Updated: Apr 5
The Aesthetics of Language: Reginald Shepherd: Poet of Paradox in the Literary Tradition
FORGOTTEN POETS SERIES
by Walter Holland
Fata Morgana, University of Pittsburg Press,
Pitt Poetry Series, 2007
Reginald Shepherd, a gay Black poet and child of the projects, however is still invested in the aesthetic possibilities and practice of the European Romantic literary tradition with his highly figurative language and erudite but one that subverts the traditional white, male, hetero-normative “I.”
Disadvantaged as a youth, Shepherd was naturally gifted and prodigiously smart. He pursued a rigorous and impressive course of education, receiving MFAs from both Brown University and the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Language and poetry remain transformational for Shepherd and he is comfortable accepting its long, if not biased history of literary craftsmanship. This history has lasted since the early verse of Greco-Roman classicism, through the European Renaissance to 19th century Romanticism, Modernism and and beyond. Shepherd understands T.S. Eliot’s belief that the poet through hard work and study must develop a sense of history and tradition to inform his or her poetry. But in a post-modernist sense, Shepherd realizes the complexities inherent in joining a tradition which has long invalidated his voice and agency as a gay man of color; therefore Shepherd states in Contemporary Authors as presented by the Poetry Foundation: “It is my intention to inscribe my presence into that language [the language of Eliot and the English literary tradition], 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 [the] lyric . . .”
Shepherd continues: “[Eliot] requires that a poet be familiar with almost all literary history—not just the immediate past but the distant past and not just the literature of his or her own country but the whole mind of Europe’. Furthermore:
Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.
For Shepherd, literary poetry is wholly capable of embracing the contemporary, and it need not succumb to the antithetical methodologies of the 21st century, i.e. Language poetry; a “poetry [that] is merely a means of social and discursive critique.” Shepherd refuses to abandon the lyric. He embraces the aesthetic possibilities of the literary. He rejects dismissing its figurative and formal qualities in favor of a wholly skeptical, self-referential, orientation to language. Shepherd calls this trend an “aesthetic of transparency.” Poetry’s tools of imagery, allusion, rhetoric, diction and the comfort with high culture and an elevated style are to be admired.
But Shepherd is still very much a poet of the meta, a bard who accepts the newer relativism and the socio-political views of multiculturalism, race theory, queer theory, and post-post modernism. For while postmodernism was interested primarily in the ironic play with styles and narrative levels, and a deep skepticism of the grand narratives of Western culture, Shepherd reveres them. Shepherd brings a learned sincerity and trust to its literary traditions. Wickipedia writes: “a common theme of current attempts to define post-postmodernism is emerging as one where faith, trust, dialogue, performance, and sincerity can work to transcend postmodern irony. Again in Contemporary AuthorsShepherd says:
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 presented potential and not closure . . .
As we see Shepherd is acutely aware of his role as a Black, gay poet involved in a privileged, white, straight, Eurocentric tradition. By expressing freely his gay male body and homoerotic desire, Shepherd gains agency. In face of the male to female love poems of the past, the ‘grand narratives’ of Petrarch’s desire for Laura and Dante’s for Beatrice, Shepherd praises his same-sex lovers in equal measure. He writes a classical lyric poetry despite his outlier status.
The efforts to exert his place however is not without its sad cost. Perhaps it is the sadness of recognizing the gaps in an historic literary past that excluded his potential participation and achievement. There is the loneliness of the pioneer who must grapple with finding and asserting and creating an authenticity all on his own. In this guise Shepherd’s works are often elegiac in tone, but still manage to reject Eliot’s grim assessment of the decline and alienation of a highly aestheticized past, where war and a decline in standards and decorum led to a sense of increasing fragmentation, relativism, and a literal wasteland. But Shepherd sees possibility and hope nonetheless.
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 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).
Shepherd’s poem “Cloud Chamber” from his 2007 book Fata Morgana: poems best exemplifies his aesthetic and methodology. It is a love poem ostensibly for an unknown “him.” This lover could be a casual trick, a boy of a foreign heritage, perhaps white, perhaps French or Italian. At any rate Shepherd is obsessed and will tolerate and wait for his love, even if sex is rejected, freely content to settle for the slimmest chance of truer companionship; knowing full well the nebulous nature of love in a heterosexist society. Shepherd writes of himself perhaps in the third person:
He dreamt he was a renaissance,
relief from the other’s body.
