One of the most striking and compelling features of Reginald Shepherd's new book Wrong is Shepherd's apparent love of language. During a time in which much contemporary poetry reads more like prose than verse, this attribute is particularly refreshing and welcome. The poems in Wrong move beautifully, with the effortlessness and at times the force of "water," one of the elemental, returning images throughout the collection. Shepherd is attentive to the sounds of words for the sake of music and capitalizes effectively on the nuances of language.
This can be seen in the poem "Some Maps" in the lines "Aniline, amaranth or amethyst / (A purpling perhaps)." Here, assonance and alliteration along with the constant substitution of linked words based on their proximity of sound, and in turn meaning, create a rhythm that conveys the sense of urgency we frequently experience in this book for Shepherd to find just the right word to say what he means.
Shepherd also exhibits excellent control over the "line" as the key functional unit of the poem. His line breaks often play with our expectations of what is occurring and what we hope to have fulfilled by the poem. "Noon is no one / thing at all, noon is here and gone" from "Deepest of the Great Lakes, Largest Too" is only one such example of many in which Shepherd shifts directions and forces us to new conclusions midstream or mid-thought.
While there is much to praise on the whole about Shepherd's language, his diction is elevated to such a level at times that it can feel stilted or in conflict with the subject matter. I'm thinking of a poem like "Nights and Days of Nineteen-Something" most pointedly, in which the speaker's sexual escapades don't mesh with the word choice and rhyme used to explicate them. Rather, the diction in this poem creates a sense of disjunction too great to traverse, and the result is almost comical and absurd.
Another point of weakness in the collection is the lack of a clear dramatic center in several poems. While the language goes a long way in suggesting urgency, I'm not sure that the subject matter, as expressed, does the same. Shepherd has been praised for his reticence. This attribute seems to work against him at times in Wrong, though, leaving the poems flat or not quite hitting sufficient dramatic pitch.
There are themes and images throughout which do hold the poems together as a collection. The appearance of Greco-Roman myths as allusion or as the entire premise of many poems is the centrally cohesive device. The figure of Narcissus crops up several times. In conjunction, water and the idea of mirroring, reflecting, and refracting surfaces appear again and again. Such images are resonant, given many of the poems' overriding concern with representing the "visible" and invisible gay male experience in the 13.5.
While I am not always clear in other poems as to the reason for the invocation of a mythological figure or myth itself, two poems that stand out are "About a Boy" and "L'Apres-Midi." In both of these poems, Shepherd exquisitely integrates the mythological world and the present-day reality of the speaker. At their strongest, the poems centered on Greco-Roman myth refashion these stories, updating and often placing them in the context of gay male life at the end of the twentieth century. In so doing, Shepherd reveals to us why all stories hold power over our lives and how stories, like language itself, produce and manipulate the production of meaning.
Perhaps the strongest and most moving poem in the collection is also one of the most apparently personal, "Also Loves You." Like several others, this poem contains the dedication "For Chris," and we can deduce that Chris is the speaker's lover. If we weave together the narrative threads from other poems such as "Antibody," we can surmise that the threat of death for the speaker is a reality forced by living with HIV/AIDS. The presence of death hovers over many of the poems in this collection, but in "Also Loves You" it crystalizes into a forceful outpouring of desire, impending loss, and of the love that sustains.
The constancy of love in the face of a fractured and fracturing world is one of the most convincing and emotionally satisfying features of this collection. Despite my hesitations about some aspects of the book, Shepherd's faith in love and treatment of desire as something to be mistrusted and, simultaneously, embraced create a paradox and tension that are intriguing and make Wrong, ultimately, well worth the read.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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