I, Roger Reeves, hereby pledge that I will not come back
to this city, if this city will not come back to me.
I leave the children waving their flags and wrists
at a dark sky, without worrying about the coconut tree
dropping its wintered fruit upon their heads.
I leave the man with his one leg turned backward
to walk this street twice as pure contradiction.
I leave the heron on the roof, the dachshunds
scrambling over the cobblestone in their black
patent-leather shoes, and the flies to open-wide
and swallow as much melon as they can before evening comes
and that same melon is between my lips.
I leave puddles at the end of driveways
and in them, to float, tiny fronds of a flower
that I cannot name but the woman beside me can.
I leave the fresh bread in wire baskets and the old women
to point at each roll they wish to place in their mouths.
I leave the opera house, its green domes draped in gold,
the cobbler and his glue, the mechanic and his belly,
and yes, I leave rain to wash every bare foot in this city.
I leave the children’s thirst on the metro
next to a pink pen that no longer holds ink.
I leave the numbers by which I know this city,
its epistemologies and apartheids, its mornings,
its slips of paper, its slivers and its seeds,
its dry floors and short showers, its roosters
that cannot distinguish between the blue of morning
and the blue of night. I leave the coffee spilled
onto the floor of the bus, your hand between my legs—
I leave, I leave—this will surely leave a stain.
In A Brief, Animated World: The Marriage of Anne of Denmark to James of Scotland, 1589
Nature always begins with resistance—
The small congregation of ants refusing
To allow the femur bone of the fox
To rest, meatless, the heavy head of flies
In January straying from the graves
Which are the corners of this house—
The four Negroes at Queen Anne’s wedding
Dancing in the snow, naked, before her
Carriage, the creak of carriage wheels
Counting out steps—1-2-3-Turn-Jump-
Turn—their arms wide as goose wings,
Bow, then a breaking at the waist,
Mucus spills from their mouths onto—
And before a guest from Oslo can point
To the blood-tinged saliva, the wagon wheels
Gather every stitch of spit, grind,
Then smear—the body, if allowed,
Will dance even as it is ruined—a mule
Collapsing in a furrow it’s just hewn—
The sway and undulation of the famished—
There are no straight lines but unto death—
Four men turning circles in the snow—
The arch of their toes calling Anne to lean
Forward, admire the work of the unshod
Sinking below all this white. She thinks:
In a brief, animated world, this would not be
Agony. The leg of her fox stole slips
From her shoulders and points to the men
Shivering in their last plié. Yes, she thinks,
But agony is sometimes necessary.
Against its Own Ringing
More than once I’ve asked a body to scatter
And have received that scattering.
More than once, a scar. More than once a scare-
Crow watching the corn of another’s body
Sing and break beneath my marble eyes, my exhausted feet.
More than once, I’ve been a bell broken
Against its own ringing. A kind of meadow unified
By the barest imagination broken.
Even if I could take the diamonds down from your hair,
Unsnack the woolen snood of desire
Worn about your head like a broken chandelier, winter
Leers at us from this spring’s browning
Timothy, the deer tangled in the tines of a barbwire fence.
The children in the creek mis-practicing
The baptizing of John, his head held below the water
Until a crown of metallic fish gather about it. How else
Shall ruin announce itself if not in one body touching another?
-from King Me, selected by Guest Editor, Mark J. Brewin
BIO: Roger Reeves’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as Poetry, Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, Boston Review and Tin House, among others. Kim Addonizio selected his “Kletic of Walt Whitman” for the Best New Poets 2009 anthology, and he has been awarded a 2013 NEA Fellowship, a 2013 Pushcart Prize, a 2008 Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, two Bread Loaf Scholarships, an Alberta H. Walker Scholarship from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and two Cave Canem Fellowships. He earned his PhD from the University of Texas and is currently an assistant professor of poetry at the University of Illinois–Chicago. His first book, King Me, is just out from Copper Canyon Press.
An Interview with Roger Reeves by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: In "Pledge" and "Against its Own Ringing," there's some heavy anaphora going on. What attracts you to this poetic device? What effects does it have on you when you read these poems?
Roger Reeves: I'm attracted to anaphora because it is poetry par excellence-repetition with change. Anaphora at once calls back even as it hurtles forward. It revises what came before even as it makes something new. Anaphora is a type of off rhyme in that it retains elements of prior image, linguistic event, sound, but through change it disrupts the symmetry. We might call this an asymmetrical symmetry. Or, we me call it the blues. Or, we might the changing same, rift and refrain. Anaphora also allows for the state of trance which is much like the state of prayer. Through anaphora, the constant repetition of the phrase or word, that repeated word or phrase becomes defamiliarized or made strange. The repeated phrase or word loses meaning and also gains stranger sonic significance over time. Anaphora shifts language back to sound rather than sense. I think the effect of anaphora is that you begin to question whether you understand the repeated word or phrase at all.
AMK: The poem "Pledge" is an assumed form, taking the shape-obviously-of a pledge. What similarities do you see in the characteristics of a pledge and a poem? What characteristics of a pledge do you feel the poem subverts?
