by Michael Wasson
This is America speaking in translation, in glitter,
in gold grills and fried chicken. Auto-tune this if you must.
Roger Reeves’ debut collection, King Me, marks an impressive, I would even say needed, contribution to contemporary American poetry. His poems here present an America that is personal in its specificity, myriad in expanse and scope. Reeves’ hands and mouth drip with the intimate relationship of beauty and violence.
The lyric in his book confronts us—chapped, curled sores, delicate to the touch, its bright wounds scattered as pleasantly as autumn clovers. His opening poem, “Pledge,” is a stark reminder: leave every painful, lovely, and often ordinary experience behind. Leave a wake of presence. In it, Reeves’ crafts negation, imprinting a slowly developing absence. Remaining for us:
I leave, I leave—this will surely leave a stain.
King Me ceremonializes historical and social uses of language, too. In “Cross Country,” which I first quoted at the beginning of this review, we are witness to a speaker teasing out both creation and undoing of the black body, an American corporeality:
below this golden altar, the making and unmaking
of my body.
Reeves strains, croons, unmistakably finding refuge in the service of honoring a life and well as a death. It’s almost too much to handle, but Reeves guides us with as much of his grace as his muscled encouragement. His hands hold onto a lush sprawl of experience that moves from “the blue / hour of a field” to “the bog at the end of this road” to “a city that is running out of water.” History moves. It casts its line from the past to the very modern glitz of an urban space drying out, pocked and tattered, streetlit and concrete. And still Reeves sings out to us:
Pulling pulling, pulling. Think: nigger is the god
of our brief salvation. Nigger in a body falling toward a horizon.
And for the poet to keep hauling, to wrestle with language, it’s the repetition of his lines that provides us the energy deep from within his tongue. He reminds himself of the fiery convulsions that lie beneath the calls and responses to racial slurs. He gets as close as he can in understanding the emotional depth of this language, almost similar to how Yusef Komunyakaa articulates “Facing It,” to say “I’m flesh,” I’m human, I’m placed inside the skin of the memorial of history, of language, and of the self—full body mirrors shimmering at every angle.
This book is also “[o]pen as a wound,” showcasing a dual reality between healing and its stinging lesion.
I belong to the silence of a pomegranate
just cut open, the red seeds
pebbling a white plate.
Here, “Of Genocide, or Merely Sound” illustrates an afterimage of that opened wound, and Reeves locates his readers into that sound, building dissonant tension into the initial beauty of fruit. As those seeds rest on the plate, we sit patiently to pinch the seeds to our tongues.
Another perspective, too, Reeves does a masterful job at intersecting the reflection of the contemporary self with figures from the past. In a way then these poems investigate both damage and resilience embraced at a middle ground—a constant threading of historical fabric to our present modernity. And he’s not afraid to include the perforations and sewn lines that needle pins leave behind.
Throughout, self-portraits help to structure King Me. We hear Tiny Davis, jazz trumpeter and singer, Duchenne, French Neurologist, Van Gogh, and even Love in Mississippi. King Me is just that. Holding the ancient crown, those who’ve honoring the past—an entire lineage of people, bodies, deaths, and reputations—and wearing it today, singing of all the aligned human flesh.
Reading Reeves’ collection will give off multitudes of emotion. Several sensations at once. The slick wet tongue on dust. The dry hands parting the water. Fire drying the wet clothes of the impoverished. The horror and splendor of American identity.
This is a needed book.
The end insists the title “Someday I’ll love Roger Reeves.” Well, Roger Reeves, someday seems more like every day—or every poem that fleshes out the texture of this book.
Can I say it again? King Me is a needed book.
King Me is available from Copper Canyon Press
Michael Wasson, nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, earned his MFA from Oregon State University and his BA from Lewis-Clark State College. He received a Joyce Carol Oates Award in Poetry, and his work is included or forthcoming in Poetry Kanto, As/Us, Hayden’s Ferry Review, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Cutthroat, and elsewhere.