‘Earthquake Came to Harlem: Poems’ by Jackie Sheeler

The poems in Jackie Sheeler’s new collection, Earthquake Came to Harlem (NYQ Books) are a blow to the head and heart; the work is raw, gritty but also finely crafted.

A native of New York City and a well-known musician, activist and reading series curator at famed Cornelia Street Café, Sheeler has never been one to pull punches when it comes to detailing her life in narrative poetry and song. Sheeler owes a debt to the poetry and lyrics of Patti Smith, but also to poets Sharon Olds, Ellen Bass, Marie Howe and even Charles Bukowski. Like their no-nonsense work, Sheeler isn’t afraid to go deep into her own wounded psyche.

From being raped as a teen to her dysfunctional family and descent into heroin abuse, Sheeler wrestles the topics into compelling, lyrical poetry that grabs you from page one.

While Earthquake Came to Harlem deals with the personal, there’s also a strong undercurrent of politics and what Sheeler sees as impending global disaster. The title poem thematically links to the collection’s final poem “Teenage Roommate,” where Sheeler catalogs the world’s ills – from the AIDS pandemic to the Gulf oil spill – and how this unending parade of maladies endangers future generations, including the young woman she’s renting a room to, who seems naively unaware of what’s happening around her.

You and Artur plan to marry after college,
babies five years later. Already, you remember
a world your kids will never see. Bees.
Penguins. The North Pole. Fish dinners.

In Sheeler’s poems, New York City is stripped of its shiny “I Love New York” gleam to expose the realities of the streets of Harlem – homelessness, junkies, immigrants hassled by hostile police. In the poem “Another Hallway Altar in the Projects,” a young girl is murdered in the hallway of a tenement and it’s such a regular occurrence, the narrator wearily says, “Custodian, bring out the homicide mop.”

There is also a deep sense of understanding and sympathy with the thousands of drug users, who fight for life on the city streets. In “Street Doctorate,” Sheeler sees a man whose arms and legs are scarred by heroin abuse. She writes, “I know what it takes to create such specific disfigurations.”

As a teen living with an abusive mother and an absent father, Sheeler decides to run away, but her attempt to escape the nightmare of her home life grows darker when she is brutally raped by a stranger in “Bensonhurst, 1971.”

The pain is psychedelic – flashing lights, a flat buzz in my ears, that harsh
back-throat keening, like in dreams where you can’t get the scream out.

Sheeler’s mother hooks her on “diet pills” to keep her active and alert while doing chores, but soon she is stealing her mother’s stash – “I only steal two. Capsules, not bottles. Not yet.”

Sheeler eventually becomes homeless, living on the streets of New York and falling for another junkie as the AIDS crisis unfolds around them. In “Getting Everything I Did & Didn’t Want” she writes:

I never wanted to be homeless with you, share your welfare card,
teach you to beg on the subways. Finally, I wanted to lose you
but didn’t know how.

As she begins a long recovery, Sheeler explores her bisexuality, and finds herself in a relationship with a woman for two years.

She’s 28 years old, sexier than her poems.
She knows what I want and what she can have,
gets to decide what will or won’t be received.

But the relationship ends badly and Sheeler laments loneliness that seems impossible to shake. The section of the book called Solo contains Sheeler’s best work, as it details her various coping mechanisms. In “Enough,” she compares herself to shiny, lost earring found in the street.

I straighten the warped earpiece
and the pleasure of fixing this twisted thing
shows me how I might sometime be loved
imperfect woman on a warm brick wall
just shining there, just waiting to be found

If darkness seems pervasive in Earthquake Came to Harlem, that’s because it is. While there are joyous moments – meeting Patti Smith, settling into a first apartment, shopping for new furniture, crushing on Ensign Chekov from Star Trek – the tragedy can be almost overwhelming. The collection could have been streamlined by tossing out some of the shorter, less refined poems that fall back on clichéd lines like, “the heart must yearn to yearn again” (from “Yearning Looms Huge”).

Sheeler explored urban landscapes and her rough-and-tumble childhood in her debut collection, The Memory Factory, which won the Magellan Prize in 2002. But Earthquake Came to Harlem is the more truthful, more compelling collection that sees Sheeler peeling off scabs that will make you squirm. It’s a rough ride, but you’ll be rewarded by taking this harrowing journey.
By Jackie Sheeler
New York Quarterly Books
Paperback, 9781935520344, 115p
October 2010