Moving Sound over Line: Poetry at Bennington with Roger Reeves
The front page of the Chicago Defender following the murder of Emmett Till, 14.
If I were to describe Roger Reeves’ poetry, I would first say that it gives me chills, which I see as a good thing. In many of the poems in his debut volume King Me, Reeves conjures a bleak world very much like our own, full of dead bodies and broken souls, all things we know to be true. In “The Mare of Money,” dedicated to Emmett Till, a dead mare keeps a dead black boy company “bent and eye-to-eye with her/as though decaying is something/that requires a witness.” The starkness in these lines appears in other poems too, as in the tragic poem “Treatment,” where Reeves describes a mentally ill sister as “a pear tree split open by an early frost” who “creaks, splinters and gags” at the sight of a pill. These objects and images take their places in the poems in a stark sort of illumination.
I love poetry that jumps out at me from the page, and Reeves’ work certainly does. Though the worlds he summons are bleak, Reeves does not compromise the beauty and richness of the language. In fact, he defines poetry as “moving sound over line,” and his work stays true to that definition: every line takes you somewhere you did not imagine going. Lines like “the hummingbird inside my chest,/with their needle-nose pliers for tongues/and hammer-heavy wings, have left a mess/of ticks in my lungs and a punctured lullaby/in my throat” (taken from “Some Young Kings”) make me never want to stop writing.
Roger Reeves himself is warm, affable, funny, and full of ideas. During his visit to campus in late September for Poetry at Bennington, Reeves participated in a public Q&A with Bennington faculty members Mark Wunderlich and Michael Dumanis, giving a generous amount of thought and consideration to every question students posed. To my surprise, he hardly discussed the poems in King Me at all, but instead, explored bigger topics, like why it would be uncommon for him as a black man to be called a “nature poet,” or the ways in which grad school can expose you to new ideas (“but make someone else pay for it,” he advised) and how to tackle the political in the poetic. For those with less privilege, Reeves reminded us, the political is unavoidable. Moralizing over the right and wrong of anything in poetry doesn’t get to the heart of political complexities. For that, he explained, you need to get to the materiality of it. Write about how the political actively embodies itself in in people’s lives, he urged us, and how it affects, hurts and changes us.
In both of Reeves’ public events while he was on campus–the Q and A and at his Thursday night reading in Tishman–he told the story of having been chased while jogging by a white man yelling the N-word at him, and how that experience inspired his poem “Cross Country.” He also described how, in 1589, the Queen Anne of Denmark had a strange aesthetic fixation with black men’s skin, to the point where she and her husband, the King James of Scotland, once ordered several black men to dance naked in the snow as entertainment for their wedding–Reeves wrote about this in his poem “In a Brief, Animated World: The Marriage of Anne of Denmark to James of Scotland, 1589.” He told us both of these stories without blinking, while the audience gasped. I realized then that what might seem radical to many students at Bennington would only be part of Reeves’ lived experience and of the experience and history of many other people of color. The trauma of racism is real, and it extends, in many ways, from the past into the present. Roger Reeves, like Claudia Rankine before him, made a point of bringing up its horror at a privileged school like Bennington, and I’m grateful he did.
The reading itself began in the usual Poetry at Bennington way: a packed crowd, dimmed lights in Tishman. Mark Wunderlich took the podium at 7 sharp for his introduction. When Reeves himself came up, he went straight into reciting his gorgeous poem “Before Diagnosis” from memory:
The ice is frozen water.
There is no metaphor for exile.
Even if these trees continue to shake
the crows from their branches,
my sister is still farther away from her mind
than we are from each other,
sitting on opposite ends of a park bench
waiting for evening to swallow us whole.
Hearing Reeves’ poetry read aloud, I was even more struck by their strange and dark imagery than I was the first time I encountered them on the page. The beauty and terror that Reeves had told us were essential to nature were also present in his poems, and I could feel everyone in the room absorbing his words. However, what Reeves had to say between poems was just as interesting as the poetry itself. He discussed the cover of his book King Me, slashed with writing, doodles, and pen marks, and talked about how he wanted to experiment with form in his poetry the way the art on the cover did (he certainly succeeds in scattering his images and engaging the reader in finding where they converge and what they all mean). He also spoke about Rap battles, explaining how certain poets of the past were just as willing to start a beef with other poets the same way Lil Wayne does with other rappers. He even found a way to let us know that some of George Washington’s false teeth were actually teeth of slaves. Before we knew it, his reading was over and it was time for applause. By the end, my head was filled with scattered images of the lonely corners of the world Reeves had written about, and with images of all the animals, trees, buildings and bodies of water that bear witness to human suffering. I was sad to have thought of the world and of human pain that way, but glad that Reeves had given it a voice.
Some stretched and got up to leave, while others, clutching copies of King Me in their hands, stood in line to get their books autographed by Reeves. I was one of them, my mind racing with what I might say when my time at the table came. Every time I get a poetry book autographed, I feel star-struck by the prospect of meeting the very poet whose book I hold in my hands, more so that I ever would meeting a famous musician. After watching Reeves smile and converse happily with others in line, it was my turn. I told him that I’d loved the ideas he’d shared with us in the Q and A, especially his thoughts about language being at a distance from the things it actually describes, and how poetry is really the only way of exploring all the ways one can create meaning with language and play with its capacity to define things. He was happy to hear that I, as a young poet myself, planned to keep that idea in mind for a long time. When I made my way out of the Tishman auditorium, I opened the book to see what he had written:
Isabelle, keep playing the distance between objects and language.
There is freedom.