These are the years of the empty hands. And what
were those just past, swift with the flash of alloyed hulls
but carrying no cargo? Outside our lives, my mythical
America, dingy rollers fringed with soot deposit
cracked syringes and used condoms on beaches tinted gray
by previous waves, but when an hour waits just for a moment,
everything beings again. All of it is yours, the longed-for
mundane: men falling from a cloud-filled sky like flakes of snow
onto the ocean, your mother immersed in ordinary misery
and burning breakfast, still alive in the small tenement
kitchen. You understand I used the second person
only as a marker: beyond these sheltered bays are monsters,
and tarnished treasures of lost galleons
it's death to bring to light. The ships put out
and they sink; before the final mast descends, the shadow
of a single sailor is burned across the sun, then wrapped
in strands of cirrus, his European skin a gift
to the black and unknown ocean floor. Of the slaves
thrown overboard to save the ship, no words
remain. What memorials the public beach becomes
in late October, scattered with Puerto Rican families
on muddied sand still lighter than a black man's
pound of flesh: it abrades my skin. I can't touch
that perfected picture of myself, no white wave
will wash either hand clean. There is a wind
riding in on the tainted waves, and what it cannot
make whole it destroys. You would say that all along
I chose wrong, antonyms of my own face
lined up like buoys, but there is another shore
on the far side of that wind. Everything is there,
outside my unhealed history, outside my fears. I
can see it now, and every third or fourth wave is clear.
Two or Three Things I Know About Him
He is in the car, he is asleep, he doesn't want
to dream. He was listening to Bach on the radio,
baroque contraption coiling in the ear, black marks on a record
no one will be punished for. Just say that he's asleep.
I can't recall his name, but if you called him he might
answer, he might wake up. He was dreaming
of Miguel, of Raphael the painter and the boy
who steps out of a painting into the street
against the light and he puts on the brakes just
in time. He doesn't want to break beauty
just yet, though the boy is screaming at him and they are both
afraid. He still believes in the promise of happiness by art, violence
posed as poise: a frat boy with a perfect nose who'll break
his neck. I mean to write, That happiness is conscripted
corpses, contras and Colombian cartels, financed
from Washington. All that happens is boys and flowers,
anemones and Enriqués, florid sexual organs
bursting forth in May to dazzle and wither
by August, wearing shorts: some puerile parable
a child could smear with paint-by-number fingerprints.
This is no discourse for adults; someone's always crashing
in the same used blue car. He is sleeping in the car
careening down the hill and hits Miguel, the impact
kills them both. He is caught inside the steering wheel
like a pigeon in the tires, he is turning
in the spokes. He has found another shape.
I've forgotten how to write his name,
I've murdered him. I know he's not asleep.
I've required the world to describe itself. In bed by one
and up again by three, the bed a boat
with knotted sheets for sails, no wind,
a thin layer of dust where a horizon should be.
These hours open after midnight have a genius for concealment,
a myth the mind makes to explain its way by touch
through a roomful of objects that leave me
alone. Doorknobs cling to fingerprints, an empty cup sips green
from a fluorescent clock face that forgets the time
by the time my fingers reach it. They mean nothing to me, or the shapes
nothing would take it if could see them, an endlessness
wrapped around a skeleton of likelihood, nothing to be concerned about
on nights there's nothing more than nothing
to be afraid of. Only breathing's left to me, music turned so low
it's only feeling, turning moving air (the memory of the alarm
hums to itself before its time). So dark I can hear the mirror
in my breath, after midnight even air is clear.
The somnambulist behind the glass takes up whatever melodies
my lungs discard, feeling his way out. When I open my palm
to guide his blind hand, his fingertips fill me with braille.
-from Some Are Drowning, University of Pittsburgh Press (1995), selected by Guest Editor Ocean Vuong
BIO: Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in Poetry; his fourth, Otherhood (2003), was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; and his last book, Fata Morgana (2007), won a Silver Medal in the Florida Book Awards. Shepherd’s work is known for its elegance, beauty, and critical acumen. As Ron Silliman wrote in a tribute to Shepherd, who died in 2008, “Shepherd took from all schools and created something entirely his own.” Shepherd was the author of a book of essays, Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry (2008), and the editor of two anthologies, The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (2004) and Lyric Postmodernisms (2008). He was also an active blogger, helping to shape an emerging forum for poetics.
Shepherd offered this portrait of himself and his poetry to Contemporary Authors: “My poetry operates within a literary tradition and a literary language to which I owe my formation as a writer, yet which is not ‘mine’ (as a black gay man raised in Bronx housing projects). I wrestle with this necessary angel and rise renamed, blessed but also lamed. This language, the language of W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, of T. S. Eliot and Hart Crane, has both made me possible as a writer and made being a writer an unattainable goal. It is a language to which I aspire in the very act of using and being used by it (for every writer is as much the tool of language as its wielder).
“Eliot wrote that the poet must always mistrust words, but the problem of language is foregrounded for me in ways it needn‘t be for writers with a more settled, if illusory, sense that language is ‘theirs.’ It’s my intention to inscribe my presence into that language, not to subvert it but to produce a place of possibility within it. I am willing to give up none of the transformative possibilities of lyric, possibilities which have been at worse foreclosed and at best allowed to lapse in most contemporary American poetry (both the M.F.A. mainstream earnestly practicing the aesthetics of transparency, and the ‘language poetry’ avant-garde for whom poetry is merely a means of social and discursive critique). Nor am I willing to surrender the necessary and enabling critical-utopian distance of lyric from the society that both produces it and cannot live up to it.
“It is out of and by means of that alienation of language from its alienation in use (as Theodor Adorno put it) that I seek to build my song, its harmonies, and its dissonances. My work surrenders neither lyricism nor lucidity (in Charles Altieri’s terms), exploring a liminal space of the coincidence of song and thought, enchantment and disenchantment. I wish to make Sappho and the South Bronx, the myth of Hyacinth and the homeless black men ubiquitous in the cities of the decaying American empire, AIDS, and all the beautiful, dead cultures, speak to and acknowledge one another, in order to discover what can be made of a diminished thing (to quote Robert Frost), and thereby to salvage the promise of happiness (in Theodor Adorno’s words) that the lyric embodies. My aim is to rescue some portion of the drowned and drowning, including, always, myself.
“My relationship to the Western literary canon (as if there were such a single and singular thing) has always been paradoxical: there is both no place already assigned to me and more of a possibility of creating a place for me than the world at large has offered. I have been oppressed by many things in my life, but not by literature, which for me has always represented potential and not closure. I would like to develop a poetic language capacious enough to accommodate all the things my previous books have tried to do, to span the multiple gaps between traditional and experimental poetry, personal poetry and political poetry: a poetic language, based in the lyric which I refuse to surrender or repudiate, which, holding in balance critique and creation, can be all of these poetries by turns or even all at once. This is undoubtedly an impossible ambition, but Allen Grossman has reminded us that all poems are attempts at poetry which remains an asymptote, never attained but always to be striven for. For me, there is no point in writing if not to attempt what one has not done and perhaps cannot do.”
PROMPT: In these poems by Shepard, he references his own poetic choices: "You understand I used the second person / only as a marker" in "Slaves" and "I mean to write..." in "Two or Three things I Know About Him." These choices call attention to the poem both as a made thing and as a framed thing: what we are shown has been selected, inviting us to think about what is left offstage, to consider the poem's values, the trajectory of its gaze.
Return to a draft that's been giving you trouble, and think about what you've decided to include and exclude in the poem. Then, revise by incorporating references to these inclusions and exclusions, to your own framing devices. -Amie Whittemore, Associate Editor