KR Reviews

“Demand to Survive”: Review of Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed

Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2018. 70 pages. $16.95.

“[I] thought the self was a long hand / angling into difficult minutes,” writes Justin Phillip Reed in the opening poem of his collection Indecency. If you’ve already inferred that the “i” isn’t capitalized, you’re correct: it’s just one of the ways Reed shades and complicates his sense of self. Versatile and shape-shifting, Reed’s poems most often plumb the ways in which an individual offers itself to the world. His voice is at once uninhibited and hesitant, confident in its modes of expression yet bereft of self-belief. Like a searching flashlight, his poems expose the dark and often explicit corners of intimacy and betrayal: they can be crude, and also tender, and are frequently both. As with that long hand, Reed’s poems tick along, wound by an oppressive world, like something ready to explode—but often don’t. Instead, they nurse their bitterness into a muted, but highly pressurized, rage. The result is a masterful collection of layered tension.

The title of that opening poem is “Performing a Warped Masculinity en Route to the Metro”; like much of Reed’s work, it offers a subject that both performs and is performed upon. Here, a body and mind are in transit, trying to locate the source of greatest risk: Is it the “blade” of “time ripping / selves like shirts to gauze to web”? Or “what i observe when left alone / to furtively stare at smudged reflections, / histories flattened”? Put another way, the speaker asks, Is the world warped, or am I? The poem achieves, like a commuter angling to his subway entrance, a sort of ritual distancing: it invokes both “mule” and “gauze,” each with their suggestion of sterility, and the poet, by the end, is poised enough to update his opening gambit, with iambic cool: “i thought that i was a long hand.”

If a walk to the Metro triggers such wrenching self-examination, these aren’t idle considerations for Reed, who is black and queer and knows plenty about existing outside the system. As his website notes, he’s a “three-time high school expellee and an ex-college dropout.” Brought up in South Carolina, Reed now lives in St. Louis (he earned his MFA at Washington University), where, he said in an interview with The Poetry Foundation, “I find that it’s easy for any kind of history—especially concerning Black folks—to always be on the edge of being obliterated.” What’s more, in that same interview Reed speaks of “people as kind of visible containers or intersections of histories.”

For folks who must bear such heavy freight, what does survival look like? Reed offers a poem whose three-part title—“How to Keep It Down / Throw It Off / Defer until Asleep”—seems to underline its dilemmas:

My body
has been deboned of its irony.
My life wants to be proven
to. I didn’t check the list of Black church dead in Charleston
for friend or cousin
because this morning it was Thursday.

All politics may be local, but for this poet, it’s physical, too. In a sort of synecdoche of our nation’s racial and sexual histories, Reed’s work puts not just the mind, but also the body, ever on trial. There are the jarring images in “Anaesthesia Is a Country You Leave for America,” a waking-nightmare of a poem in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting:

i was blind and white as a bone.
i appeared picked not quite clean,
not right until—. the growls

serrated my stirring limbs
with pristine teeth they were before
flesh fell deadish where i slept.

For this white male reviewer, it’s eye-opening to grasp how deeply the black male (and all the more so queer) body confronts constant societal violence. Not only in the symbols left to our culture of the so-public deaths—Trayvon Martin’s hoodie, Eric Garner’s breath—but in the myriad ways that daily accumulated racism is carried in the body, its neurons and its cortisol and its heart disease. Many of Reed’s poems wrestle with these truths and work, against all odds, to find a resilience against the worst possible outcome. “Between self-harm and my hand,” he writes, “I’ve rigged a list.” With all the suggestions of that single word rigged, Reed invokes the grimmest chapters of American history—and the most parlous interior moments, too.

If the body is central in Reed’s poetic landscape, it sometimes brings an explicitness that might offend a fragile sensibility. But part of Reed’s project seems to be translating the world’s Indecency onto the page, where it can be reckoned with. Decency is, of course, a loaded term in American history. It was (and remains) the propriety of white women—amid the supposed gaze of the black boy or man—on which our racial caste system has been upheld. Much the same can be said about the gatekeepers of norms of straight masculinity. With this underlying context, the ingredients of sex and intimacy become bold flourishes in Reed’s poetry. If a breach of decorum can mean the difference between life or death, it feels almost like a cliché to say that Reed has reappropriated the very terms of debate.

Another sense of “decency” is about what’s appropriate to be said, which certainly wouldn’t typically encompass poems like “To Every Faggot Who Pulverized Me for Being a Faggot,” in which the poet’s “taken a look / at the slow sea monster of my vomit / luminous in the toilet bowl.” The concept of decency can’t help but bring to mind the noxious notion of one as a “credit to their race”: How many generations of African American poets had need to plow under any temptations at “indecency” in order to adopt and conform to the literary modes of the “masters”? In this sense, Reed is a descendent of the Black Arts poets who exploded such assumptions—and a powerful communicant in the contemporary BreakBeat Generation.

One of Reed’s central concerns is erasure: how an individual or culture can keep itself from being snuffed out, or snuffing itself out. Found poems pick up the pieces left by others and so themselves become an exercise in erasure. “About a White City,” after James Schuyler, wonders what’s left:

Another day,
a friend calls. Another,
a redder red
than blood gathers

and sets on its edge
the mind. It rains again:
a breakdown occurs,

something like eating
the pattern of many moods
naked in winter.

Here, as elsewhere, Reed deploys line breaks for maximum advantage. Echoing within a poem that is itself an echo, each line’s meanings are refreshed by what comes before, and what follows, enjambed. If Reed imagines “people as kind of visible containers,” so does his craftsmanship become its own kind of vessel for crosscutting meaning.

Reed’s work has the self-anticipating quality of the chords of bossa nova, but with much more serious subject matter. Such syncopation comes through in some of my favorite of his pieces, which are indulgences of lyricism, declaration, and fresh syntax and combinations. From “Black Can Sleep”:

Oh Lord,
black the valley. Wise men
slather mirth, lip the gum. The news
their black tomb of tooth sucks out
won’t news.

The collection’s last, and longest, poem, “Paroxysm,” takes multiple forms, from prose poems to tercets. No snippet can be representative, but in this passage the poet’s gifts are at work: hesitation and declaration, archaeology and imagination, meanings upended and rewritten:

The apex predation, the brilliance in it,
this global verdant climb beyond—
Is this what it means to be lost in the night?
A paranoir. Unearthing tombs
and slipping inside of annullable memory.
You don’t expect survival but

demand to survive nonetheless. . . .