Offen Poetry Prize Reading by Roger Reeves, 2.8.17


The title of Roger Reeves’ first collection of poetry, _King Me_ is a masterclass on the prosody of sovereign subjectivity compressed into a single metrical foot. If you read these two syllables as King Me You have the king as noun, the royal me, ruler or lord of all the me surveys. Read it as King Me, though, and we’re in the grammatical realm of the imperative, with “king” acting as verb, “king me” the command of a child about to beat you at a game of checkers. It all depends on where you place the stress and _King Me_, or _King Me_, is a book about stress, about where we place the accent on our historical narratives of race, sexuality, and class. I can’t remember a first book of poetry in recent years that negotiates these overlapping distressed histories with such ferocity, grace, and measure. “In the torn light of evening,” writes Reeves, there is enough treason for everybody.” And in a later poem he observes, “In the beginning, there was enough poverty for everyone.” Between treason and poverty, you’ll find Reeves’ _King Me_ enthroned an abject despot, a precocious child, an unscannable poet. Roger Reeves was born and raised in southern New Jersey, just outside Philadelphia. He earned a BA in English from Morehouse College, an MA in English from Texas A&M, an MFA from the James A. Michener Center for Creative Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, and a PhD from UT Austin. His work has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, and Paris American. His debut collection of poetry, _King Me_, or _King Me_, was published in 2013 by Copper Canyon Press and was honored as a Library Journal Best Poetry Book of 2013. Reeves has been awarded a 2015 Whiting Award, a 2013 NEA Fellowship, a 2013 Pushcart Prize, a 2008 Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, two Bread Loaf scholarships, and two Cave Canem Fellowships. For the 2014-15 school year, Reeves was a Hodder Fellow of Princeton University. Currently, Reeves teaches poetry at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Please join me in welcoming Roger Reeves. Thank you, University of Chicago for inviting one of us West Loopers down to see y’all. I like it down here. Your bookstore is really great. It’s really awesome. I loved it when it was in the catacombs too, but I know y’all had to update it and all, but make sure to get a little bit more Foucault in. They’re missing _Fearless Speech_. You should hound them about that. I’m going to read from the new project as well as the old project, so we’re going to start with the oldies but the goodies, as they say. And then we’ll move into the new stuff. So since we’re in Chicago, we should start with a Chicago poem, right? Or a poem that is in some way implicitly related to Chicago. So we will start with the Mayor of Money, for Emmett Till. We’re up here in Chicago, but did not die here. The Mayor of Money Another dead mayor waits in the shoals of some body of water Waits to be burden Born into a foaming ocean where it might become food for whales or simply empty Signifier, hair latched to the seas’ undulation Like Absalom’s beauty caught in the branches of a tree design union Entanglement Thick Confusion But not this mayor. She does not get the luxury of a lyric, A song that makes our own undoing or killing sweet, Even as We go down into the fire to rise as smoke, this horse lies eyes Open among the stone and freshwater crawfish and money Mississippi She listens to the men’s boots break the water when they drop a black boy’s body near her head Then pick him up only to let him fall again There, bent and eye-to-eye with her As though the king is something that requires a witness, as though the mayor might say, On Tuesday After the rain fell the boy’s neck finally snapped from the weight of the mill fan He never looked at me again Or the boy might say No more They part here, the boy’s body carried back to town by another as the horse stays Says nothing because horses don’t speak Besides, this one’s dead Just a little after note, I don’t know if you’ve heard recently that the woman that accused Emmett Till of wolf-whistling says none of that ever happened. He didn’t say anything to her. She made it all up. So this boy died on somebody’s imagination. Because of somebody’s imagination. So the next poem, I’m a runner. I love to run. My favorite thing to do. It’s like the thing that America can’t take from me. Right, like, It’s like it’s a way for me, when I was younger, to make myself feel beautiful. When everything else around me was like, Nigger! You know? So there was this one moment, though, where in which these moments collided in Austin, Texas. I was getting my PhD. I think I was in my MFA. I was running one of those beautiful October mornings where it’s like 67, right, and as I’m running, A man decides to follow me. This is not abnormal if you’re a runner. People follow you all the time. I’ve been followed the best, yet haven’t gotten like this new poem. But like one time I was running in college, I ran in college at Morehouse, we used to run early enough that prostitutes were still out on the street and sometimes they would run with us. And it was really