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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Reginald Shepherd 1963-2008

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/16/08 at 10:58 PM

Last week, after a long and painful illness, the poet Reginald Shepherd died.

He was the author of five volumes of poetry—Some are Drowning; Angel, Interrupted; Wrong; Otherhood; and Fata Morgana—and a volume of essays, Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry. He edited two anthologies, The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries and Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries. There are additional volumes of poems and essays forthcoming. He also kept a weblog the last couple of years, which can be found here, and also did some posting at the Harriet blog.

He was one of the best poets of his generation, and one of the smartest of this era. The course of his life—born and raised in Bronx projects, exiled to Macon, Georgia, then rising up to Bennington and Brown and beyond—was the stuff of an Oprah-list memoir. The motor of that progression, his adamantine integrity that would not swerve nor stoop, was heroic in the old-fashioned sense: it brought him to glories and it brought him to calamities. But he was no cliché. His friends, and those students and readers who were drawn to him, knew he was a rare spirit. As one friend puts it, “what I love about Reginald is how cantankerous, bellicose, generous and celebratory he is all at once, which is to say how gobsmackingly alive, and making more out of that than the rest of us lazy SOB’s.”

There are many online tributes to him. Ron Silliman has a large list, as well as his own thoughts. The Harriet blog posting has a long comment thread. Some good accounts not listed are from his student Jasper Bernes here and his partner Robert Philen here. I agree with almost everything people have said, and many have said it better than I ever could. I would like to note some aspects that could be emphasized or have not been touched on.

I would call attention to two of his poetry’s most distinctive features. Though the poems see clearly the pain of this life, they strive for beauty. For Reginald always wished to make beautiful artworks. There is a lyrical lushness to them, an unembarrassed exuberance. In addition, the poems are never ironically dismissive or smirky. They never apologize for themselves, never go for a cool detachment, and never guard themselves with hip anomie.

If these and other features distinguish his work from much or most of today’s poetry, that is not to say he isolated himself. Reginald was thoroughly engaged. His capacious intelligence was capable of seeing and understanding much (to me it seemed he understood everything), and his quicksilver eloquence was capable of imparting that understanding to anyone who would listen. As is attested to in the accounts of his friends and students, and in his own writings, he worked hard to make his thought understood.

Which leads me to another feature of his character: he didn’t use his intelligence as a cudgel to beat his interlocutor into submission. Yes, he was proud, and he wanted his intelligence to be recognized. But the point of any discussion with him was to reach a better understanding of the world. He was essentially and not just vocationally a teacher.

For Reginald there was no fatal distinction between poetry and criticism, or between creativity and theory. Because he believed in both art and truth, he was at once highly romantic in his aspirations (see his “Why I Write”) and highly sober and clear-eyed in his perceptions. He had the strength to carry through on Gramsci’s prescription for “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.” Thus he greatly respected Adorno, but also loved the pleasure that the artwork brings. However the objects of our desire may be our undoing, he would never stint what satisfactions are available to us.

He had a great sense of humor (the dreadful humorlessness of this posting is all my fault, a symptom of my lesser ability). He may have refused the smirky irony that runs through much postmodernism, but he loved popular culture as much as high culture. He owned more copies of Richard Strauss’s Electra than anyone should, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of boy bands, both American and European. Popular music was as important to him as poetry, as is evident in the various references throughout his work.

He was never a prig, nor was he ever naïve or credulous. But he was passionate. The things he loved, he loved, and the things he hated, he hated. He had no detachment from what he thought was important. Nor did he care to pay attention to those things he thought were unimportant. He would spend hours and hours working with a student or friend whose poetry he believed in (sometimes more than the poet him- or herself did), but he wouldn’t waste a minute talking to an established poet whose work didn’t interest him.

He never kissed anyone’s ass, no matter how much power they had over his education, his career, or his ability to pay the next month’s rent. He was self-made. In our supposed meritocracy, how many have made it from the Bronx to Brown? Despite the ravings on Foetry.com, every single publication he got through his own efforts. For years he tirelessly submitted poems to journals and submitted manuscripts to book contests. He never moped. The same day a packet came back rejected, that same packet was sent on to the next journal. I don’t believe any poet achieved more with less patronage.

