Orpheus in the Bronx
by Reginald Shepherd
University of Michigan Press, $18.95 (paper)

In this National Book Critics Circle Award-nominated collection of essays, the late poet, critic, and editor Reginald Shepherd rejects what he calls “identity poetics,” or “the use of poetry as a means to assert or claim social identity.” Such an approach, he argues, is “constraining, limiting the imaginative options of the very people it seeks to liberate or speak for.” As a gay African-American writer raised in the Bronx ghetto, Shepherd sought to transcend sexual and racial “otherness” through poetry: “In the literary realm one is not bound by social constructions of identity . . . one can be anyone, everyone, or no one at all.” Offering autobiographical anecdotes, manifestos, close readings, and musings on the poetic vocation, in language that modulates from the demotic to the elevated, the author proves conversant with structuralism and contemporary poststructuralist theory—citing, among others, Levi-Strauss, Saussure, Derrida, and Barthes. But his learning also encompasses philosophers and critics who precede or stand outside of those traditions, among them Plato, Hegel, Kant, Adorno, T. S. Eliot, Frank Kermode, and Helen Vendler. Shepherd draws a familiar opposition between mainstream and avant-garde poetry, finding devotees of both tendencies narrow-minded and misguided. Many, he argues, eschew “large gestures” or “major aspirations” and celebrate “virtuosity for its own sake” instead of placing a much-needed emphasis on “passion” as embodied in language. While he claims to have always sought to transmute his suffering into art, he remains skeptical that poetry can effect social change: “Those who wish to change society might better turn their energies toward society itself, to the real areas of oppression and suffering, economic, political, racial, and sexual.” Shepherd, who succumbed to cancer last September, believed that the “greatest literature has always engaged in the generation of new realities, not the reiteration of the same old given reality,” insisting that a poet’s reach should always exceed his grasp: “With every poem I’m trying to do something that I can’t achieve, to get somewhere I’ll never get. If I were able to get there, I’d have no reason to continue writing.”