Event without the person was place
and time and what became of words
he couldn’t read. A French troubadour
is singing German, boot prints
and tank treads march across
the music. Then I remember he is me,
and all song ends.
Someone stepped on my shadow (the white
underbearing it, snowed-under
old wounds): a god again, no telling which
(“with whatever name it pleases you
to be called”). He equals
or doesn’t equal x, a series of events
occurring near the body, proximities
and failed connections
There will always be a he, undoer, dew
clinging to damp skin. Such a
sweet ghost, smokebitter,
fog-homed, mist and found again
amid the midst of tinder, kindling
drowned in green rain, remnant
burned fields, blind gas.
The bruised river is in flames
again, it’s him I haunt.
Called him tropical storm
stalled just offshore, or
danger falling rocks, but those
aren’t boys’ names either. Desire
is so self-figured, and constantly
changes his mind.
My life in hiding wintered
in him, even lacking language
his skin burns. I fiction out my pride
and fade further into him
where what to get is only get to see.
Even the snow knows wait.
Six things no longer in mind,
the bitter box of him. Lord
Not For You, Prince Nothing
Left, Sir No Still Not Enough:
called him all kinds of things,
insulting by surmise.
I steer toward the jutting rocks
(blind man’s stutter of stone),
create him from my wreckage:
leave the boat to burn
and watch the pain away.
Less light, the more I see.
At the end of the first stanza we have an abrupt reversal. After Shepherd has literally dreamed his body to be a “renaissance” and has felt alleviated of his body’s otherness (his Blackness?), and self-identified with both French troubadour and German aggressor, the poet realizes his mistake. He understands that he was not a person who was present for these historical events and further that he could not read or speak both foreign tongues. But do these facts disenfranchise him from participating in the transformative artistry of the song? Though this history does not include him as far as place and time, must they exclude him entirely and make “all song” end? Must the poet’s imagination, his gift of lyricism abruptly deny his dreamy enjoyment in that history because, in reality, it appears implausible. Shepherd suddenly stops himself from entertaining this possibility, that he might actually remain in the dream of a richly artistic past (i.e. The Renaissance); that he must remove himself entirely due to his racial difference. The French troubadour sings in German and even in this we see both irony and paradox: for the achievement of the one culture that has warred and oppressed with the other (i.e. Germany against France in both World War I and World War II), is nonetheless integrated and shared by the French troubadour’s musical performance. It seems a possibility despite the rancor and the entrenched divisions of history.
Cultural authenticity seems more fluid and unstable here and one is not solely defined or limited by a physical and national heritage, i.e. the French troubadour or the German song. Both cultures, through tradition connect through art and love. Though still conflicted, divided, and battling nations they can still find transformation. It is in this spirit that Shepherd asks if it is really necessary that his color of skin, his race, his gayness, his otherness,exclude him from an entire literary tradition or cultural past. Is it the same fate of exclusion and impossibility that attends his odds of having sex with a young white foreigner.
In the second stanza we have the suggestion of the poet’s “shadow” against a “white” snow underneath. The shadow is stepped upon. Here the blackness of shadow and the poet’s color of skin are perhaps associated symbolically with a former white lover, an affair that used the poet unfairly and caused deep romantic wounds; wounds described in the poem as “snowed-under old wounds.” Does this indeed suggest intimations of a past love and sexual obsession for a white lover that was misguided and unreciprocated, one that still plagues the poet’s memory?
Is this former someone “A god again” of beauty and worthy of adoration or a heartless “god” of unsparing force and demanding control? A young manwho inspires physical adoration and sees no point in going by his real name, making for the poet’s submissive reply: “with whatever name it pleases you/ to be called.” But whatever this man of Shepherd’s obsessions represents, he is just another “x”, another unknown stranger who will suffice at providing a series of anonymous impersonal sexual acts and favors or a young man potentially available to be the one who becomes a more serious love interest, Shepherd will accept with resignation.