RR: Both a pledge and a poem are types of commitment. They're also both speech acts. Here, I am referring to J.L. Austin's How to do things with Words. In How to do things with Words, Austin delineates two forms of utterances-the constantive utterance and the speech act. The constantive utterance is one that identifies or represents. For instance: this is a pen. Whereas, a speech act is one that seeks to enact or make via the linguistic event. For instance: I now pronounce you man and wife. Or, I christen this ship Zong. In the speech act, the locutionary act has a perlocutionary effect, that effect being either a union between two individuals or a ship being named. The pledge does a similar thing. In taking a pledge, one gives one's word to uphold, defend, fight for whatever one is allying oneself with. Similarly, the poem (here I invoke Octavio Paz's notion that a poem must be more than noun; it must also be a verb) enacts and produces an experience. The poem, ideally, should be more than a re-presentation of a moment. It should itself be an experience unto itself. I think my "Pledge" subverts the collectivist call of pledges. My "pledge" is not an affirmation of nation, patriotism, or a collectivist identity. It does not reify the nation linguistically. In fact, my "pledge" seeks to dismantle it, seeks to disrupt collectivist identities. Also, my "pledge" does not seek unity but it's opposite. "Pledge" is an affirmation of the stain, stink, and disingenuousness of nation. My "pledge" accounts for the refuse of nation-what is left behind, what is left in the margins in trying to create the smooth narrative of union, national identity, and community.
AMK: "Pledge" alternates stanzas of three and two lines. As I read it, I feel that I am almost limping, each step an inconsistent length, which I think is perfect of a speakers inner-struggle to live up to his pledge. What do you think of this reading? When you are writing and revising, how long does it take you before you feel that a poem has arrived at its true form? Are you always tinkering with stanzas or line length or does a poem present itself in pretty much the form that it will stay in?
RR: Form matches content seems to be your read. And I would tend to agree. However, I read the deployment of the stanzaic arrangement a bit differently. I am thinking about the heroic couplet-and the couplet more generally-as it might be in conversation with the tercet. The couplet allows for a mirroring, a doubling. My favorite couplets are ones wherein the second line contradicts the first or the second line nuances the first in a manner that is surprising and unexpected; whereas the tercet offers the poet something akin to blues-a stability in the first two lines then a rift that is also a bit of resolution. The inner-struggle which you pick up on quite correctly is most manifest in the imagery. There's both tenderness and vulnerability in the images-"...the dachshunds / scrambling over the pavement in their black / patent leather shoes..." In this image-there's a bit of humor, folly, but there is also menace-the dachshunds are scrambling, not walking or ambling lightly. Also, within an image in the poem, the language points two directions at once-towards rot, decay, and annihilation as well as flailing against rot, decay, and annihilation.
In terms of knowing when a poem begins to settle into its form-that answer varies. One poem arrives at its form differently than another. In the case of "Pledge," the poem started in this form-couplet then tercet then couplet. I had been reading and re-reading Terrance Hayes' Wind in a Box over and over again. In the collection, he has several poems titled "Wind in a Box" that takes this form. I began investigating the music that's created through this alternate stanzaic pattern. This type of stanzaic pattern lends itself to lists, what we in poetry call the catalogue. This form lends itself to accretion. And through accretion, one is lead to declaration-hence the pledge. The pledge, much like a poem, is as much about what is given and what is withheld. Yes, I am always tinkering with line length, with stanzaic structure, with commas, with images. Often, I am trying to achieve the most surprising image, line-break, sound that one could concoct. I think of one of Robert Frost's declaration concerning poetry: "no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." Revision is one the areas wherein we as writers can cultivate surprise.
AMK: There are some clever line breaks in these three poems. For example, a line break from "Against its Own Ringing" reads: "More than once, a scar. More than once a scare- / Crow watching the corn of another's body." This visually draws attention to the similarity in spelling between "scar" and "scare," even though the actual word used in the poem is "scarecrow." Talk to us a bit about this line break and about line breaks more generally.
RR: As I was saying, I am always looking for surprises. I'm looking for sonic and visual associations. That moment is the actual fun of language, when language is most like a trumpet or piano for me, quite simply, when language is at its most musical. Though sense-making produces its own pleasure, there's nothing more pleasurable than making sonic sense. I think the line break is the moment of chaos in the poem, the moment of disruption, but it also the moment of unity, the moment of order. And that's what I seek to do. I seek to point the reader in both directions-chaos and order-at once. I also seek to enhance and disrupt the whole sense-making process. I am always trying to write a poem wherein which the lines contradict the sentence or the stanza. I love the notion of simultaneity and discord. It probably stems back to piano and falling in love with I-V-VII chords. It's also my love of jazz. Jazz (and I'm making it sound homogenous when I'm probably thinking of bop and late bop era jazz) musicians, jazz improvisation, jazz chording and melody often seek to embrace disharmony, discord as a type of harmony. Think Monk. I'm interested in something similar-idiosyncratic melodies played rhythmically and a-rhythmically. The line break allows the poet to perform such a task through the controlling of breath and sound.
