agadir”:

Another day at the café, avoiding. Pretending—


Why did you come here   Tell me why


If you want to die go ahead and die do it quickly


If you want to be dead    You can be dead.

What is the activity of the conditional form that refuses to click-shut with a “then”? I’d bring it back to absence and presence. The “if” statement relishes in its incompletion, extending its own presence indefinitely, while simultaneously attending to its opposite effect: in its inability to close, it negates its own existence. The ifs are linguistic traces of their omitted thens, creating a linguistic temporality that is never completed. But the poem would seem to understand this: “what generates this sensation / That life is elsewhere, or happening in the future?” One recognizes all too well the sensation of one’s life passing before them, the goalpost for when it is meant to begin shifting indefinitely across the non-field of time as Shanahan demonstrates in the next line. Life will begin once “I arrive in California,” then when “I am worthy of living,” then when “I can provide for myself in a two-bedroom apartment,” then once “I no longer look outside myself for an answer.” Instead Shanahan looks inward, into his own body. For all his pontificating momentum, Shanahan is hyperaware of his body, its lack, its vulnerability. Shanahan’s body, in his poems’ conceptualizations, is an ever-increasing room into which there is an imperative to find more space: 

Where does the inquiry begin        Does it begin in my particular body

In my particular mind    Does it begin centuries before me

Does it begin in my mother   Does it begin in all these places 

“Inquiry” is a sonic neighbor to “injury”; “On the Overnight from Agadir” is a fifteen-page poem that doesn’t so much recount an accident where the speaker suffers a neck injury as a result of a bus crash from Casablanca to Agadir, but rather, an unsettling of time that obfuscates what happened to the speaker’s body, what is happening, and what can still happen: “Dear one, I was trying to enter my own life. I felt outside my own life.” The bus has “tilted onto its side” and the reader is met with an “epiphanic, oracular” flash—the moment the brain thinks it is dying—and finally, a reason to survive, a reason to rise above the intellectually useful but abstract notions of absence and presence: “My work!, / I exclaimed, inwardly, to no one in particular, as we hit the gravel. I have not done my work.” This is a miraculously earned exclamation that rearticulates what we know already of writers, but perhaps poets are given (read: suffer with) a special strain of this paradoxically irrecoverable desire: poets want to live after they die and on and on. But Shanahan is negatively capable: “It is not your work, silly boy. If you do not do it, your gifts will be passed to another,” the poem concedes, declaring, perhaps tragically, perhaps wisely, that poetics and poems too, belong to the samsara of our existence. Shanahan’s poetics, to me, enact something of what Cicero must have meant when he said “to study philosophy is to learn to die.” And this isn’t too far from George Oppen in “Power, the Enchanted World”: “And it is those who find themselves in love with the world / who suffer the anguish of mortality.”


The search for presence is tiresome, and its incessant seeking out seems, contradictorily, to stave it away for longer, the “mind taking hold” and “start[ing] to look / Anywhere but here” (“Little Light Redhouse”). After the bus journey of epic proportion, come poems that do not offer resolution to the metaphysical dilemmas of the first two sections of the book. But that is exactly why they are metaphysical dilemmas: “Dread remains. I keep looking / For a thing I can’t name, though I try / ‘Purpose,’ ‘meaning,’ ‘presence.’ / I circle my worst fear in life, which is my life” (“Thirty-Fifth Year”). The poems that comprise the third section of this book settle into the ongoingness of their predilections, with titles like “Fate” or “The Present Moment” or the sonnet “End of Days” with its final couplet of prepositional clauses that refuse closure: “To have so plain a function. / To carry on, to love a man, to stay.” Shanahan’s queerness (and I’ve only been able to make it this far without explicitly mentioning it because while it constitutes a theme, it is not a subject) looks out from his sexuality toward his existential concerns. His life is not only his. Shanahan’s poetry is a third thing, and reading “Indeterminacy” constructs some bridge between the two:

If I say I am, you are, he/she/it is . . .

We don’t have to agree

But it requires, to mean, 


A common rubric.

Three lines later we’re given the quasi-Dickinsonian “Who is anyone? / Who is anyone?” and while Dickinson might be one rubric for Shanahan’s briefer poems, Shanahan’s poems will clearly offer rubrics for many people, queer or otherwise. 

It’s a hard truth: having written poems, unfortunately, is not evidence of having been a poet. Perhaps the only evidence of having been a poet is having lived,
having been present in one’s life. And herein lies, I’d hazard, the core agony of being a poet: who else, but the poet themselves, scrupulously notating their lives (and usually after the fact, which is to say after the ecstasy of experience), can earnestly report if they’ve been present for their one, wild life? Poetry is a third thing; a third thing, that in fact, might be worth living for; one’s work might be worth living for! In the final scene of the collection, Shanahan consoles a student who cannot manage to go to any class but the poetry class he teaches. He does not take it as a compliment, yet lets her know “she is worthy” and asks her “to write a poem about her worthiness.” Trace Evidence is a worthy collection from an even worthier poet.


Trace Evidence. By Charif Shanahan. Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2023. 94 pp. $16.95.

*This publication is a collaboration between The Georgia Review and the Ledbury Poetry Critics program (U.K.).


Oluwaseun S. Olayiwola is a poet, critic, choreographer, and performer based in London. His creative and critical work has been published in The Guardian, The Poetry Review, The Telegraph, the Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere. Olayiwola has an MFA in choreography from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, where he was a Fulbright Scholar in 2018–19. His debut collection, Strange Beach, is forthcoming in 2025 from Soft Skull Press (U.S.) and Fitzcarraldo Editions (U.K.).