In his essay "The Mystique of the Difficult Poem"
in a recent issue of Poetry International, Steve Kowit attacks
poetry that does not "communicate" and blames contemporary readers
indifference to poetry on its exclusivity. For Kowit, language should
be a transparent medium; embellishments are "subterfuges, misdirections,
ambiguities," and uncolloquial diction too often leads to "hopelessly
gnarled syntax." Kowit singles out, among other supposed enemies
of communication, Reginald Shepherd--or, to be more specific, Shepherds
response, published in this magazine, to Harold Blooms introduction
to The Best of the Best American Poetry (he does not bother to
discuss Shepherds poems). Shepherd, Kowit claims, "rejects
any poetry that makes so much as a grain of sense, for such poetry, according
to him, refuses to honor language."
No matter that difficulty, or resistance to communication,
is often a political decision. Kowit wants his poets to make his kind
of sense, to adopt the dominant mode of communication and reject everything
not conforming to that mode. Proving himself a breathtakingly inept reader,
Kowit accuses Shepherd of "reiterating the aesthetic stance of the
Language Poets," as if the writers associated with Language poetry
held a single stance, "aesthetic" or otherwise. While Shepherd
clearly values language as both medium and end, his poetry is not overly
resistant to communication or conventional interpretation. His response
to Bloom--"I look to poetry for what only poems can do, or what poems
can do best--to alienate language from its alienation of use (the phrase
is Adornos), to treat language as an end-in-itself rather than a
mere means: to communication, expression, or even truth"--seems fitting
for a lyric poet as committed to language as he is to content.
The poems in Shepherds third book of poetry,Wrong,
are less reliant on narrative and are more language-oriented than those
in his first two books, Some Are Drowning(1994) and Angel, Interrupted
(1996). The logic of the new poems is circular; they eschew narrative
and embrace revolution--the spinning of language on and into itself. For
all their attention to language, though, the self remains the focus, albeit
a self whose sanctity is frequently questioned or violated through artifice
because Shepherd has tired of the "continuing pretense / of definite
To think that Shepherd considers himself "wrong"
on the basis of his race (African American) or sexual orientation (as
Mark Doty does in his otherwise astute blurb) is to focus on the less
interesting aspects of the poems--those determined by a socially definable
identity. What is "wrong" about these poems is their refusal
to cooperate with expectations or conventions. For Shepherd, "wrong"
is as much action as injury or description; as a title, the word has the
advantage of grammatical multiplicity--adjective, noun, verb--and it recalls
Robert Duncans "Proofs," in which he advises, "For
wrong read wring." As if taking Duncans
correction to heart, Shepherd wrings language in an attempt to illuminate
his way of perceiving and inhabiting the world.
The poems in Wrong display genuine urgency, which
is all the more powerful for Shepherds intellectual attitude toward
emotions and emotional attitude toward ideas. Such an approach can be
playful, as in his revision of William Bronks revision of William
Carlos Williams: "(Say it, no things but in / ideas: desire, denial;
define, defiler. Decide, // then choose for me. Mother may I / go down
on this man?)." But Shepherd is more often somber, skeptical ("things
change, but never for the better"), and is, like Eros, "bitter,
and bitterly proud." The books epigraph (from Beckett)--"All
I know is what the words know, and the dead things
rightly wrong"--steers toward the preeminence of language as both
Logos and logo, and toward the necessity for mourning. With summer just
"a pause between winter / and winter," the only warmth in the
book is that generated by sexual desire; but Shepherd understands the
risk of becoming "all elegy and distance" and infuses many of
these poems with flashes of lust and love.
Throughout Wrong Shepherd adroitly handles personal
and, to a lesser extent, political concerns in language exceptionally
lyrical and strange. He has moved away from the socially driven poems
that mark his earlier work toward a denser and more luxuriant lyricism
reminiscent of Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, and Alvin Feinman. It is not
insignificant that as an undergraduate Shepherd studied with Feinman,
since Feinmans work advances the elegance, innovation, and music
of Crane and Stevens farther and with more force than most poets associated
with them. Shepherd is capable of sounding like Crane--"Pilot me
O pilot, my words / salt-smeared, and used, my lines / limp sails"--but
in Shepherds hands the sails become "limp cocks / on wilted
white boys." The high modernism of Crane and Stevens has become,
for Shepherd, a "modernism of poverty / and stained sheets."
Each of Shepherds books makes forays into the classical
world, and Wrong invites Hyacinth, Endymion, Hermes, Telemachus,
and Icarus between its covers. This interest in the effects of classical
mythology on the contemporary mind emerges most consistently and strikingly
in Shepherds now-numerous Narcissus poems. The poet becomes the
"strange boy / adoring waters nothing" in "Kneeling
Self-Portrait," and he remarks, to his lover, on "the transcript
of your face in lake, / or sidewalk puddles mirror" in "Brightens."
