King Me by Roger Reeves
Copper Canyon Press, 2013; 77 pp
Reviewed by Robert Torres
Roger Reeves' King Me stitches together many worlds into one startling and visceral book. His ranging, encyclopedic knowledge crosses history, medicine, biology, metapoetics and more, but he tackles it all with a bold and sonorous surrealist flow.
Many of his poems rise to American expectations of a black man, which is to say he addresses his blackness, but does so by spitting back lines (from "On Visiting the Site of a Slave Massacre in Opelousas"):
I will mourn for what fails here—the deer, there,
dead in the ravine—the bees latching combs of honey
to its larynx, lungs, and breast.
Reeves also addresses racial matters more overtly in "The Mare of Money," dedicated to Emmett Till, and "Self-Portrait as Ernestine 'Tiny' Davis."
A consummate surrealist, Reeves' poetry evokes moods through the juxtaposition of concrete imagery. Sometimes, as in "Pledge," Reeves does so in the convention of city poems:
I leave the man with his one leg turned backward
to walk this street twice as pure contradiction.
I leave the heron on the roof, the dachshunds
scrambling over the cobblestone in their black
patent-leather shoes, and the flies open wide
Along with these birds and mammals, insects and other invertebrates play a special role in Reeves' poetry, where he turns bees and maggots into saviors and parasites like "Schistosoma mansoni" into models for lasting love. He writes,
Even as the wood bees gnaw on our rigging,
let them stack me along your ribs, and let us warp.
Warp until we crack. Warp until nothing
can slither or slip between our swollen bows.
Reeves' arguments in this and—even more closely—in "Epithalamium" evoke Donne's romanticism but dares to pull readers further along with his freewheeling cadence and polyphonic tactiloquy.
King Me is composed mostly of free-form poems but contains a few notable exceptions, such as "Kletic of Walt Whitman, The Wound Dresser," a contrapuntal composed in three columns as an homage to Whitman's early Civil-War inspired poetry. There is also a cycle of short, sonnet-like poems circling around the mental deterioration of his sister. The first, "Before Diagnosis," reads,
The ice is frozen water.
There is no metaphor for exile.
Even if these trees continue to shake
the crows from their branches,
my sister is still farther away from her mind
than we are from each other
The cycle winds on to elaborate how his sister's slackening grip on reality spreads to all things domestic, wild and incorporeal, much like how Reeves' poetry in King Me shows how these things can all bleed into one another.