AMK: Both "In a Brief, Animated World" and "Pledge" bring up topics of suffering, racism, and oppression. However, the poems seem to intentionally avoid any possible solutions to these issues. "Pledge" seems to abandon these issues, choosing to leave "the man with his one leg turned backward" and "the children's thirst on the metro." "In a Brief, Animated World" ends with the line: "But agony is sometimes necessary." Do you think there is a duty of a poet to his subject? Is there a line that a poet shouldn't cross? Is there a line that poets are obliged to cross?
RR: I think both of the poems you mentioned are concerned with suffering, but they are discussing very different types of suffering. For instance, though I do not state it and it isn't necessary to understand the poem, "Pledge" is set, if you will, in modern-day Rio de Janeiro whereas "In a Brief, Animated World: The Marriage of Anne of Denmark to James of Scotland, 1589" is set in 1589 before the modern constructions of race, therefore before modern notions of racism. Exoticism existed in 1589; however, these poems we might say act as bookends. For instance, European colonialism is just getting under way in 1589 whereas in "Pledge," we see what European colonialism has made of the new world-the detritus, the refuse, its apartheids and epistemologies. In fact, "In a Brief, Animated World," can be read allegorically. Those four black men dancing naked in the snow is exactly the situation of the slave working the plantation, which prepares us and precedes the prison industrial complex.
But that's not what you've asked me about. You've asked me ‘what is the duty of the poet to his subject.'
The duty of the poet is to write a good poem. The subject matter becomes the linguistic, imaginative, and aesthetic landscape through which the poem is made. The subject or subject matter offers perspective, language, lens, intellectual nuance. All lines should always be crossed. However, there is an ethics in "crossing" lines. But generally, poets should disobey borders, boundaries, demarcations, lines. Break all the rules. And then, sometimes, don't.
AMK: There is a lot weighing on the word "Animated" in the title "In A Brief, Animated World: The Marriage of Anne of Denmark to James of Scotland, 1589" and in the poem itself. Thinking of it as animated-as in a cartoon-defuses the horror of the situation, and looking at the root of animated (from the Latin root animāre, meaning to fill with breath, to make alive), the meaning is ironic given the subject. Why choose to approach this historical event through an "animated" lens? What perspectives does this shift open to the poem's reader?
RR: I never thought about cartoons when I used the term animated in the title. I thought about power, orientalism, subjection as animating forces. While the term might seem ironic because the men that are dancing in the snow die, it is actually quite un-ironic in that their bodies are being animated-driven, compelled-because of Anne of Denmark's fascination with black skin. The black body is fungible, and often, throughout history, animated by forces other than its own. I chose to approach the historical event through the notion of animation because Anne of Denmark's desire and fascination with black skin in a snow storm is an aesthetic fascination. Often, I think we think of racial oppression, colonialism, and the annihilation of Africa only as a political venture, as a political animation. However, I think there is an aesthetic to colonization, to imperialism, to genocide. This might sound horrendous, but people wouldn't participate in oppressions, colonialism, genocides if there weren't a beauty to it though that beauty is often coupled with horror. But both beauty and horror are attractive elements to the human (i.e. Halloween, horror movies, roller coasters). I think we have relegated the social sphere, social phenomenon to the sociological, anthropological, and the political. However, there is an aesthetic to oppression, to the banality of evil, the everyday scenes of subjection.
AMK: Still looking at "In A Brief, Animated World," a fox appears at the beginning and near the end of the poem. Why such an emphasis on a "character" or image that plays a somewhat minor role in the narrative the poem portrays?
RR: I don't know if I will provide a satisfactory answer to this question, but the fox is a bit of an obsession for me. Lucille Clifton had a bunch of fox poems that I adore. Also, the fox is the trickster figure, a character that undercuts and subverts. The second time the fox appears in the poem, his dead leg points to the black men shivering in their last plié. What is expected is a moment of compassion; however, Anne's response is one that agony is necessary. This moment of subversion is a moment of tricksterism. The fox signals to the reader that one cannot be too certain of what comes next.
AMK: The lines in "Against its Own Ringing" have an extra space between them. What does this white space add to the poem in your mind? How does it change the feeling of the poem for you?
RR: With the white space, I hope to open up more space. Each line becomes akin to a stanza but it is not a stanza. In that, the extra white space provides more silence. Unlike music, poets don't have notation for silences, for rests. We have to build it into the page. However, we do have white space. White space becomes the manifestation of silence, rest, deliberation, soundlessness. What I hope the additional white space does to the feeling of the poem is that it lengthens the encounter. I hope to add duration and through the duration, strangeness-a defamiliarization.
AMK: Any books of poetry you've read lately that you would recommend?
RR: The Earth Avails, Mark Wunderlich; Silverchest, Carl Phillips; Aeneid, Virgil; Pisan Cantos, Ezra Pound; Faithful and Virtuous Night, Louise Glück; The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, Breece Pancake; The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner; The Corrections, Jonathon Franzen.