awesome. They would just be like, Oh y’all boys running, and we’d be like, Yeah come on. Some could roll too. But this was not one of those sort of fun-loving moments. This is a moment in which someone follows me and decides to yell “Nigger” at me. So this poem comes out of that moment. Cross Country When I ran it rained niggers Early in October The first creases of autumn, a flag weary sky in which yellow birds in flight Slipped through the breastbone of God and tear at the coarse threads that keep the morning knit tightly around his heart What was it that they sang about the light Their tongues, the thistles they plucked from the bitter bark of an awl thorn, then thrust Into the breast of whatever God Or good animal requires eating, a good piercing, these blonde bodies Thrashing about above me where death’s idea of the morning passing Here below this golden altar, the making and unmaking Of my body, the kettle clank and souring sumac of a man yelling at the light slipping in and out Of my mouth, what name must I carry above the dust of this field, bruised ear, blank body Purple tongue, bloody God bleeding, do you hear me Deer piss in poison ivy, made pungent by the dew and morning sun rising, do you hear me? When I ran it rained niggers in a ditch along the road, a pair of wild boars slain and laid tusks to tail Point as if required in two directions at once toward my body pressing the last bits of The hunter’s moon Into the tar of this road and away from the metal red light coming up through the chaff Rising above this hectored field and the man yelling Nigger in the cicadas tuning up to tear the morning into tatters, nigger in the squawk and clatter of a hen complaining of the hand Reaching below her bottom and removing the warm work of a cold night, nigger in the reeds covering the muck of a beaver’s hard birth Nigger in the blue hour of a field, once sweat with the breath of a lone horse Cracking along its flanks, nigger in the fog lifting from this field and the stillbirth it reveals Nigger in the running, in the bog at the end of this road, in the war and in between the wars Nigger in the pink salted eyelashes of a woman I love, her mouth pulling water from behind my knee Pulling, pulling, pulling Think, nigger is the god of our brief salvation, nigger in a body falling toward a horizon, nigger in a twilight That is no longer a twilight but a black creek fumbling Along the spine of a boy who is running through a city that is running out of water Even lions have left for the mountains, this is America speaking in translation, in glitter and gold grills and fried chicken Auto-tune this if you must, Cher will be singing in the brush of static from the attic radio Believing in love after love or life after love despite the impure thoughts of evening Despite the rain soaking the red head of a red bird now dead in a puddle that refuses to reflect the moon This next poem I call my hipster poem. Y’all know what hipsters are, is that still? OK, because I didn’t know what they were until 2007. I had moved out of a rural place to the city and there were, hippies went to hipsters, so This is called “Some Young Kings.” Oh, the other evolution you might, do you guys remember the HBO show Oz? OK, if you don’t, pull it up on Netflix. Some Young Kings The Mike Tyson in me sings like a narwhal Minus the nasally twang of sleeping in a cold ocean, the unsightly barnacles latch to the mattress of skin just below my eye The white horn jutting out from the top of my head Oh God bless us mutts, the basset bloodhound mulattos, the pug mix puppies left behind the dog pounds Cinderblock walls as German Shepherds, Labradoodles, and Portuguese Water Dogs turn they’re inbred behinds and narrow backs at our small mouths blues, it’s hard to smile With an ear in your mouth, two names, and a daughter hanging by a thread from the railing of a treadmill Oh neck in North Carolina and a white coat of paint for all the faces of my negro friends hanging from trees in Salisbury, Greensboro, Guilford County, The hummingbirds inside my chest With their needlenose pliers for tongues and hammer heavy wings have left a mess of ticks in my lungs and a punctured lullaby in My throat, little boy blue come blow your horn, the cow’s in the meadow and Dorothy’s alone in the corn with Jack His black fingers, the brass of his lips, the half moons of his fingernails clicking along her legs until she howls, Charlie Parker, Charlie Parker Charlie Parker, Oz is a man with a mute body on an HBO Original show that I’m too afraid to watch For fear of finding my uncle, or a man that looks like my uncle, which means finding a man that looks like me slumped Over a shiv made from a mattress coil and a bar of ivory soap, most young kings return home without their heads, It’s 1941, and Jack Johnson still loves white women, and my mother won’t forgive him, if she can’t use your comb Don’t bring her home, my mother says in 1998 It’s 2009 and I still love white women Charlie Parker, Charlie Parker, Charlie Parker Often I click the heels of my Nikes together when talking to the police, I am a cricket crushed beneath a car’s balding black tires Most young kings return home without their heads There’s this poet named