Two Roads: A Review-in-Dialogue of Roger Reeves’s “Best Barbarian”
Best Barbarian by Roger Reeves
For better or worse, we are not here to discuss that collection, but rather, the compelling second book by Roger Reeves — Best Barbarian. I loved King Me, his first book, which came out in 2013. And now, almost 10 years later, a follow-up arrives. That is a big gap between books, especially now, when poets seem to be releasing a new volume every couple of years.
In our last column, we discussed first books, but as you and I have talked about often, second books are their own animals; in some ways, more complicated, more loaded than a first book. I’m curious if you have thoughts about second books in general and this second book in particular.
VICTORIA CHANG: Thank you — you certainly don’t have to say that about my book. I keep telling everyone, it is a book that functions more like a little box of chocolates — miniature poems to be eaten one by one but not all at once and some are more tasty than others due to the syllabics. I am looking forward to speaking with you about Roger Reeves’s new book, because I too really liked his first book, King Me. Also, the second book has a special place in my heart, as I always remember my own struggle during that time because we live in a society that tends toward the new and the debut.
And on the gap between Reeves’s first and second book, when we talked (we always chat via Zoom before we start writing), you had said something that I wrote down: “Reeves’s second book comes nine years after his first — I think it’s a good thing, I like that.” It caught my ear because it’s something I’ve heard from various people too and even I have said things like, “it’s no rush” or “poetry takes patience” or “reading poems requires us to slow down,” meaning there’s an inherent bias in poetry generally toward the slow and the non-productivity/production-oriented aspects of our capitalist culture. But obviously, I myself have felt really creative over the past five years and have written a lot so I think there can be nuance. Can you talk more about your thoughts on this before we dive into this really wonderful book?
DEAN: Oh yes. Second books are hard. Scary. In some ways, scarier than first books.
There are so many reasons to want to publish quickly. You, Victoria Chang, are on fire. You are writing a lot and writing well, so why not get your work out there while the poems and prose are coming? In Dana Levin’s fine new book, she confesses suffering from writer’s block that inhibited her writing (and publishing). For me, that is a cautionary tale. That beast lurks around my door day and night. It could come for any of us at any time! So, yes, if the engine is running, no need to leave the poetry bus stalled in the driveway. Drive away from the beast as fast as you can.
Also, it is important to publish if you are on (or going on) the job market. The last time we did a search for a poet at the University of San Francisco, we required the applicant to have two books in order to even apply for the job. Similarly, a book (or two) is generally required for tenure and promotion. So, again, sometimes external (not just internal) forces require us to keep publication in our sight lines.
My comment, which was made sort of offhand, was more in response to the anxiety I see in a lot of poets — of all generations and levels of success — about falling off the cultural radar. And, the fear is that if they fall off, they may stay off. I worry about what that kind of pressure — especially the insistent and ubiquitous press of social media — does to the creation of complex art. Poets need space and time to plumb and probe and examine and experiment. I remember hearing Louise Glück say that whatever thing she thinks she does well in a book of poems, she tries to avoid that very thing in the next book. That level of risk requires patience, devotion, and commitment.
Personally, I think a book of poems should be an event. And one reason the publication of Best Barbarian is of note is the gap between the poet’s books.
But, by no means is that the only reason! Reeve’s collection is exciting. What impresses you about this second book?
VICTORIA: No offhand comment ever gets by me! You bring up good points. I’d like to make one more point, which is that in the age of information proliferation, sometimes it feels like whatever you do, you’ll get criticized for it. So you might as well do what you want, the way you want, whether it’s publishing a book once every decade or once every year.
Personally, I don’t think a book of poems needs to be an event, though. I think that puts a lot of pressure on the poet and the poems. Sometimes I want to write a book of poems that is more of a process-oriented book, where perhaps the mechanics of the making are more important than the book itself. I feel like I’ve just done that at least twice with The Trees Witness Everything and Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief. But again, I think that we each should each do our own thing when it feels like the work is asking us to do that thing.
On to Reeves’s book. I really loved this book and found myself in awe of this poet’s intellect, poetic prowess, big heart, and the movements of this poet’s mind. This is not only, in my humble opinion, a fantastic second book of poems, but it’s also just a fantastic book of poems, period. Impressive. I wanted to get this overarching comment out of the way first.