In this regard the poet knows not to hope and to accept the blind and obtuse nature of desire. True intentions, feelings and personal intentions remain shrouded in cloudy uncertainty. We might actually conclude that the setting for this poem is a gay bathhouse, a steamy warren of hallways and trysting rooms. Shepherd’s language here is telling as he suggests an impersonal sexual exchange: “He equals/ or doesn’t equal x, a series of events/ occurring near the body, proximities/ and failed connections/ domesticating myth.” Perhaps the “domesticating myth” that the poet speaks of is the powerful and illusive wish for the classic monogamy of straight marriage, the nesting in place, the setting up of a household and all the conventions of running a household, all so stereotypically divergent from the dominant beliefs that gay men are promiscuous loners, unable to commit, sexual outcasts condemned to live lonely lives of rejection.
The poem’s title “Cloud Chamber” and the running imagery of the poem pick up on this ambiguity and clouded, vague, view of the world and this love affair or sexual encounter. In part four of the poem, the poet compares his lover metaphorically to various headlines of warning: “tropical storm/stalled just offshore, or/ “danger falling rocks,” a series of dangerous threatening conditions, but both predicated upon chance and the unpredictable foreshadowing of a happy or unhappy outcome.
Shepherd then tells us “Desire/ is so self-figured, and constantly/ changes his mind.” The nature of desire itself is erratic and mercurial, unpredictably disastrous. Despite these clear warnings, the poet suggests nonetheless that his passion, his obsession for this stranger has been kindled. The poet writes: “The bruised river is in flames/ again, it’s him I haunt.” Shepherd will not let go, he will wait, wintering at all cost until he can possess the focus of his desire. Despite reservations he will possess what he wants even at the cost of humiliation: “. . . I fiction out my pride/ and fade further into him, / where what to get is only get to see. / Even the snow knows wait.” He will wait, wait even if sex does not happen, even if it means a platonic voyeurism.
In the sixth section Shepherd grows even more agitated and ruminative, angry and frustrated. His mind seethes. He wishes to purge all thought of the “bitter box of him.” And he forlornly calls “him”: “Prince Nothing/ Left, Sir No Still Not Enough” and proceeds to label “him all kinds of things,/ insulting by surmise.”
In section seven, the last two stanzas of the poem, Shepherd with extended metaphors, describes his final resolution, expressing both sorrow and regret for an unrequited love, a tempestuous obsession of body and mind and sex averred. Drawing from Greek mythography Shepherd alludes to the Sirens, those dangerous and enchanting creatures who lured nearby sailors to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. He writes: “I steer toward the jutting rocks/ (blind man’s stutter of stone), create him from my wreckage.” In his shattered obsession, he draws forth the memory of the young man’s god-like body, his sensual erotic form, and though the young man is no longer present or visible, the memory of him and of the affair vividly burns. Sexual obsession like the fire of passion and desire, as much as the memory of the infatuation must fade. But even though it dwindles to the least spark, human passion for a beloved, no matter be it a fleeting glimpse, still remains vivid and ever enshrined in our minds: “leave the boat to burn/ and watch the pain away./ Less light, the more I see.”
Likewise these last two stanzas can also be read in a different way: that is, that while the affair has been destroyed and the poet has allowed the memory itself to burn out and its attendant pain to go away, with the lessening of its bright image, paradoxically the poet can see “more” clearly its deceptive and illusory veiled truth if not reality. A more realistic clarity prevails.
Shepherd is a writer who uses highly figurative language, one complex in metaphor, a symbolic language that is still committed to the Romantic Tradition’s famous dictate, as described in Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
Shepherd’s language is richly textured, musically composed, and of a level of craft that few other post-postmodern American poets have pursued. Language for Shepherd is aesthetic, a refined mosaic of words, esoteric, reliant on deep erudition, a sturdy nuanced vocabulary, but with a personal honesty that is memorable, defiant almost at times, and does not shy away from human feeling, our failings and our search for love.
