Orpheus in the Bronx by Reginald Shepherd
This review appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Rain Taxi. (I've left the page references in that RT uses for proofreading, as they may be useful to readers.)
Orpheus in the Bronx:
Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry
by Reginald Shepherd
University of Michigan Press
It's not difficult to trace the source of all the magic in Reginald Shepherd's first collection of essays—the author's sensitivity to the fruitful borderlands between aesthetics and politics—but pinning down each wondrous effect emanating from that source might take a while. This is a book rich with ideas and implications, a book that provokes and dazzles and sings.
In the introduction to Orpheus in the Bronx, Shepherd calls himself "someone who has looked to art and literature as a means for the expansion rather than the constriction of horizons" (1), and that tendency and quest is evident on every page of every essay. As a poet who is, among other things, black and gay, he might seem like a good poster boy for a concert of politics and confession, but his inclinations are more ornery and artful. "History, politics, economics, authorial biography, all contribute to the matter of poetry and even condition its modes of being," he writes, "but they don't determine its shape, its meaning, or its value." (2)
This idea gets hinted at and whispered toward throughout the first essay in the book, "To Make Me Who I Am," a portrait of the young man who becomes the artist. The odds were against Shepherd becoming much of anything (never mind a poet), growing up, as he says, "in the Bronx in various housing projects and tenements and housing projects (in that order)" (9). The picture of his early life is a vivid, complex one—a life of hardship, certainly, but a life made bearable and even wondrous by the love of a devoted mother who filled their home with as many books as she could afford. Science fiction novels, comic books, classical mythology—these became the portals, along with music, that gave young Reginald glimpses of a deeper inner life. And then, ten days before his fifteenth birthday, his mother died. Shepherd went to live with an aunt in Macon, Georgia, "sleeping on a rollaway bed in the den in a three-room house crammed with eight people" (23). He did not give up his aspirations, though, and from Georgia he went to Bennington College in Vermont, a place that probably felt like an alien planet. He left Bennington before graduating, worked various jobs, and returned a few years later to finish up. He then headed to graduate school at Brown and Iowa, where he first began publishing the poetry he had been devoted to writing for so long.
The autobiography serves as a foundation to Orpheus in the Bronx, grounding the later, less personal writing and helping us to understand the circumstances that produced Shepherd's perspective. It is a perspective sharpened by the experiences of someone who, because of race and class and sexuality, has often been an outsider to the kingdoms he encountered, and who saw art as a tool with which to carve a spot for himself within those kingdoms: a place, if not of harmony, then of happy tension. "Part of my project as a writer," he says, "has necessarily (in order for me to be a writer at all) been to attempt to disentangle art's liberatory from its oppressive aspects, to remember that those who so often own art don't define it, that (as Adorno pointed out) art is the enemy of culture and culture is the enemy of art." (36)
Poetry is, for Shepherd, both an inside and an outside, a kingdom and a rebel camp. Poetry itself provides otherness—it is distinct from the "utilitarian, means-end rationality of capitalist society" that "embodies an otherness of inclusion rather than exclusion, of possibility rather than constraint" (41). This possibility is what Shepherd extols as the liberatory power of literature, and he vigorously defends it against the cultural ministers who, whether through unconscious expectations or deliberate ideology, try to protect a hollow realm where every writer is "bound by social constructions of identity, or required to flash [an] assigned identity card" (51). Shepherd's is, then, an aesthetic argument, one that does not deny the force that subject matter exerts on literature, but that tries to save some space for considerations of the qualities poems share regardless of their subject matter. The freedom poetry provides emanates from the imaginative space it preserves. That imaginative space is valuable for its "uselessness" within the logic of capitalism, not for its ability to change the world—Shepherd cites George Oppen: "If you decide to do something politically, you do something with political efficacy. And if you write poetry, you write poetry, not something you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering." (54)
These ideas, expressed in the book's second essay, "The Other's Other: Against Identity Poetry, for Possibility," carry forth throughout Orpheus in the Bronx and inform Shepherd's later exhortations for poetic ecumenicalism, a search for a path between the various warring villages dotting the landscape of the last half-century of poetic schools, churches, and licensing bureaus. He disdains the insularity of poetry's mainstreams and avant-gardes, its false dichotomies and self-important taxonomies. The contemporary poetry he advocates for is a poetry open to possibility, a poetry written by poets who do not shun a technique simply because of which side of the garden it grew in: "While availing themselves of all the resources of the lyric tradition, such poets remain alert to the seductions of such splendors: they neither stop their ears to the sirens nor are lured onto the rocks by them. They sing, and see, and say, and refuse the temptation or the demand that they choose one or the other." (75)
After manifestos (including essays on beauty and the idea of an urban pastoral) come readings of specific writers. These include thoughtful, probing readings of poets both well known (Jorie Graham) and less known (Alvin Feinman), as well as a magnificent study of Genet's Querelle and an overview of the work of Samuel R. Delany, whom he dubs "one of the best-known neglected writers in America" (133). It is in his discussion of Delany that we get a glimpse of Orpheus, a glimpse that allows many of the ideas and themes of Orpheus in the Bronx to coalesce:
In The Einstein Intersection Lo Lobey and Friza, members of an alien race who have settled on Earth after the humans have gone away, play out the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, trying to figure out what it meant to be human by living out the myths the people left behind, wearing them like clothing that doesn't fit properly. This has always resonated with me as an image of my own relation to the corpus, if not the corpse, of Western high culture, which is in my possession but does not belong to me: we are simultaneously wholly part of and utterly other to one another. My language is both my most intimate possession and not mine at all, and that is a space of creation as well as of alienation. (138)
Shepherd claims to have learned as much about language and writing from Delany, a fiction writer, as from any poet. I do not doubt that a young writer somewhere, a poet or fiction writer or playwright or something less definable, will learn as much from Shepherd's essays as from any other source, and will be inspired to create wonders. But why limit wonders to a young writer? Orpheus in the Bronx is a book that could be an inspiration and provocation for anyone.