Another general thing I wanted to say is that this book has a lot of references (literary, biblical, mythological, art, cultural, historical), which may be intimidating to certain kinds of readers. Roughly half of the poems have references in the Notes section in the back of the book. Interestingly, I am reading H.D.’s Trilogy, the annotated version by Aliki Barnstone who has painstakingly provided notes to the work. The first time I read “The Walls Do Not Fall,” which is the first of the three sections, I read the notes while I was reading the poem. But I felt my reading experience was very distracted and I was constantly being interrupted by someone else’s voice and information, and by the constant flipping to the back of the book. I completely lost the flow of the poems and my own interpretations of the poems.
The second time through, I read the poems without reading the notes and this was such a lovely reading experience. I also felt like reading the work for the second time, after having read the notes the first time, really helped my understanding and comprehension during that second reading. I tell this long tedious story because I felt similarly with Reeves’s book. The first time, I read the notes while I was reading the poems, and the second time, I just let the poems speak for themselves. I think I needed both reading experiences.
Related to the allusions, Reeves’s poems shift a lot in terms of subject matter. There’s no fear in juxtaposing all sorts of things in these poems from parenting, to elegy, to music, to history, to race, to literature, etc. I could pick nearly any poem in this book to illustrate movement. In “Cocaine and Gold,” for example, the father’s death is pressed against corn fields:
I never wanted to be this far
Into the business of heaven
Chasing my father hunting
His soul in the corn and confusion of this harvest
My father who is hidden
In the last sheaf of heaven maybe
My father the corn-wolf
Who we must kill but is already dead
We will learn nothing
Here of sacrifice or the cocaine
Of beauty my hands
The corn fields, combined with cocaine and drugs, against the father, serves as a kind of field of rumination and thinking for the poet, a place to parse grief. Later in the poem, the speaker riffs on beauty and death, as well as American farming:
As a broken ocean of corn
The search for beauty is
The elimination of death
Which requires dying
Which is the business of farming
Which no one cares to do
Anymore in America
And like dying we’d rather rent it out
And then the ending of the poem returns to the father with devastating images and beautiful language:
Freedom without freedom
To hold your dying father up
To a razor beneath a golden light
And cut him finally in and out of the world
With a Roger Reeves poem, I always get the feeling that everything is interconnected and inevitable, stemming from everything else before it. The “freedom” emerged from the American farming, the razor imagery from other medical and body imagery of liposuction and “cauterize,” the “golden light” from the sun on the fields and farming, and the final “cut him” imagery from the prior violence of the harvest (I see farming scythes in my head), as well as the prior razor.
I picked this poem randomly so it doesn’t have any literary or religious allusions. Do you have thoughts on the flow of the poems or allusions? I have a feeling you will talk about the biblical references. But I’m most curious to hear what you have to say about the purpose of the allusions and references. Is the speaker agreeing with them, subverting them, both? Is the speaker using them as a way to press against or think against, or toward? I know you will say something smart and insightful.
DEAN: That is a lot of pressure. I’ll try not to let you down.
Yes, I have been thinking about the many (perhaps surprising) allusions in Best Barbarian. It is, to be sure, a learned book. The opening poem, for example, “Grendel,” blends Beowulf and James Baldwin. The second poem, “Without the Pelt of a Lion,” talks to the Aeneid. Other poems riff on works ranging from Sappho to Larry Levis to Phillis Wheatley to T. S. Eliot to Pablo Neruda to St. Augustine to Alice Coltrane to Walt Whitman to Adonis to Frank Bidart to Toni Morrison. One poem — an absolutely fantastic one — “Domestic Violence” enters into conversation with Dante’s Inferno, Pound’s Pisan Cantos, Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Anniad,” The Aeneid, Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules, and Lucille Clifton.
Interestingly, it is Clifton I have been thinking about as a useful lens for this book. A few months ago, I was invited to participate in a panel on Clifton along with a Romanticism scholar, Omar Miranda, who just published a fantastic article on Clifton’s interest in and references to Romantic poetry. In the Q-and-A, we were asked why, when Clifton was such an important Civil Rights poet and feminist poet, so many of her poems reach back to Romanticism.
So, my very long answer to your question is that Reeves reads widely. His interests are varied. His influences are infinite. This seems perfectly normal to me. I want my own work to be in conversation with the history of poetry, the history of art, and I see similar ambitions in Reeves. I think he wants readers to see a spectrum of sources in his work.
Consider the opening of “Second Plague Year, Black Spots on the Rose”:
The children ask of the opposite of deer —
Of casual terror — why
Must the dead wear white bags
Around their dying. I don’t want to forget
This. Black spots on the rose,
The deer eating the black spots and the rose.
