11 September 2008

Orpheus from The Bronx


'I write because I would like to live forever. The fact of my future death offends me. Part of this derives from my sense of my own insignificance in the universe. My life and death are a barely momentary flicker. I would like to become more than that. That the people and things I love will die wounds me as well. I seek to immortalize the world I have found and made for myself, even knowing that I won’t be there to witness that immortality, mine or my work’s, that by definition I will never know whether my endeavor has been successful. But when has impossibility ever deterred anyone from a cherished goal? As the brilliant poet and teacher Alvin Feinman once said to me, “Poetry is always close kin to the impossible, isn’t it?”'
Reginald Shepherd, from "Why I Write (revised)"

I had a very unusual doppleganger-like relationship with poet Reginald Shepherd. Once an established poet came up to me during a break at a workshop to pass on how much the editor of a certain journal 'simply loved my work.' This confused me as that journal had in the past rejected every submission I'd sent them. I took the compliment, however, thinking that the comment was based on the poems I had recently sent them....No such luck: they were sent back as well.

Then in 2002 at Fire & Ink, someone came up to me saying, "Oh, I'm so glad you're here, I have all your books!" which was confusing because at that time I'd only appeared in anthologies. But I said okay. The gentleman then proceeded to pull out Some Are Drowning, Angel, Interrupted and Wrong. "No, no, no," I said. "I'm the OTHER Reginald. You want him," pointing out and then taking him over to introduce him to Mr. R Shepherd.

I suppose that 'doppleganger' relationship continued, because I found myself thinking about him last night at home, and discovered this morning via e-mail that he had passed away.

Reginald and I would send e-mails and letters to each other, talking about our work, poetry, and life, always starting and ending the missives with our name, "Reginald." He got a kick out of that symmetry, and also how it seems a bit like writing to yourself, while actually corresponding to someone else. I thought it was great because for most of my life the only other Reginald I knew was my father. It somehow seemed fitting that when we actually met face to face for the first time, it was in a hotel lobby where the young man behind the desk was also named "Reginald."

As a friend said today after hearing news of his passing, RS could be 'a piece of work.' There were times when he could be SO sensitive, SO dramatic, it was a bit exhausting. There were other times (AWP and other conferences seemed to bring out the best in him) when he was totally ebullient and filled with contagous joy, his never less than (almost intimidatingly) brilliant comments and questions tumbling over themselves to get out.

When we first started talking he was worried about the reception of him and his work among other African American poets (and other black gay writers in particular). Many had expressed 'problems' with what was for most our first introduction to him, his essay “On Not Being White” in Joseph Beam's seminal 1986 anthology In the Life. I think he got over that as time went on: Having that person pull out his books at Fire & Ink did wonders I'm sure, as did being part of the amazing Diversity in African American Poetry Conference at the University of Ohio in 2003 (poems and papers from that event are gathered in the wonderful Rainbow Darkness). He wanted to be part of the conversation when people were talking about American poetry and its various subsets and streams. I think he's gotten his wish.

His work can be difficult -- rewardingly so -- and I thought the direction he was headed in as expressed in Fata Morgana was very exciting. I'm glad I got the chance to tell him that. But like everyone else, I'm selfish: I want more poems, more essays, more essay-blog postings, more criticsm, more letters, more e-mails, more times to get together. More Reginald.

Reginald Shepherd, Poet:



Also check out his conversation with Christopher Hennessy in Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets, University of Michigan Press, 2005

Blog posts on Harriet, the Poetry Foundation website


Skin Trade

And then I said, That's what it means
to testify: to sit in the locked dark muttering
when you should be dead to the world. The muse
just shrugged and shaded his blue eyes. So naturally
I followed him down to his father's house
by the river, a converted factory in the old
industrial park: somewhere to sit
on threadbare cushions eating my words
and his promises, safe as milk
that dries the throat. If I had a home,
he'd be that unmade bed. He's my America
twisted in dirty sheets, my inspiration
for a sleepless night. No getting around that
white skin.
                  He throws things out the window
he should keep; he collects things
he should feed to the river. He takes me
down. While there, I pick them up.

The river always does this to me:
gulls squawking and the smell of paper mills
upstream, air crowded with effluents
like riding the bus underwater. I'm spending nights
in the polluted current, teaching sunken bodies how
to swim. My feet always stay wet. Sometimes
I leave footprints the shape of blood; sometimes glass
flows through broken veins, and I glitter.
Every other step refers to white men
and their names. The spaces in between
are mine. Back of the bus with you,
They're turning warehouses
into condos, I'm selling everything
at clearance prices: here's a bronze star
for suffering quietly like a good
                  River of salt, will I see my love again?
Cold viscous water holds its course even after
it's gone. Throw a face into it and you'll never look
again, throw a voice and you'll hear sobbing
all the way down. Narcissus, that's my flower
forced in January, black-eyed bells echoing
sluggish eddies. Who hit him first?

The muse has covered his face
with his hands. It's just a reflex
of the historical storm that sired him:
something to say, "The sun is beating down
too hard on my pith helmet, the oil slick
on the river's not my fault, when are you going
home?" What he doesn't want to see, he doesn't
see. In the sludge that drowns the river, rats
pick fights with the debris. He calls them all
by their first names, he's looking through his fingers
like a fence. They make good neighbors. His friends
make do with what they can. They drink beer
from sewer-colored bottles in the dry stream
bed, powdered milk of human kindness and evaporated
silt. They stay by the river till past
sunrise, crooning a lullaby
to help it to sleep. The words
of their drinking songs are scrawled on the ceiling,
Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin: a madrigal
for the millennium's end.
                                    I'm counting
down the days in someone else's
unmade bed, let these things break
their hold on me. The world
would like to see me dead, another gone
black man. I'm still awake.

from Angel, Interrupted, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996

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