Sunday, March 16, 2008

Pleiades and Reginald Shepherd

In a better world, you'd have been awoken this morning by the shouts of MFA students moonlighting as early-twentieth-century style knickerbockered newsboys and roaming the steets hawking copies of the new issue of Pleiades (vol. 28 no.1). But in the current sad state of affairs, you'll have to haul yourself down to the local bookstore and grab a copy off the obscure shelf where literary journals are hidden (let's blame the Bush administration, or the real estate bubble, or the academy, or Ron Silliman: you know, the usual fall-guys).

Anyway, the issue is as laden as ever with good stuff. I was particularly glad to see new work by poets I follow (Albert Goldbarth, Steve Burt) and a solid review of a poet I root for (Piotr Gwiazda). Mike Theune, who seems to have become a regular contributor of long critical essays, is here too, with an essay called "Writing Degree ∞," which continues Pleiades' tradition of running not only reviews but essays about larger issues.

Rubbing shoulders with this distinguished company is your present humble blogger: my retrospective treatment of Reginald Shepherd's poetic career hulks around in the back pages. Here's how it starts:

A Portrait of Reginald Shepherd as Philoctetes

on Reginald Shepherd’s Some are Drowning, Angel, Interrupted, Wrong, Otherhood, and Fata Morgana

Philoctetes, sadly, has never been a favorite character of Greek legend. He gets only a brief mention in the Iliad, and missed his chance for greater acclaim when the last manuscript of Proclus’ Little Iliad, where he may have played a greater role, was lost to history. The Greek tragedians liked him — he’s the subject of a play by Aeschylus and another by Euripedes, and two by Sophocles — but their audiences didn’t fall in love with any of these plays, and history has been unkind to the manuscripts: only one full Sophoclean script remains, along with a few lines of the other. The Aeschylus and Euripedes have fared even worse: neither has been preserved, even in fragment. When Edmund Wilson surveyed the history of the Philoctetes story in The Wound and the Bow, he found it left surprisingly little trace in literary history: a bungled seventeenth-century French play by Chateaubrun, a chapter of Fénelon’s Télémaque, an analysis by Lessing, a sonnet by Wordsworth, a John Jay Chapman adaptation, and a version by André Gide. The six decades since Wilson’s survey have added little to this short list: mentions in Derek Walcott’s Omeros and Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, and a few short poems by Michael Ondaatje are the only distinguished examples.

This is a shame, in that the Philoctetes story seems remarkably suited to our times. It is, after all, a story of othering, or (to steal one of Reginald Shepherd’s words) of otherhood. An archer equipped with a bow that never missed its mark, Philoctetes suffered a wound to his foot so distasteful to his fellow Greeks that they stranded him on an island en route to Troy. Ten years into their fruitless war, the Greeks learn that without the skills of the man they’ve wronged, they cannot win. They coax the understandably outraged Philoctetes to join them, which he does, distinguishing himself in battle. Edmund Wilson saw the story in a Romantic light, treating it as a myth of the alienated artist whose skill is somehow connected to his isolation. But we can see the story in more contemporary terms, too, as a myth of social disenfranchisement and the damage it causes. Seen this way, the real wounds aren’t physical at all. They are, rather, the social and psychological burdens placed on those othered, and the losses to society caused by its failure to embrace the human potential of all of its members. It is no accident that the three poets to pick up the story after Wilson are all postcolonials.

Reginald Shepherd’s poetic career mirrors the Philoctetes story in both its contemporary and Wilsonian versions. The contemporary version of the story fits in that being born gay, black, and poor in America — as Shepherd was — is to be triply othered, to be shunned and devalued for one’s sexuality, race, and class. It isn’t that gayness, blackness, and poverty are wounds in themselves: it is that America treats these things in a wounding way, much as the Greeks treated Philoctetes. Just as the Greeks’ cause at Troy suffered because of their failure to embrace Philoctetes, America suffers from its othering of people like Shepherd. The Wilsonian version of the myth also applies to Shepherd, in that Shepherd’s poetic genius is intimately connected to his otherness in American society: his work returns, again and again, to the particulars of his outsider status. Shepherd’s poems also return to the same solutions to the dilemma of otherhood, seeking solace in never-quite-trusted yearnings for beauty and interracial erotic fulfillment.

If your big-box bookseller doesn't have copies, hold your breath until they cave in and get them. Or just wait for the newsboys to make it to your street. Your call.


In other news, Patrick Durgin (my co-conspirator in putting together the Chicago MLA off-site poetry marathon) has interesting things to say about Rachel Blau DuPlessis. His comments are in the online-only Jacket Magazine, though, so the newsboys on the corner will be of no use to you, unless you're churlish enough to wrest the laptops from their urchinlike hands. Which I don't put past you, really. For shame!