The tick-tock of crows smudging the evening
Sky, moving their ink across our faces
Until night, in its earthly reticence, comes
And the little fires left in us,
The little fires not put out by disease or worry,
The little fires, heavy
As a rusted-out refrigerator and on our backs, up a hill —
We lift and dance,
Lift and dance to the little fires, to the windows,
To whatever sound
We can drive out of them
Or the little boxes of electricity and desire we pray to.
I don’t want to forget this: the dead
In the mouths of the children,
Gauze packed into their bloody gums,
To me, this is a powerful poem with many echoes. The dashes in the first stanza remind me of Emily Dickinson; the repetitions, the tercets with the occasional enjambed lines, all capitalized, hearken to Wallace Stevens; the internal rhymes of rose/crows, dying/evening, and deer/terror echo Gerard Manley Hopkins; the title and theme recall famous plague poems by John Davies and Thomas Nashe; I also hear the lyricism of Rilke’s poems about roses. And yet, it feels like a Roger Reeves poem. He is a big thinker and a global writer — it is one of the great features of this book.
By the way, as you predicted, I really want to talk about the many Biblical references! You know me too well. But I am curious what you think about them. We both noticed and were surprised by how religiously attuned many of the poems are. What work are these poems doing? Many come toward the beginning of the book. Do they shape the collection?
VICTORIA: Ah, yes. This is so fascinating. I see all of those interesting elements you pointed out in Reeves’s poem. This is another issue, but I wanted to mention this here as well — I can only speak for myself, but in my education, I was mostly given the exact writers you mention to study. Dickinson, Stevens, Hopkins, and Rilke. The canon, as you know, was (and still is) very white and very male. Given that my education was only these poets, it’s hard not to be influenced by these poets. I’ve had to seek out other poets that aren’t these poets during my education and reeducation, in order to expand what is/has been deemed poetry.
On the biblical references, I sense that religion was threaded into Reeves’s childhood because of the way religious language threads organically throughout his poems. There’s a reference to God or a Lord in many of the poems and those references seem to escalate toward the end of the book. Reeves is often talking directly to God.
An early example is “Into the West,” where the poem begins with a quote, like something one would remember from attending church: “It would seem clear that no one can call upon Thee Without knowing Thee,” and the poem then switches to the speaker’s view and thinking: “though Augustine writes of God, here, / Notorious for his absence, he could also be speaking of desire.” Even the exploration of desire as a poetic theme is enriched through the lens of religion.
In “Prayer of the Jaguar,” the poem begins, “Lord, let me be useful, and not / The green jaguar stitched in the cross-Hairs of some night vision scope / Meant to hush me into the uncut / Kitchen of an inconsiderate lawn.” Later in the poem, the speaker says: “Lord, let me be that other miraculous / Instrument, the night’s leopard rebuking its god- / Given golden fur.” The poem ends with two more references to the Lord, as the speaker asks to be dissociated from a green jaguar, which is a victim/subject of violence; instead, the speaker imagines agency and power.
Toward the end of the book, there are numerous poems such as “Past Barabbas” and “Caught in a Black Doorway,” which reference God and biblical figures such as Barabbas and Jesus to reflect on childhood experiences, particularly those related to the speaker’s father. In “Past Barabbas,” the speaker is ruminating on his mixed feelings for a complex father figure in these gorgeous opening lines:
The funeral past, and also I loved him.
And also I, him, and so loved past him.
And so all funeral the past ran animal
Up to our eyes, and so, lo, I loved
Any which him, the I-him, the scandal-
Animal of him hanging his newborn
Twenty years past newborn out of a moving car …
Here, the father and speaker’s violent history intermixes with adult reflection and anger, along with the residue of death. The complexity of the speaker’s emotions is beautifully displayed in the opening of the poem where anger toward the father is transformed into something more nuanced and complicated.
Barabbas was sentenced to die for insurrection and murder. When offered to free either Barabbas or Jesus, people chose to free Barabbas and thus Jesus was crucified. Interestingly, Reeves’s poem title is “Past Barabbas,” as if to say the speaker wants to move beyond the simplistic and binary aspects of good versus evil. In essence, I’m very interested in how Reeves uses religious references in his poems so seamlessly which to me at least, feel like a representation of the role of religion in the speaker’s upbringing and adult life (which is more reflective).
