Reginald Shepherd
University of Pittsburgh, $12.95 (paper)

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, Shepherd’s response, published in this magazine, to Harold Bloom’s introduction to The Best of the Best American Poetry (he does not bother to discuss Shepherd’s 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 Adorno’s), 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 Shepherd’s 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 identity."

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 Duncan’s "Proofs," in which he advises, "For ‘wrong’ read ‘wring.’" As if taking Duncan’s 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 Shepherd’s intellectual attitude toward emotions and emotional attitude toward ideas. Such an approach can be playful, as in his revision of William Bronk’s 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 book’s epigraph (from Beckett)–"All I know is what the words know, and the dead things … Wrong, very 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 Feinman’s 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 Shepherd’s 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 Shepherd’s 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 Shepherd’s now-numerous Narcissus poems. The poet becomes the "strange boy / adoring water’s nothing" in "Kneeling Self-Portrait," and he remarks, to his lover, on "the transcript of your face in lake, / or sidewalk puddle’s 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 myth’s well on its way to withering.") Shepherd’s preoccupation with Narcissus has produced a series of psychologically intricate poems in which the poet’s 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 self-presentations.

While desire drives these poems, it does not override them. Shepherd’s 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 stranger’s 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, revised.

In "Nights and Days of Nineteen Something," this "classicism revised" acquires a bold physicality as the sculptural beauty of men’s 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 poem’s nostalgia remains effective even when checked by self-deprecation ("Who am I to think that / I’m 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 Shepherd’s 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 men’s beauty as the origin of their destruction:

Men who have paid
their brilliant bodies for soul’s 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 one’s 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, Shepherd’s 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 poet’s own death image, in which he is burned "down to blackened / glass, an offering in anthracite." While Shepherd’s 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 book’s last lines reveal a poet wrung by life and language, and deeply wronged: "I won’t forgive you, world / I won’t survive."