Friday, September 12, 2008

Reginald Shepherd, 1963-2008

It saddens me greatly to hear of the passing of Reginald Shepherd.

We lived a few blocks from one another in Chicago's Wrigleyville, but we never met face to face. I am honored, though, to have known him through our correspondence over the past couple of years. He was a real poet, a real intellect, and a man to be admired. The world was not always kind to him, but he died a deeply loved and respected man.

Here, because I am too sad to say anything new, are the opening paragraphs of my retrospective review of his five books of poetry. The piece appeared in the spring 2008 issue of Pleiades:

A Portrait of Reginald Shepherd as Philoctetes

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.

And here is an older poem of Reginald's, an elegy for his mother:

How People Disappear

If this world were mine, the stereo
starts, but can't begin
to finish the phrase. I might survive
it, someone could add, but that
someone's not here. She's crowned
with laurel leaves, the place
where laurel leaves would be
if there were leaves, she's not
medieval Florence, not
Blanche of Castile. Late March
keeps marching in old weather,
another slick of snow to trip
and fall into, another bank
of inconvenient fact. The sky
is made of paper and white reigns,
shredded paper pools into her afterlife,
insurance claims and hospital reports,
bills stamped "Deceased," sign here
and here, a blank space where she
would have been. My sister
said We'll have to find another

And this is how
loss looks, my life in black plastic
garbage bags, a blue polyester suit
a size too small. Mud music
as they packed her in
damp ground, it's always raining
somewhere, in New Jersey,
while everyone was thinking about
fried chicken and potato salad,
caramel cake and lemonade.
Isn't that a pretty dress
they put her in? She looks so
(Tammi Terrell
collapsed in Marvin Gaye's arms
onstage. For two hundred points,
what was the song?) Trampled
beneath the procession, her music.
Pieces of sleep like pieces of shale
crumble through my four a.m.
(a flutter of gray that could be
rain), unable to read this thing
that calls itself the present.
She's lost among the spaces
inside letters, moth light, moth wind,
a crumpled poem in place of love.