The “music” of Shepherd’s verse is a contortion of consonants in constant motion and conflict. The pitch, turn and roil of his diction makes for an succinct consonance with elements of assonance as well. This articulateness makes for lines that feel choppy and heavily lush. The specificity of descriptors, the vivid stream of natural images seem to echo some of the rhythmic intensity of Gerard Manley Hopkins with his “sprung rhythm” practices. In fact Shepherd, like Hopkins, both seem to revere the archaic sounds of Old English and Anglo-Saxon verse in which English was more muscular and rich. Shepherd leaps from one image to another image, sometimes with nervous hyperactivity and presents a language which is both affected at moments but tempered always with tender lowliness and natural sincerity. One cannot miss his eloquent and intricate style.
In “Somewhere Outside of Eden”:
I saw these things the moment
contained (what the light
proposed), a camellia bush
in thick red bloom all January, some
flowers browning on the dormant
lawn (still green): they smelled like something
afternoon; wax baskets of evergreen
mistletoe hung from bare limbs
of a southern red oak, verdant
parasite on the sleeping life, a full complement
of complementary colors.
The lyric richness of images and his use of assonance as in “parasite on the sleeping life” and the interesting progression from “complement” to “complementary” all enhance the music of the poem. In the sweetness, color, exactness, variation of cadence and shifting turns of phrase he echoeingShakespeare. There is an ever present pictorial delight in words.
The three o’clock half-moon
dangled above still lifes of tree grass house
like a quarter shoved into a slot, we passed
an empty lot where two azalea
bushes and a spreading live oak
marked the place a homestead
had been; a steep voice tumbled down
a slope of lawn (we’d walked
right into March), only a mockingbird
perched in the heights of a naked tree
on the periphery of day.
When you said, let’s go home,
I answered, where is that. (p 98)
The melancholy of Shepherd’s last line in reply is part of a sustained tone throughout his books. He wanders with desire in these poems, but feels so often alien and displaced. He walks inside Milton’s Eden of elevated and heightened lyricism but at the same time feels the wary knowledge of his absence.
The heightened eloquence of Shepherd’s speech relays a passion reminiscent of Shakespeare’s famous love sonnets which were written surprisingly enough to a young man, a fair youth, a ‘man in hue.’ Indeed both “Somewhere Outside of Eden” and the next poem I will discuss, “You, Therefore,” were written and dedicated to Shepherd’s longtime partner, the cultural anthropologist Robert Philen. Reginald met Philen, in December, 1999 in Ithaca. In July of 2001, Shepherd left Cornell with Philen to live permanently in Pensacola. Shepherd taught at the University of Western Florida followed by a position at Antioch University before passing away on September 10, 2008. “You, Therefore” is an extraordinary love poem and draws upon Shakespeare in its rhetorical elegance and its classical gestures of praise and celebration of the beloved:
You are like me, you will die, too, but not today:
you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine:
if I say to you “To you I say,” you have not been
set to music, or broadcast live on the ghost
radio, may never be an oil painting or
Old Master’s charcoal sketch: you are
a concordance of person, number, voice,
and place, strawberries spread through your name
as if it were budding shrubs, how you remind me
of some spring, the waters are cool and clear
(late rain clings to your leaves, shaken by light wind),
which is where you occur in grassy moonlight:
and you are a lily, an aster, white trillium
or viburnum, by all rights mine, white star
in the meadow sky, the snow still arriving
from its earthwards journeys, here where there is
no snow (I dreamed the snow was you,
when there was snow), you are my right,
have come to be my night (your body takes on
the dimensions of sleep, the shape of sleep
becomes you): and you fall from the sky
with several flowers, words spill from your mouth
in waves, your lips taste like the sea, salt-sweet (trees
and seas have flown away, I call it
loving you): home is nowhere, therefore you,
a kind of dwell and welcome, song after all,
and free of any eden [sic] we can name [.] (p 101)
Like Eliot, however, Shepherd throughout his work was aware of Eliot’s view that “the poet must always mistrust words” and understand the limitations of language. Despite the growing failings of the traditional lyric poem’s now problematic “transformative” aspirations, Shepherd nonetheless pressed on as we see in the poem above to reinvigorate its tradition of enchantment, beauty, and song.
Perhaps Shepherd explains his poetry best when he stateed:
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 ting (to quote Robert Frost), and thereby to salvage the promise
of happiness (in Theodor Adorno’s words) that the lyric embodies.
by Walter Holland, copyright September 19, 2021, All Rights Reserved