He never backed down from his truth, nor did he compromise on his integrity. Such a character has trouble in the social world. He was a polarizing figure: that he was deeply loved is evident in the on-line eulogies, but he suffered more enmity than anyone I’ve ever known. For much of his life, he didn’t bother with social niceties, which often created troubles. Later in life he had mellowed enough to wish he had been a little obsequious with those who could have done him favors. But he knew why he had been the way he was.

He never had the least shred of actual power: he never had the power to keep someone getting into a school, or to kick someone out of a school, never had the power to deny someone a job, to deny them tenure, or to get them fired. Despite his powerlessness throughout his life, he was seen as a threat by a number of people who had such power and who brought the full measure of that power to bear on him.

He always fought back. To fall back on another cliché, he was a fighter. He had fought from the first to carve out a meaningful life. This last year, he fought like hell to stay alive, lasting much longer than the doctors expected. No lesson could be more important for me to take from him than courage, that my problems don’t amount to a hill of beans, that I, one of the lazier SOB’s, should get off my ass and get to work. As long as it’s important work.

In closing, I apologize for my sloppy hyperbole. His beauty deserves an aria, not this tuba obbligato. I also apologize for my anger. Reginald’s work was never bitter or reactionary. It was a positive, decisive drive toward what he thought a poem could be. And what bitterness and anger he had when I first met him, more than fifteen years ago at Iowa, he had released these last years. This was, more than words could say, much because of his partner, Robert Philen. Reginald had been so profoundly lonely; with Robert he was just as profoundly loved and in love. That is one last fact I would want noted: I have known no one whose inner life improved so much as he got older. For most of us, our spirit decays with our body, but Reginald was blossoming as his body was betraying him.

In the first draft of this posting, I closed with “You, Therefore,” the last poem from his most recent book, but Emily Warn at the Harriet blog also knew how appropriate a final word it was. In place of that sweetness, I will close on a contrasting note, the last poem from his first book. It is a meditation on his lost mother, a pervasive theme in that book. Perhaps it is wrong in this time of mourning to strike such a note, but I recall something from that book we spent so much time on together, Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: “Even in a legendary better future, art could not disavow remembrance of accumulated horror: otherwise its form would be trivial.” His friends may be devastated by his loss, but he has shown us a path through such pain:

Until She Returns

This is how I say it ends, Bronx County, 1978.
Packed up all my cares and woe in a plastic
garbage bag. It took an hour, maybe
less.

I take myself into the river of salt
for pages at a time, lying for the sake of
accuracy. All that summer it was winter; I said it
for her sake.

(For a year after she died
I dreamed of her; she came to say
she was just hiding. Death was just
a place to stay, a drift of cloud smeared half-way into
snow. I watched it fall.) (It never snowed there,
pine needles on red clay and heat-reek of the paper mill
for months. Mere decor, you might say, caves of kudzu
and no sidewalks. I missed sidewalks
most of all.) Some Thursday’s drift of cloud stole forty years
in passing, and an extra for good luck. Some other spring
I’ll give them back.

Days spent
curled around a tattered name, erased: white
piss-smelling flowers, intimate
spring air against the throat, some warmth
not far enough away. My little sister said
we’ll have to find another…; we were named
after each other, before the fact. Who isn’t her these days?
Hat boxes and a closet full of coats with fur collars,
someone to betray over and over. (The personal effects
incinerated, with no one to say
mine. I’ll take the rhinestone buckles on the shoes.)

When death comes he’ll be a fine young man
and I will kiss his rotten lips and find her there.
Here I go, singing low.


Comments

Thank you for reminding us of Reginald Shepherd’s spirit and the importance of his work.

By on 09/20/08 at 05:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear Lawrence,

This is such a fantastic and moving tribute. I was a friend of Reginald’s and just participated in a memorial tribute to him at this year’s AWP in Denver, along with Robert Philen and some other really fine people. Coincidentally, I built that fifteen minute tribute around this very poem. I’d love to paste it into these comments and will try, but it’s a few pages long, so maybe it won’t work. The odd thing is that it starts with an anecdote of my meeting Reginald in the produce section at the Co-op in Iowa with Jan Weismuller in 1994, when he was in town to give a reading at Praire Lights. There was a third man there at that terribly important meeting for me: I have heard Reginald talk about you, seen you in his book dedications here and there, and always wondered if you were there that day. Small thing, but it means a lot to me. I miss him a lot.