I could keep going (there are at least three poems after the ones I reference that refer to God), but I think I’ll pass it onto you now. What are your thoughts on the biblical references?
DEAN: I have so many thoughts! And, I really want to get this right — or as close to right as possible.
You are correct, Best Barbarian is God-heavy and perhaps even God-hungry. God is all over this book. However, like so many other allusions in this book, God is slippery.
To me, when Reeves uses words like “God” or “Lord,” I don’t really think he is deploying them in the same manner as say, Joel Osteen or even Gerard Manley Hopkins. Think about how different Rilke’s angels are from Billy Graham’s or William Blake’s or Sarah McLachlan’s. I think Reeves’s “God” is akin to Jimi Hendrix’s “angel.” And Reeve’s “Lord,” to my ear at least, talks to Michael Kiwanuka’s. Which is to say, lyrical (in all senses). God as metaphor. An idea. An emotional repository. Lord as the ultimate signifier. God as a text.
For example, Best Barbarian opens with the poem, “Grendel,” and “Grendel” opens with these lines:
All lions must lean into something other than a roar:
James Baldwin, for instance, singing Precious Lord,
His voice as weary as water broken over his scalp
In a storefront Sanctified Church’s baptismal pool
For me, Reeves locates this poem firmly in the tradition of the Black church, and its rituals. Its spirituality. Its emotional gravitas.
About 10 lines down, Reeves writes, “Lord, I want to be alive and open.” This line, which I love, feels like a condensed version of this stanza from Charles Wright’s “Clear Night”:
I want to be bruised by God.
I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out.
I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed.
I want to be entered and picked clean.
Are Reeves and Wright seeking the same God? The same god as Baldwin? The same god as Lucille Clifton in “leda 1”?
I don’t know. But, I love how the poems make me ask these questions.
I also have this theory that when contemporary poets — myself included — use the word “God,” we also mean expressly “not God.” At least not that God. Rather, the god that lives in poetry, the lord that is language, the divine that is the self-making art, the god all of our poems are prayers to.
Which leads me to something you said when we talked last about Best Barbarian. You told me you think this is a book about parenting, which I thought was super smart. And, I wonder if it is an accident that a book about parenting is also a book that is God-heavy or God-hungry.
VICTORIA: Ah, very interesting! While reading what you wrote, I was thinking about how some like Henry Louis Gates have argued that the Black church (which is not monolithic) is a “parent of the Civil Rights movement” and also Black Lives Matter. While I was reading Reeves’s book, I was thinking about the function of church and religion for my own family and community. I grew up going to “Chinese church” and it was a place to subvert white oppression, a place to socialize, to build community, and to teach the next generation aspects of both of my parent’s cultures. My experiences growing up in church were political, social, and for survival. Therefore, “God” was ever-present, but perhaps in a different way than maybe for another kind of person.
I did a little research and learned that Reeves grew up in the Pentecostal church. The Pentecostals generally believe faith is more experiential, not necessarily just found through ritual or thinking, which may relate to what we are talking about.
Related to your question about parenting, another thing that I loved about this book is the way in which it traverses time and the time of human emotion. As someone who helped my sick parents die while raising young children, I related a lot to this book and its unspoken structure and invisible braiding. At the core of this book, there is an elegiac thread because the speaker’s father has died. It’s clear that the speaker loves the father, but like most fathers, the relationship didn’t seem perfect. In “After the Funeral,” the poem states:
My human wish: to keep my father’s schizophrenia
In his casket, to keep that below the earth, one from another,
Now and forever. In season and out.
From mountain to mountain. In the trees and after. Amen.
I could make an argument that this book is also about grieving and parenting at the same time (hope I’m not projecting here!) and how grief and birth changed and is changing the speaker. There are a lot of other subjects in this book, but this particular thread resonated with me. I think the speaker’s father dying changed the speaker, then the speaker became a father, hence the book’s poems about the state of America, its violence, and our perilous future. And importantly, raising a Black child in America is always perilous. Reeves has aptly articulated the fear of raising a child today when tomorrow is not guaranteed.
In “After the Funeral,” he writes: “How shall I bear the coming madness if it is come? / What disaster will I deliver to my daughter?” I think that once we have children, the future and our stake in the future becomes more urgent. Similarly, a poem following the mention of the speaker’s daughter also becomes more poignant. The poem after is “Echo: From the Mountains” and it begins: “Unicorns brought the news of human reason to the border / So we gassed them.” Later in this same poem, Reeves writes: “Who will shoot the century in the heart?”