Frank O’Hara who I call Uncle Frank because I just think he’s quite amazing. Like, if y’all don’t know who Frank O’Hara is, if you’re ever in need of a poem, because he wrote tons of them that just is sheer vulnerability but also like, reveling in on’es not-OK-ness, Frank O’Hara has that for you. So I was eading him while I was doing my MFA because he has tons of poems. It’s in this like, collected, anybody in an MFA probably has one of these or have bought one of these, may have fallen on their head at some point. And there was this poem, I’ll never forget, I was just reading through a bunch of Frank O’Hara, and there was this moment in a very small poem towards the bottom where he says, Someday I’ll love Frank O’Hara. And I thought, one, to say your name in a poem is kind of awesome, right, like I just think like, poets generally don’t do this a lot. But then, to say like, one day you’ll love yourself. Such a vulnerable, but like a moment that I needed. And so I wrote this poem thinking about Uncle Frank. So this is called, Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves. Until then Let us have our Gods and short prayers Our obligations, Our thigh bone connected to our knee bone, our dissections and our swans, Our legs gashed upon a barbed wire fence, and our heels tucked behind our lovers’ knees, Let us have a stalk of sugar cane to suck And another to tear our backs with what it knows of disaster, and a tab full of folly Let us have mistakes and fish willing to come to a bell rung across a body of water Let us have our drawbridges and our moats, our heavens no higher than a pile of dried leaves Let us have irrelevance and a scalpel, A dislocated ankle and three more miles to run A plastic bottle to hold nothing but last names and a chill, if none of this will be remembered then let us keep speaking with tongues Light as green doors clapping shut on a child’s finger for this is love, to press one frame against another, and when something like a finger is found between this pressing The press nevertheless, for this is our obligation Let us forget our obligations, for this is love, let us forget our love, Our eyelids need for beginnings and ends and blood, our coils of hunger that turned another into dry honey on our hands And what if this goes on forever? Our hours, our drafts and fragments, our blizzards and our cancers, then let us Let us hold each other towards heaven and forget that we were once made of flesh But this is the fall our Gods refused to clean With fire or water So we’ll move to some new poems. I’ve been really thinking about commas lately. Partly because of Future. Y’all know that rapper? He has a song where he says, We about to fuck up some commas. At first people like, Oh that’s about conspicuous consumption, you know, but actually it’s also an aesthetic statement. Particularly if we think about the long history of black people coming to America. We came over the Atlantic, as commas on a ship. Our history begins as conspicuous consumption. So if we think about indemnity reports where slaves are, so there’s a lot of commas involved in the long history of African Americans, so I’ve been writing this long poem on commas and like sort of as it intersects with the selfie, And Marxism, and capitalism, so this is a section from The Book of the Sun. Oh wait, wait, there’s one more allusion. Y’all know that Jack Johnson loved white women, right? And so he was arrested eventually. You know, he gets in a lot of trouble. John McCain, wouldn’t exculpate, you know, he was convicted of trafficking white women across state lines because it was, at the time, when he’s boxing and when he’s famous, black folks couldn’t, black men and white women, white men and black women, we couldn’t marry. And so, he’s going across state lines in a car, and gets arrested. So eventually there’s this reporter that asks him a crazy question. And I think Jack Johnson has the best response ever. So that response is in here. But they asked Jack Johnson, why do white women love black men so much? He says, Because we eat cold eels and think distant thoughts. And I thought that is the hardest shit I’ve ever heard someone say! So that’s in here. So that’s not me. That’s Jack Johnson. The Book of the Sun What shall be done with the demand for more selfies? Selfies of the crow in the wheat and the wheat knocking against the window Selfies of my daughter hooting like an owl and beating the back of her cage, the back of her bones Selfies of wiccans’ steins’ eyes settling on the back of a crow, which is the shadow of a boy Delivering milk to the door of his mother where language began Begins Gertrude Stein over the Samborgaci eating salt fish and conch fritters with Aime Césaire, more selfies of negroes from Niger and New Orleans, blue black and the blue black buck and cancer of summer in Yves Saint-Laurent glasses and pinafores of light pinned to their eyes No church in the wild but more selfies of Suzy, Suzy Asada buck dancing on ballustrades near the nigger cemeteries where the chariot swung so low, we just called them commas. We bout the fuck up some commas, yeah. Gerrymander and Jack Johnson, the shit out of shit. Why do white women love black men? Because