blackbirdonline journalFall 2014  Vol. 13 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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back KATHLEEN GRABER  |  Levis Remembered

Introduction to Roger Reeves

I would like to join Greg in thanking our sponsors: the VCU Department of English, VCU Libraries, Barnes & Noble @ VCU, VCU Honors College, the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, and the family of Larry Levis.

In an interview given in February, Roger Reeves revealed that he had just written on a piece of scrap paper the sentence, “A man can never be larger than his obsessions.” Reading that, my immediate thought was, “Well, Roger, that’s no limitation for you, because you are surely obsessed with everything.”

And he is.

Reeves then goes on to elegantly articulate his understanding of his own particular fascinations. He is obsessed, he says, “by the intersection of politics, subjectivity, aesthetics and race.” And reading this, I thought, “Ah, there you go, I’m right.” Because where I come from, which is pretty near where he comes from, those things more or less constitute the world.

Wittgenstein famously (and somewhat disingenuously) asserted, “the world is everything that is the case,” and it is Reeves’s capacious, even voracious, desire to fiercely and intimately engage everything that is the case that we encounter again and again in his poems and his remarkable collection King Me.

Recent MacArthur fellow Terrance Hayes describes it as “a book of inhabitations and transformations; the disembodied multitudes that constitute a single body.”If you are thinking that this sounds a bit like Walt Whitman, don’t worry, you’ll find Walt Whitman here, along with a blade of grass. There is also the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. Bashō, Rilke, Charlie Parker, and the Wu-Tang Clan. There are poems as self-portraits as Van Gogh, Duchenne, and Ernestine “Tiny” Davis, who played trumpet and sang for the first integrated all-woman jazz band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. There is Basquiat, and by way of Basquiat, Gerard Ter Borch.

But if we contain within ourselves a devastating pugilist like Mike Tyson, we also contain an Anne Frank and an Emmett Till. For if there is the present day cultural-social-political matrix, there must also be history. In other words, if there is everything, there is Love and there is Genocide.

Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America. Horses, cows, many species of birds, a couple of parasites, one brief angel, and a lot of bees.

Yet this is also a collection that is punctuated with the urgent narratives of a sister disappearing into mental illness and brother in a red car who has put a bullet in his brain. One image that recurs is that of a frozen lake against whose hard chest geese lay their warm breasts, though the lake does not open. For this is the trouble and allure of everything: We want so much to get inside, really inside. We want to commune with what we cherish, we want to understand that which we abhor. In other words, we would like to save each other, to remove suffering from the world as methodically as a boy picks fleas from the body of a dog.

But everything—like language, or especially language, like the complex we sometimes call the self, or especially the complex we sometimes call the self—has a skin. A Border, A Barrier, A Limit. Silence, Mystery, Shore.

I once read somewhere that an alternative translation of Wittgenstein’s dictum might be “the world is everything that is fallen.” But when I searched this week for the source of that idea, I could not find it. I once read that all things are implicated with one another, and the source of that idea is Marcus Aurelius.

In the face of this condition which is, in fact, the case, which is, in fact, the fact of the fallen world—we can be tempted to despair and numb ourselves to what we would prefer not to see, or we can attempt, as Roger Reeves does in this collection, to find a way to confront and elevate—as the title King Me suggests—with a violent attention our eternally provisional condition, what he calls in the collection’s closing poem “our drafts and fragments,” in order to “hold each other toward heaven,” though everything on Earth may be a part of this fall we cannot ultimately remedy, even though there may be incomprehensible atrocity and pain.

In that same interview, Reeves said that as a student he had been indelibly struck by the idea that “we are ultimately an amalgamation of others  . . .,” that we are “assemblages, artificial and real as any poem, story, building, or boat.”

Reading and rereading King Me is a wonder and an invitation to wonder. Perhaps we are each in some way assembled from the world and so also contain it, or at least contain a country, both in its beauty and its damage. Perhaps we are each “everything that is the case,” each of us containing contradictions and multitudes.

It is a pleasure to introduce the multitude, who goes by the name Roger Reeves.  end  

Kathleen Graber is the author of two poetry collections: The Eternal City (Princeton University Press, 2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Correspondence (Saturnalia Books, 2006). She is a recipient of fellowships from The Rona Jaffe Foundation, The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She is an associate professor and the director of Creative Writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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