In the poem, “After Death,” Reeves also explores death next to new life:
To get the light and dead coming through
The window without distinguishing one
From the other is the day with and without
Its mastery …
It’s as if the speaker is trying to reconcile death and the past with the future:
… Desire is everywhere
In this field, even in me who is not
In this field but, from my many windows,
Watching the night’s dark light fall and dwell
In its falling which sends me stumbling
To my newborn’s invisible breathing,
Wanting to ensure the invisible
Holds, my fig-branch finger stretched beneath her
Nose, me wondering: what is beyond death?
And what is this rage in darkness
And my father, what is he other than dead,
Rage and so much light and so much light?
Notably, the book also ends with the poem, “For Black Children at the End of the World — And the Beginning.” Even in all the poems where this theme of elegy and the future generation didn’t overtly appear, I still felt its shadow. This poem is in second person, speaking to all the Black children and contains some urgent and beautiful lines. Here’s the ending of this poem:
Black Child, you are the walking-on-of-water
Without the need of an approving master.
You are in a beautiful language.
You are what lies beyond this kingdom
And the next and the next and fire. Fire, Black Child.
I have another question for you. These poems make arguments. In some ways, they create or follow in the tradition of the poetic lyric essay that is rooted in beauty and language, as well as literary allusion. When we talked, you had said that “Domestic Violence” is a lyric essay and I thought this was smart and I agree. Or maybe I think of it as an epic poem that subverts the traditional epic poem à la Pound, who is referenced in Reeves’s poem.
I’m also going to do a little gear-switching here too. I’ve also been thinking deeply about how this book has managed to make strong assertions and arguments, sometimes polemically, and yet as a reader, I was completely engaged in these poems. At a technique level, I was very interested in how Reeves managed this.
I was thinking about Claudia Rankine’s seminal book, Citizen, and how that book was a powerful lyric essay, deploying the second person as a way to engage the reader with a direct gaze, as well as to point to the culpability of the reader. Rankine also uses photographs, artwork, and a flat kind of reportage diction in her book. And I wondered what Reeves is doing in his poems.
Reeves doesn’t shy away from expressing dismay with human nature. In “Without the Pelt of a Lion,” the last line says: “Who knew the human was a breed of grief?” In “Children Listen,” the poem shifts from the first person to the second person as the speaker writes to the children: “Children / You were never meant to be human // You must be the grass / You must grow wildly over the graves.”
In the ekphrastic poem, “Sovereign Silence, Or the City,” after Vincent Valdez’s painting The City I, which shows a group of Ku Klux Klan members dressed in full garb at night, Reeves writes: “Empathy will not end / Genocide. It won’t / Even delay it,” as if to say that empathy alone is a form of violence and inaction. This poem switches to the second person as it ends: “Go out and retrieve / You’re dying from this field / You’ve not come to — until now.” In “The Broken Fields Mended,” the poem, like others, switches to first-person plural at the end of the poem, that then speaks directly to a second person: “And all the winters to come will wither in their seed because we’ve not taken care of the earth // And so no longer will we have the warmth of snow, or water. Or air. Or you. Or you. Or you.”
Even the earth is complicit in the poem “Rat Among the Pines,” where Reeves writes:
Is the candor of the earth
Where someone is preparing to die
And the earth receives that dying
With its hands in its pockets.
This same poem ends: “And someone calling / It beautiful — summer, moon — // And someone dying beneath that beauty, / Which is America.” In “American Landscaping, Philadelphia to Mount Vernon,” Reeves writes: “Only in America will the sons and daughters of slaves / Kiss the sons and daughters of their masters / And remember it is an opportunity to be human.”
In these lines I plucked out of the book, pronouns shift a lot, and in this way, the poems feel like they are constantly shifting in complicity. If the reader feels blame, or a finger pointing in their direction, it won’t last long. Similarly, if the poem deploys a strong declarative, later there might be a question asked that has more of a tone of query such as the end of “Without the Pelt of a Lion.”
In essence, I think Reeves’s mind is like a beautiful riffing machine that flows from one thought to the next, but never forgets what came before it. In this way, his poems and his book make a similar argument — history isn’t to be forgotten, but it is to be reflected upon, rescrambled, and remade.
Victoria Chang is the author of OBIT, which received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN Voelcker Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Her latest book is Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief. She lives in Los Angeles and is a faculty member within Antioch’s MFA Program..
Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited 11 books. His debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (2014) was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book.
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