We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts. Jack Johnson We need more selfies, selfies of Frederick Douglass’s pin removed from the gashes in his feet and Writing hot checks for Rolexes and rivers our bodies just can’t cash We about to fuck up some trauma, yeah, Selfie and holler, yeah, Instagram at the Ashram with little Weezy World L Cory Jr. Not senior bus and three-pointers, yeah, on behalf of a local cherry that sends mosquito nets to children in Africa, the Sudan Niger, I don’t know, tiger, tiger burning bright Tiger, tiger Hanging from the streetlight Distant thought, I’m so in time, I’m out of time, so selfie I’m healthy, I mean I’m saying though, you know what I’m saying This next one is from a really long poem that I’ve been writing called “On Paradise,” where I imagined this lynched black man, right. He’s lynched, and he’s dying, and as he’s dying, animals sort of begin to pick him apart and he begins to sort of experience the world from these animals. He’s also trying to learn like, I think like, kind of like life, you have to learn how to be dead. So he’s trying to, he’s not sure how to be dead. So there’s like this whole pedagogical experience he’s having of learning how to be dead. Some of that is being visited by other dead folks, being like, Oh you do this when you die, or you don’t do this. But he’s visited by lots of different people and so these are two sections from the long poem. 276 ravens fight at the top of a hairless pine for its tip, to master the bottom of the sky Their black tumbles and tumbles into a type of second moon, or some A speculation, a vision absented Revealed, then absented, and a circular whirring that knocks and knocks at a door I open, and open to find 276 girls missing in Nigeria. I should just tell you what I see 276gGirls at my doorstep Asking me to braid their hair Though they know I cannot, and without wiping their feet at The mat they enter my yellow house, and I do not ask them to remove their dirt or their shoes, Or the vacancies they whisper about Your silence will not save you We have not asked you to speak for us Our disappearing speaks for us The pine trees’ fat needles brush the window to my right, the shadow of its flowers javelin down the sun and the ravens Flaking off into dark skies below the pine Even in death, I’m only as useful as palm to moon, an unasked for reflection So in this next section This is the section that if nothing happens with this long poem, as tends to be with poets when we decide to write long poems, This is a section I will save and I’ll call this New Critics They come in gold In the Rabbit Light, in the aboriginal blue of night, in the Gra and Marty, on Fat Tuesday When the devils in glittering Indian sleep in their gold Tiaras and broken feathers in the beads and sequins littering the last of our sight spreads out beneath us Until the spreading out ends in a thumb smudging Ash onto our foreheads as if the morning reinvents the dog without feathers into a star The river into a thread of a man snapping inside of a man Frame within frame, the liturgy of suffering or is it the suffering of liturgy Regardless they come without feathers wearing broad petals over their mouths Clapping at the indolent light tenting our cities, the voices in the trees, this opacity. What shall we call it? Metaphysical cleavage? Ineffable? The nomadic tendency of the self to wander outside of itself to see itself? Father, son, and Holy Ghost, when there were three, there was four in the fire Shadrach, Meshach, and a bad negro, Ashram, Sulaiman, Cajun, Ho Chi Minh, Slim Kim and the Cutthroat Gang Histories, epistrophe, apostrophying in the gloss of glossolalia, holy rolling rocontour Monsieur, Meister, Kant, what moral effect might this night have on the human reason of man? Let’s check the weather Erica say I’m clever, built with the bone structure of a smoke and paper god, what darkness within is not Also without? What river not also a noose? They come with sticks poking at the eyes of any body of water, they come Faces painted white, some wearing gorilla masks, some Grilling, gunboat gouging the Ganges or Mississippi or Senegambia, a suicide vest die. Where you at? Where you at? Has anyone found Kurtz, or his heart’s horror? You don’t make no goddamn sense, says my uncle, if all she has to write about is being black then she won’t have much to write about, Said Lewis Simpson of Gwendolyn Brooks, simple motherfucker, they coming, they coming, on the backs of the riot dogs in Ferguson, Missouri Swinging sledgehammers Disobeying the phantoms of commerce In the shapeless shadow, in the rabbit light and the difficulty to think at the end of the day in the trees Around you, and the humping and humped up, in the confusion of cardinal directions In the children’s black pilgrim hats, in the play about Harriet Jacobs fleeing her master in the ease of the attic above her master’s house In these Geographies of empire they come in banging their animal tongues with the ache of a woodshed slipping off its Foundation, they come hanging upon the shawl of the wind whispering, throw away the lights The definitions, and say what you see in the dark Thank you.

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