The mystery is the clarity

Writing to the questions, not the answers

Grant Faulkner


We live in in-between spaces. We live in the liminal.

We like concrete definitions of things. We have notions of solidity and permanence and singularity. But everything changes, of course. Life is about living in the shifts, the pivots, the ambiguous, the tenuous.

To claim clarity is to claim authority, to make the world definite and sure, to rule. To live and write with the “mystery of clarity” — a phrase I’ve been obsessed with since I interviewed Charif Shanahan on my Write-minded podcast — is to explore the shadows and crevices, the places where a presence turns into an absence, where a toe dips into the water, except perhaps the water isn’t there.

I call Charif a “poet of the ineffable.”

In fact, you might say that the ineffable is Charif’s clay. His poetry makes the idea of clarity a murky endeavor, but in the nuances of his lyricism, you get a sense of a deeper truth. Ambiguous as it might be. But that is the point — to experience ambiguity, not name (and thereby own) it for clarity’s sake.

I love the title of Charif’s new collection of poetry, Trace Evidence. According to Wikipedia, “trace evidence” is “created when objects make contact, and material is transferred. This type of evidence is usually not visible to the eye and requires specific tools and techniques to be obtained. Due to this, trace evidence is often overlooked, and investigators must be trained to detect it.”

The “investigators” in this case are writers. Poetry is the tool of detection.

Charif’s poem “[‘Mulatto’ :: ‘Quadroon’]” starts with a simple declaration: “I want to tell you what for me it has been like.” But then the poem shows how that’s an impossible story to tell. “What it has been like” can only be communicated through the challenges and inadequacies of language. The poem traces how he is “a part” and “apart” at the same time — how he appears on the outside but remains within and appears within but remains on the outside.

All is a knot. The self is inherently layered, nuanced, a contradiction, without solid ground. In Charif’s case specifically, the intricacies of mixed-race identity, queer desire, and the legacies of…



Grant Faulkner

Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, co-founder of 100 Word Story, writer, tap dancer, alchemist, contortionist, numbskull, preacher.