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First Book

Still Life with Rope and River explores racism through a chorus of voices surrounding Emmett Till’s murder. Through research in combination with emotional truth, Williams Shen uses persona poems to dive deep into the psyche of both common and lesser known people and objects regarding Till’s lynching. Williams Shen also weaves in their own narrative and family history of how Blackness is dissected and dismissed, illustrating how the past is a ghost to the present.



“Chavonn Williams Shen has done powerful conjure work here, bringing Emmett Till and his executioners back to life on the page, a balancing act that the reader will find both harrowing and holy. They give voice to a Greek chorus of witnesses to past and contemporary brutalities, rendering these spirits in nimble poems: deft portraits of those unatoned who escaped the judgment they deserved a thousand times over, and whose crimes continue to haunt this blood-soaked nation. Chavonn Williams Shen also gives space and breath to ancestors who survived the unspeakable as a matter of faith in an unknown future, of communion with seeds and songs of home they consecrated with their love and labor.”

–Sun Yung Shin

“In poems that are, by turns, inventive, provocative, and frank, Still Life with Rope and River weaves the past and the present together with the national and the personal as part of an urgent but subtle reminder that if we can’t remember America’s violent history, we’re doomed to repeat it. These poems are difficult and challenging at times but also encouraging. “Let us praise how we’ve thrived under war,” Chavonn Williams Shen concludes. “We’ve made things that tried to kill us into fields of sunflowers…” Ultimately, what emerges is a testament to survivors, to resiliency. Still Life with Rope and River heralds the arrival of an innovative and uncompromising poetic voice.”

– Michael Kleber-Diggs 

“Let us praise how we’ve thrived under war” begins the final poem in this haunting, unsettling, unflinching collection. There are moments here of sweetness, of something akin to joy or peace in the midst of the terror, fear, evil, and rotten Americanness Chavonn Williams Shen lays bare. In the linage of Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till and other seminal works by  Black authors that trouble and attend to the history of lynching that lead to and echos from Till’s  murder, Chavonn Williams Shen wields a dark imagination inside archives personal, shared real, and darkly dreamed and the result is as stunning as it is painful, or stunning for it’s pain, or while I felt so much pain I was stunned to stillness while Chavonn Williams Shen told this tale. Not an easy book, but a book we need.”

– Danez Smith

“Death relishes its to-do list” writes Chavonn Williams Shen early in the acerbic Still Life with Rope and River, a collection that arrays the leering zeal, the rotten assurance, toxic decorum, and bootlegged empathy of white supremacy’s murder urge. Against this, like water at the muck-filled mud of a riverbank, flows the anger and heartbreak and bewilderment running through Black grief, the deep blue low attending life at the top of Death’s daybook. Inanimate objects come to witness and testify, too, asserting a horror that stains the damn world. That is Bryant and Milam’s killing of Emmett Till. Certainly, the poet doesn’t relish keeping this story alive, but Chavonn Williams Shen has done so with wrenching vigor.”

–Douglas Kearney 

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