Best Barbarian is Roger Reeves’ second book of poetry and it is a beast, as it wants to be. It pulls inspiration from fables, history, poetry, and literature (past and more present). In its core, Best Barbarian seeks to not just be a part of the literary canon, but to rewrite the canon, to create a new canon that is more black-centric (or at least allowing differences of perspective/influence).
In the notes section Reeves responds to a critique Thomas Jefferson wrote of the poet Phyllis Wheately’s work that sums up much of Best Barbarian: Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” Reeves responds with, “I obviously disagree with Jefferson, but this sort of criticism is the beginning of the American (literary) critical tradition that cannot comprehend the largesse of Black aesthetic productions or Black life. This perception of a lack of erudition or aesthetic rigor is obviously solely a product of white supremacy and the intellectual shortcomings of the critic (i.e., Jefferson).” Shots fired. First of all, fuck Jefferson and his whole hypocritical bullshit (and his founding-father friends). Secondly, nice try on avoiding critique Reeves. Thirdly, Reeves is right. American literature, and really all western literary (I’m looking at you Nobel Prize in Literature and National Book Award and Pulitzer) is steeped in racism, be it active or passive via elitism, so, let’s begin.
Reeves’ work seeks to succeed with a level of erudition that is beyond reproach. And it does. I was constantly looking up words and names and anything that felt like an allusion because the whole book is steeped with allusions, direct and indirect. Luckily, the notes section is robust and helps guide us in discovering and learning and ultimately following and (maybe) understanding the poems. The notes, though relegated to the back and without any footnotes within the poems themselves, feel like a post-modern addition, but different, so post-post-modern. They’re not only helpful, they’re very interesting. For example, while I’ve read Pound’s Cantos and know who Emmitt Till was, did you know that Emmitt Till’s father was imprisoned alongside Pound in Italy before he was executed? Small (awful) world. There’s also a fair number of poems and corresponding notes about music, which, given the book’s vibe of erudition, immediately draws us to think of Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio. And that’s the world Best Barbarian seeks to be a part of: Fred Moten and Nathaniel Mackey and Douglas Kearney. Poets whose intellect and knowledge is unparalleled, whose work is dense and lush to the point that you get lost and don’t ask what it means and instead just feel and exist. And Reeves’ deserves to be a part of that crew that we’re all scared to talk to about poetry.
Beyond meaning, his use of language and rhythm and image are superb. Reeves uses sound to provide melody to his poems. The opening lines to “Drapetomania, or James Badwin as an Improvisation” showcase his use of sound, rhythm and repetition: “Absent bounty, anarchic and asymptotic, / Bedlam banked as beauty, captive cuckolding / Capital and its camel-faced captor, master, the / Devil is in the dove’s details, even doves ….” So much play and movement led by sound, which feels like a reference to the poets from Black Mountain college and their whole breath-line concept, and subsequently Mackey as well. Later in the same poem, Reeves relies on alliteration, first using N, then D, then assonance with E sounds, more alliteration with P, N again, B and D, C, E, F, H and on, so much so that the poem could be the B-side to “Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious. But Reeves isn’t always overt with his use of sound and repetition. He has a subtly as well that is present in virtually every poem. For example, in one of the many poems about his father’s death (assuming speaker is poet), we get this series of balanced breath, “What am I returning to momentarily— / The teeth of the sea, the teeth of … / You wouldn’t understand that after death, / My father’s death, my shoulders through the air, / My ears in the loud, precious winter light, / My mind gathered in the crisis of whispering / To itself, whispering, death, a forgotten / Destination not yet known.” The flow is wonderful, the pausing, the pacing, the way he leads us and slows us down through understanding and movement. Just beautiful.
Now, let’s get into some critique: This book is meant for university classrooms, for The New Yorker, for prizes, and I’m sure the book will win some prizes. And it’s a good book, but it can be so much more. Reeves can be so much more than a book full of previously published poems, than a book that is for people who we recognize from a photo on the classroom wall in Dead Poets Society. In Reeves’ attempt to rebuild the castle of Poetry to be more diverse, it still relies on the traditional institution of exclusion. The inaccessibility to this book isn’t because it’s so unique to Reeves, rather it feels inaccessible in the way all elitist work is because it ultimately is adhering to the same foundational rules of “traditional” poetry, of esoteric references and allusions, language play that lacks meaning. So who is the audience for Best Barbarian? It’s a hard question. Who is ever the audience? Does there need to be an audience? “Those who eat cold eels and think distant thoughts.”
Honestly though, who the fuck am I to feel anyway about what this book is or isn’t doing? What is my responsibility? Am I just like Jefferson? Saying this isn’t doing something I think it should be doing so therefore is unworthy? I’m not an asshole, I’m just a little confused.
The poem, called “American Landscaping, Philadelphia to Mount Vernon,” is interesting because the first fifteen or sixteen lines could be cut and nothing of value would be lost. The rest of the poem is absolute fire. It is a brutal indictment of America, of our founding fathers (fuck Jefferson), of the treatment and imagery and legacy of slavery, both historically and contemporarily. It moves from history to present landscapes, from imagery of a frozen man waiting on the banks for Washington to return a “hero” to a memory of kissing a (white?) girl on a Ferris Wheel. It’s an incredible second half of poem. Here’s the main turn in the poem (which could really be the beginning, cutting everything before it):
Mistake: it’s not a lantern the Jockey holds
Out in front of him, but a black hitching ring
For masters to tether the tamed because they lack
Mastering, though not the Jockey, who stands on the wind
And paving stones like Jocko Graves, the slave
Of General Washington, who froze to death
Enfolded in snow on the banks of the Delaware River,
His lantern out in front of him awaiting his master’s return
As he had been ordered, and Washington, so moved
By Grave’s frozen obedience, constructs a statue
Of dead Graves holding a lamp at his plantation
Home in Mount Vernon. Even in death, a slave must
That’s the kind of heat Reeves can bring, how history can hold a truth we need to acknowledge and hear and learn from, of how disgusting some people’s idea of beauty can be but also how very present life is, even when brining history to the present.
Best Barbarians as a collective piece is too much caught between things. History and present, memory and imagery, love and hate, tradition and modernity. Reeves has yet to find his own footing as a whole with this book. Perhaps too much of this book is from too many different spaces, too many homes. There is no unity and the lack of harmony weakens the individual themes’ power. And this book is a beast, pun intended, clocking in at 120 pages. Maybe there’d be more strength if there was more cohesion. In all honesty, there are really two or three books in this book, maybe four. Pull the history/literary-cannon poems into their own piece, the father/self/daughter poems together, nature poems in the old style of War of the Foxes. There are only a handful of poems that just don’t work in this book (“Into the West,” “Leaf-Sigh and Bray,” and “As a Child of North America” all don’t feel themselves yet.), but as a whole, this book simply doesn’t work together, like they’re written from different places and time and perspectives but don’t speak to each other or add layers. Instead they smother each other’s fire when, if left on their own, would blaze.
Best Barbarian, by Roger Reeves. New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, March 2022. 120 pages. $26.95, hardcover.
Jacob Collins-Wilson writes reviews, poetry, and is working on a novel. He also builds furniture and homes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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