Book Review – Gasoline Heart by Shannon Barber


Gasoline Heart | Shannon Barber

Price : $15.00

Available via Lark Books & Writing Studio

In a letter, Kafka asks for books than can be an ax that can cut through the icy sheath of a wintered lake; the lake, obviously, a metaphor in service to the human consciousness. A young brown woman growing up in a hill-town in India, I knew that every ax-wielder in this category wasn’t supposed to look as distant from the image of my peoples. I, the perennial Indigene, also wanted to be among as well as be a blade-bearer. My wish was to direct language in all its creative and emotive fluxes such that someone, somewhere would find my lightning and be struck with a lifelong wonder. I can imagine a truly feral poem – particularly one that appreciates the vagrancy of its own concatenation – moving under the floorboards of a haunted house like a slow trickle of inflammable liquid unleashing its veins of pure fire. Shannon Barber’s “Gasoline Heart” is incorrupt in this refusal for taming – a long, unpredictable night that slowly engineers phoenixes from its field of embers. However, it does so without acquiescing to some compulsory braveness often demanded from black folks.

“I knew to be afraid.

My pericardium thinned a little bit.

The muscle inside began to liquefy

Just a little.

I grew to be a good Black”

 The title of the book is derived from the aforementioned poem in this collection. I sit in stunning attention to its capture of a universal fact that as people of colour we are taught fear in such inelastic ways that we can often only imagine an escape from the lowest lows of our despair by choosing to discard the very elements that make us who we are. I don’t live in the US but I travel on and off. In 2016, my ex-boyfriend (white) and I (brown) were speeding down an empty road in some rural part of Washington. A cop chased us and as he stepped towards my side of the vehicle, his forehead furrowed with the disdain of spotting my (brown) hand in his (white) hand. I quickly unclasped my grip of his palm – an almost reflex action. This still didn’t stop a $150 ticket for a driver who had a completely clean previous record.

My boyfriend muttered under a grimace – “He probably didn’t like you with me in the car.”

I immediately thought – what could have made me more digestible to his gaze?


“I knew my rights

I was terrified”

 – Say my Name

 Is it surveillance?
Is it the state’s pupa?
Is it chrysalides?
Is it stupor?
Is it sniper?
Is it vigil?
Is it violence?
Is it percussion?
Is it passive?
Is it a lobbied gun?
Is it magnum, massive?
Is it redacted?
Is it revolution?

Sometimes to be a person of colour, to refuse common gendering, to just sculpt your own sense of self in this world is to constantly ration & negotiate what of yourself do you need to forcibly abandon in order to plainly exist or, in dire states, to be invisible enough for safety. This is the conditioning we must constantly strip from our psyche. So, an attempt to remember the primacy we were severed from, an attempt to home in on our likenesses; those tireless roots still growing stubborn within us. To let the tendril knuckle through the sheen of homogenized acceptance.

“Blessed are the hood girls

The ratchet girls starting fights in the food court.

Girls with they baby hair laid

30 inch silky straight Peruvian swinging

from heads held high.

Mine is beauty that began in dirt malls

and learned at the knees of

Cholas with razorblades tucked into

the soft pink of their mouths.”

– Love Poems to Hoodrats

Shannon spells golden this loud day-light of defiance. Defiance that is willed as empathy, as community. Defiance that shakes its witch-hair at the tidy mirrors of marketable history, positioned so only to encourage a complicit estrangement between our eyes and our reflections.

“All my blood flows north

I am backwards


– Backwards

In India, fire denotes a deity named Agni – the tongue(s) of Creation. Hence the sacredness of that which is sacrificed to a fire. If I pay close attention to the diagram of a human heart separated from the body and its beating impulse, to my eye it resembles a clutch of time-trapped fire. The kind of fire that has been paused in fear of what it can grow into. Fire as a gleaming, tractable mediator; as an attendant interpreter between the discrete Traumsprache – dream speech in Germanof two worlds. This very fire whose tongues are always strange & hot with an anticipatory stropping. Here is Shannon’s Fire then, a fine-feathered sibyl – the telepathic volcano, a viral stride of rarefaction and elevation. A fire which powders its drug-of-war to the most astronomic blackness. Barber inaugurates this very bituminous collection of poems as kith to that dark infinity which remains insurmountable to those whose inhabitance isn’t in the margins.

This book does not impede its intuition for speaking in big strides & thereby makes itself equally available to the accompanying risks of big falls. That is the most uplifting aspect of reading these poems – their delicate abnegation towards turning their Voice into a signaling device. So frequently I traveled through the disquiet of Barber’s unfixed neighorbhoods in recognition of a very explicit trace of footprints – their own. Gasoline Heart flings out any illusion for universality within what is painted as a singular black condition and still retains within it’s uneven tremors all their individual potencies. As I read further into the book, I brooked a critical awareness for Shannon speaking with a cauterized and still knowing specificity. The voice isn’t restricted by the body that labored it. The body vetoes easy binaries of opacity and luminosity. These poems are smart enough to not be trapped in their own theatrics even when making their fount’s underlying dissonance intimate with moments of deep aloneness. Instead, they infiltrate the safehold of their speaker’s vulnerabilities; holding up to witness the raging coil of their own entrails as if to say that all this living is a merely path to re-membering. Barber exposes the alienation of identity when identity is unstrung from its collected multiplicities and merely fashioned as a private shell not a gathered sanctuary. These poems explore their terror without granting strategic agency to the terror’s origins. Whiteness isn’t allowed any axial residence. Each poem clears space for the insurgent tenderness of Black Aura which is powered into emergence again and again. Shannon writes of a Blackness that cuts open to reveal that which is deeply personal as something that is also deeply plural. The question(s) of who a person of colour is can be seen as an empty space between two brackets. All of this space is allowed to be fertile with their own imagination – an imagination not at the mercy of its oppressors.

Quentin Meillassoux spoke about how “mathematical sets have for their elements not unities but other sets and so on indefinitely”. In this empty space, Frantz Fanon laughs his rebellion – “Get used to me, I am not getting used to anyone”.

It is this reaching into a form of utterly naked self-expression that evolves into self-alteration and finally self-compassion that fuels Shannon Barber’s work. This Indefinite that thuds deep inside the charge of hemoglobin bolstering each breath rising from the Gasoline Heart.

Scherezade Siobhan is an Indo-Rroma Jungian psychologist, community catalyst, and writer. She is the author of a chapbook, Bone Tongue (Thought Catalog Books, 2015) , a full-length poetry collection, Father, Husband, (Salopress UK), poetry pamphlet,”to dhikr, i” (Pyramid Editions, forthcoming) & a second full length collection “The Bluest Kali” (Lithic Press, Forthcoming). She is the creator and curator of The Mira Project, a global dialogue on women’s mental health, gendered violence, and street harassment. She can be found squeeing about militant bunnies, here, or @ zaharaesque on twitter/fb/ig.

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