Back when I was teaching at Ball State University, I’d often use Annie Dillard’s transformative nature essay, Living Like Weasels, during a craft lecture on how to use duality as a tool to add depth and tension to one’s writing. In Dillard’s essay, every animal track is balanced by the presence of a crushed beer can glinting in the sunlight. Like clockwork, impulses of stark unfettered wildness are followed or proceeded by elevated images or musings—a balancing act that is powerful, effective, and startlingly simple (but not easy).
I used to think that Dillard was the master of duality, which made me love her work because I’ve yet to encounter any real life situation that didn’t consist of opposite tensions and impulses rubbing together like tectonic plates. Then I encountered the poetry of Amber Shockley. As something of a Zen Buddhist, I deeply appreciate how Amber’s poems routinely tug the subconscious brain in two different (usually opposite) directions at the same time, thus demonstrating the frailty and contradictory nature of language while simultaneously celebrating its power, tragedy, and humor.
Put another way, Amber Shockley juxtaposes like a boss.
I could take any one of these poems into a creative writing classroom, put them on the overhead, and spend an hour charting out the subtle, subconscious balancing acts between worry and laughter, dark and light, sound and repose. But that wouldn’t do justice to the narrative risks and impressive lyrical instincts that made her—instantly—one of my favorites.
I’d also like to add that the way Amber approaches complex political and social issues is, in my mind, both the most effective and the most appropriate strategy for issues that can’t (and shouldn’t) be reduced to sound bites. There’s no tunnel vision in Amber’s poetry, no overly simplistic reductions. These are poems, not stump speeches, and they resonate with all the colorful swirls and maddening beauty of surrealist paintings.
— Michael Meyerhofer
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