Though identifying oneself with Narcissus risks self-aggrandizement or
witless narcissism, the human element of myth begs for continual reinterpretation
and revitalization. Many, if not most, poets use myth, but very few use
it compellingly or with any originality; thus, classical mythology seems
largely depleted as a source for poetry. (In "Narcissus Poetica,"
Shepherd claims, "your myths well on its way to withering.")
Shepherds preoccupation with Narcissus has produced a series of
psychologically intricate poems in which the poets angles of vision
introduce the erotics and the violence of the gaze while rendering the
poet himself an object of that gaze. By doing so, he violates the unity
and sanctity of self. Such narcissism far exceeds the solipsism of lyric
poetry by complicating through language and vision his already complex
While desire drives these poems, it does not override them.
Shepherds determination to invigorate language--to make use of "this
broken syntax called sex"--prohibits his poems from riding on their
content. For him, desire is both constant and constantly vanishing ("I
wanted wanting only"). Often in Wrong,lust becomes associated
with anonymity and alienation: "I wanted to be touched, so I went
walking / at four a.m., looking for cars. (I could have / written loved,lake
wind that late a glove // that kept my body cold, so it would keep.)"
The book brims with such ephemeral desires--"The promised pleasure
/ locked in a strangers careless body"--and Shepherd realizes
that "bodies / are by nature sad." They are sad because they
are as transitory as their actions; like myths, bodies can be reduced,
In "Nights and Days of Nineteen Something," this
"classicism revised" acquires a bold physicality as the sculptural
beauty of mens bodies becomes earthly: "Pink petals / on an
asshole opening under tongue, // pink cockhead swollen to bursting."
The poem wanders from encounter to encounter through the "machine
shop of body parts":
I come through the door, I come
through the door, I came and was
conquered by tensed thighs, taut buttocks.
Asses, asses, lust from lust, a must
of sweat on matted hair, a spill of semen down my thigh.
The poems nostalgia remains effective even when checked
by self-deprecation ("Who am I to think that / Im not always
on my knees // taking in some stranger strayed too far") or sexual
paronomasia ("You were my justice, just my means / to sex itself,
end justified by the mean // size of the American penis"). The play
of words on words and of bodies on bodies in the poem enacts its own distinct
and memorable pleasures, even when Shepherd waxes ruminative: "It
was never sex I wanted, the grand etcetera / with a paper towel to wipe
it up. I wanted him / to talk to me about Rimbaud while // I sucked him
off in the park."
Although Shepherd knows anonymous sex has its dangers--namely
physical violence and AIDS--his awareness of the violence incipient in
men--"Harm is in us, and power / to harm"--is tempered by a
continuous search for the beauty in them. In his earlier poems, Shepherd
frequently refers to beautiful young men as "gods," but in Wrong
the gods have become mortal--"local gods," "decoys of gods,"
and "domesticated demigods." AIDS has rendered the present a
time "too late / for gods and premature for saints," and Shepherds
perspective on sex has changed, as he poignantly admits in "A Photo
of the Berberini Faun": "Wrong for wanting what I did, wrong
too / for never getting it: not gods / but men, walking like gods."
He now sees mens beauty as the origin of their destruction:
Men who have paid
their brilliant bodies for souls desire, a night
or hour, fifteen minutes of skin brushed against
bright skin, burn down to smoke and cinders
shaken over backyard gardens, charred
bone bits sieved out over water. The flat earth
loves them even contaminated, turned over
for no ones spring. Iris and gentian
spring up like blue flames, discard those parts
more perishable: lips, penises, testicles,
a lick of semen on the tongue
Writing from a perspective in which a brief sexual encounter
can mean death, Shepherds bravery in confronting AIDS stems from
his refusal to allow the disease to govern his poetry and from his acknowledgment
of his own mortality. The malignant and fear-inducing presence of AIDS
is undeniable, but the poetry, its language, is too multi-faceted and
resilient to succumb to despair. Nevertheless, the holocaustal images
of "Antibody" lead to the poets own death image, in which
he is burned "down to blackened / glass, an offering in anthracite."
While Shepherds meditations on his death can be tender (as in "Also
Love You": "I think of you when I am dead
/ I will be
simpler then, sheer / molecule, much easier to understand"), the
books last lines reveal a poet wrung by life and language, and deeply
wronged: "I wont forgive you, world / I wont survive."
has reviewed poetry for the TLS,the New York Times Book Review,
The Yale Review,and Stand.His first book of poetry, Astronaut,appeared
this year in England.