Here’s the text of my remarks, and I apologize in advance if this is the wrong place to post them.

The Good Shepherd, in memorium, Reginald Shepherd, poet, essayist, friend, brother
1963 – September 10, 2008

“Be bold, be bold, be bolder still.” Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen

“When death comes he’ll be a fine young man
and I will kiss his rotten lips and find her there. Here I go, singing low.” Reginald Shepherd, “Until She Returns”, from Some Are Drowning

So I’d like to begin by reading the poem “Until She Returns,” which is an elegy for Shepherd’s mother, the terrifying muse who both begins and ends this first book, Some Are Drowning.  Here it is, in full:

[Read the poem slowly:]

Until She Returns
This is how I say it ends, Bronx County, 1978.
Packed up all my cares and woe in a plastic
garbage bag. It took an hour, maybe less.
I take myself into the river of salt
for pages at a time, lying for the sake of
accuracy. All that summer it was winter; I said it for her sake. (For a year after she died
I dreamed of her; she came to say
she was just hiding. Death was just
a place to stay, a drift of cloud smeared half-way into snow. I watched it fall.) (It never snowed there, pine needles on red clay and heat-reek of the paper mill for months.
Mere decor, you might say, caves of kudzu
and no sidewalks. I missed sidewalks
most of all.) Some Thursday’s drift of cloud stole forty years in passing, and an extra for good luck. Some other spring
I’ll give them back.

Days spent
curled around a tattered name, erased: white
piss-smelling flowers, intimate
spring air against the throat, some warmth
not far enough away. My little sister said
we’ll have to find another…; we were named
after each other, before the fact. Who isn’t her these days?
Hat boxes and a closet full of coats with fur collars,
someone to betray over and over. (The personal effects incinerated, with no one to say
mine. I’ll take the rhinestone buckles on the shoes.)

When death comes he’ll be a fine young man
and I will kiss his rotten lips and find her there. Here I go, singing low.

So, this is how I say it begins: in the Co-op, Iowa City, Fall of ‘94. Carolyn Forche had picked Some Are Drowning for the AWP Award in Poetry the previous year and Reginald was there to give a reading at Prairie Lights.  Back then, as a nervous, 23 year old wannabe poet, I didn’t think they even let graduates of the Writers’ Workshop publish books, much less books of such bold and bolder still witness.  This is how I say it begins: with the poetry, of such courageous imagination and overwhelming consequence, and with Reginald, in the produce section, right there by the arugula, black leather jacket, shaved head, handsome, dogtags around his neck, and when we were introduced by Jan the all-important keeper of the poetry section at Prairie Lights, when I confessed that I hadn’t been able to make his reading because of work, he let loose with one of those great Reginald Shepherd lines: “I’ll forgive you,” and even though he was joking, he did not laugh.

This is how I say it begins, in earnest, with a phonecall, years later: it was Reginald Shepherd, did I remember him?  He’d picked a poem of mine for an Epoch special issue focusing on unpublished young poets—maybe some of you on the panel were in that issue?  It was a phonecall of several hours duration, I recall, for we hit it off right away, and at one point I asked him something like “are you okay?” which was shorthand for, ‘I’ve read your poems and I know that you have AIDS,’ and before I could clarify, he said: “You mean do I have aids and am I dying?” And this time he did laugh—as if to say, let me help you find the words to talk about this, I’ll help you, I’ll listen, but I won’t make it easier: as in ‘I forgive you, in advance.’

“Some other Spring/I’ll give them back”

That phonecall began for me a truly extraordinary period during which Reginald not only championed my work—publishing my poems in more than a few different journals when he was invited to be guest-editor, and for The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries—but also published five books of poetry, two books of essays, including the new one, gave readings, edited, taught—well, read the bibliography.

What the record doesn’t show, however, was his relentlessly uncompromising support and loyalty for so many of us, especially the ones who had trouble getting our work out there. He gave back, simply because he felt that work needed to be read, and the relationships followed from that act.  What it doesn’t show is that he struggled and survived and lived with AIDS, mentored and taught many students, and last but not least, fell in love with Robert Philen. 

