reviewed on August 23, 2022
At the heart of Roger Reeves’s masterful sophomore collection lies a poem which ranks, to my eye, among the finest long-poems of the 21st century, alongside Peter Balakian’s “Ozone Journal,” Joanna Klink’s “Terrabonne Bay,” and Eavan Boland’s long-poem of the same name as Reeves’s: “Domestic Violence.”
In Reeves’s version, which is also a dramatic monologue, Emmitt Till’s father narrates his Dante-esque descent into “the Afterlife,” where, after meeting Ezra Pound, he is guided by Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Audre Lorde through a harrowing and increasingly intimate encounter with Black death. Searching for his murdered son, Louis Till moves—finally, funereally—through the same landscape through which Demeter before him moved, and Orpheus, and Odysseus, and Christ in the hours between His crucifixion and resurrection. In place of Persephone, though, or of Eurydice, Till finds the victims of contemporary police violence: “he pointed to the many,” Reeves describes, “To the boy with headphones who could be heard / Singing ‘we started from the bottom, now here,’ / To Demby to Aunt Hester to Sandra Bland, // To Freddie Gray to Walter Scott to Eric Garner, / His throat still crushed in one hand […]” Inverting the gleeful hubris of Drake’s boast, Reeves-as-Till converts an allegory of economic triumph—“I’m on the road, half a million for a show,” Drake croons—into one of existential despair.
As he does, he speaks from that Afterlife in a voice which, in its almost textile-like layering, in its echolalia, situates the horrifying spectacle before him within a fascinating literary and historical context. One is tempted, confronted with the poem’s brilliant intertextuality, to toss out phrases like “the redemption of the aesthetic” or to offer, perhaps, that Reeves has “wrenched beauty from suffering” or that he has managed, against all odds, to “dignify” the deaths of those he mourns. While I might stop short of those claims, the poem’s strength—which is also the collection’s—is a transhistorical perspective from which contemporary social experience seems shaded in beautiful ambivalence, the kind of muscular “first-rate intelligence” which Fitzgerald described as “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time.” Even as he notes its failures, in other words, Reeves seems not quite ready to jettison the experiment in democracy that is the United States.
The witty allusiveness in “Domestic Violence,” then, reminiscent of Jericho Brown, Angie Estes, or Linda Gregerson, enacts formally the collection’s over-arching ethical investments. In the space of six pages, Reeves samples Frost, Eliot, Gwendolyn Brooks, Chaucer, and many others, integrating these poets’ language into his own lissome—indeed, almost sprung—sense of line. Hardly disjunctive, such allusions are braided together with a distinct narrative thread, counterpointed, moreover, with Reeves’s grand rhetorical flourishes: “And though I thought I saw I had not seen.”
One only regrets, perhaps, on turning to the book’s “Notes” section, the over-annotation of “Domestic Violence” in the name of accessibility. The attribution of lines like “fear in a handful of dust” and “pecker-fretted fruit” to Eliot and Frost respectively, for instance, somewhat deprives readers of the pleasure of recognition, just as explaining that the “prince hanging by his heels in the piazza” is, in fact, Mussolini testifies damningly to the lack of historical consciousness among contemporary readers. And while Reeves’s gloss that Louis Till was imprisoned with Pound might have been folded into the poem proper, his explanation that “‘We started from the bottom, now here,’ is borrowed from Drake’s ‘Started from the Bottom’” seems designed to aid readers generations and generations hence.
Best Barbarian will endure for those generations. In the meantime, it deserves the accolades it will surely receive.