How do you distill a friendship down into fifteen minutes?  So I’ve chosen a few sentences from emails to underscore and broadcast that goodness, that true generosity, along with the difficulties and the struggle and the fierce intelligence.  These are in no particular order:

These, from emails in Spring 2008, after he very nearly died:

“Thanks for your notes, for the revised version of the poem (which is wonderful), for your kind words about me and my work, and for your good wishes about my kidney.”

“I am gradually getting better—the wound vac is off and my wound is sealing up well, more quickly than my infectious disease doctor thought it would—but I’m still on IV antiobiotics, which make me queasy and fatigued.”

And a year or so before that, these:

“You too, my friend, are a brilliant and talented writer, and a very kind and caring person, both of which are incredibly rare—the combination is almost unheard of.  So it would just be wrong to let the bastards grind you down.  So we will just decide that won’t happen, okay?”

“For now, I must sign off, as I am exhausted and need to start getting ready for bed.  I have been running around all day accomplishing not much of anything, but I at least also did a very intense workout today, so I achieved something.  And I wrote to you,
which is always a good thing.”

More advice on academia, which I still need:

“The system is indeed cruel, but though it’s mauled me a bit, it hasn’t chewed me up—
I’m still standing, and still more or less intact. If anything, I’m more sane than I used to be.  How’s that for a positive attitude? :-)”

“. . .for example, being told during a campus visit at the University of Nebraska that they’d heard that I had “difficulties with authority” and that “we will of course say and do racist things without meaning to—how would you respond?”

And this one, just after Reginald reconnected with his little sister:

“It is amazing to me that my sister and I are back in contact, and that we’ve been able to reconnect so easily and so well. I’m hoping to (re)meet in August, when I will fly out to Oakland while she has some vacation time.  It’s an incredible prospect to me. Unfortunately, various other maternal relatives I have no desire to be in touch with have been coming out of the woodwork.  I am trying to politely but firmly blow them off.”

On whether or not to apply for a Guggenheim, which I did, and didn’t get. (Reginald got one the year before):

“As I said before, I think that it’s always better to try than not to, even if something is a long shot. After all, it’s a no shot if you don’t even try. There’ve definitely been too many things I’ve not done in my life because of fear, and I regret it. Fortune favors the brave. He who hesitates is lost. And other inspirational platitudes. As Spenser wrote in
The Faerie Queene, Be bold, be bold, be bolder still.

And this last one, signing off, as always:

“Take care, my friend, and I hope to talk to you soon.  I’ll be at AWP also.  I hope that we can get together then.  Peace and poetry, Reginald, the Good Shepherd.”

That continued for years, and each time he wrote to me about his health, especially, I thought, at first, God, is this going to be it?  And then, Another bullet dodged?  Until finally, naively: I thought, That Reginald is a tough son-of-a-bitch, until one fine morning in September 2008, after a spell of silence, I got a long message from Robert Philen, informing me that Reginald was in hospice and that I was one of the people he wanted to talk to before he died.

“Here I go, singing low.”

I didn’t want to think this was my last phonecall with Reginald.  I kept putting that thought out of my mind.  But it was.  Later, much later, Robert Philen told me how difficult it was for him—how he didn’t have the energy to write, about his fear (“I’m afraid, I’m just not as afraid as I thought I’d be.”) I didn’t want to ponder that it must have been an extraordinary expenditure of energy and a sacrifice of what little time was left just to talk to me by telephone.  And I recall, alas, very little, because I was upset, but I remember that his voice came from a very far way off, it was powerful and small, and it sounded ground down.  One thing I do recall, after I told him what he and his work meant to me, and what I meant to him, was that he kept talking about Robert.  “I’m so worried about leaving Robert.  What’s Robert going to do now.  I just can’t stand to think about Robert all alone.  If only things would be different, not for myself, but for Robert.” It’s hard to interrupt somebody who’s dying, but I did it, and here’s what I said: “God Reginald, with everything you’re going through right now, and all you’re thinking about is somebody else.” And before I could ponder that this just might be—and I want to say this carefully and clearly—the moral center of the universe: before I could figure out what it all meant, Reginald stopped me, and his voice rose in stature, reared back, and it seemed to reach out for me across all that distance between us: “That’s because,” he said, “I can’t do anything about the fact that I’m dying.  I can do something for Robert.”

That’s the fine young man.  That’s the kiss.

By on 04/11/10 at 09:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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