One evening last spring, the poets Roger Reeves and Cyrus Cassells gave a reading at Black Pearl Books off Burnet Road in north Austin. Space was limited, and I couldn’t help but marvel at being one of only 30 or 40 people who were lucky enough to be in the presence of two such luminaries — Cassells with his long and celebrated career, and Reeves, an increasingly well-known poet whose lyric art seems born out of the most pressing concerns of this cultural moment.
As he read from his new book, “Best Barbarian,” published by Norton in March, Reeves shone in giving voice to the poems, foregrounding the musicality of his work. Composing the book — his second — required patience, and an attitude of listening. Over time, he realized that in trying to depart from previous work, “one might have to just wait to hear what that new sound is… I had to trust that the sound would come, and trust that even in its newness or difference that it was still a good sound to make.”
In October, “Best Barbarian” was named as a finalist for the National Book Award, surprising no one in Austin who has followed his work for years. Reeves attended the MFA program at UT’s Michener Center in 2007-2010, and has lived mostly in Austin since then. Currently, he is a professor of English and Creative Writing at UT.
Just before he left to attend the National Book Award festivities in New York last week, I spoke with Reeves about the new book and his evolution as a writer.
Over the nine years in between the publication of his debut book, “King Me,” in 2013, and the appearance of “Best Barbarian,” Reeves wrote several books’ worth of poems. Even as the words flowed — Reeves is prolific — it took time to figure out what the nature of his next book would be.
As he told me, “there are certain times when you’re writing something and it’s out in front of you, and you wrestle with what that is. When you’re really at the edge of yourself, you kind of don’t know what you’re making, and the poem — or whatever you’re making — is kind of smarter than you are; it’s out in front of you, waiting for you to catch up to it.”
By 2016 or 2017, the set of ideas that would become “Best Barbarian” began to coalesce. The density of image, sound, allusion and syntactical innovation in the book invite the reader to echo Reeves’ patience in waiting for understanding, a move that the poems explicitly acknowledge at times.
For instance, in “Something About John Coltrane,” one of the two long poems at the center of the book, a series of visually arresting images precede a statement about the delayed reaction time of poetic meaning — for the writer as well as the reader:
The fires in the trees, a legless rabbit
Drifting across the sky — dream of a mule
Covered in crows opened in front of a mule
Covered in crows, their wings beating again him
Like skin. An autumned tree in autumn
Watching fire autumn the other trees.
It doesn’t have to make sense now; it can
Make sense later on.
“Something about John Coltrane” unfolds in sections whose titles all begin with “Something about…”; this pattern of naming suggests a way of composing with fragments that accrue meaning in juxtaposition. From John Coltrane, the subjects of the poem extend to other musicians, like Aretha Franklin and Marion Brown, but also to more abstract ideas, as in “Something about the Dream of a Tree,” and another kind of public figure, as in “Something about Michael Brown.” Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer in 2014 gave rise to the Ferguson protests and a greater public recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement. The superimposed images in the sections cascade, impressing their weight upon the reader: “an autopsy, a dream: a boy on the road, / Crows bowing and bowing and bowing to the dead.”
The “boy on the road” and a related group of figures recur throughout the book, accompanied by a sense of motion — deer and children fleet and flee, but also run joyfully through the poems. I asked Reeves about how innocence and violence coexist in this text and in his poetic imagination. He recalled how, at the beginning of the pandemic when so many people stayed home and off the roads, he saw deer coming up from the park near his house to wander around in the neighborhood.
“In the middle of the street I was watching a newly born deer suckle out of the window. The mother and child were just in the road.” That sight reminded Reeves of “how dangerous the road is for certain types of people, like Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin,” but also of “being a child and playing in the road, running or playing baseball. I’m interested in a kind of texture difference or material difference for the child or the deer and what the road signifies.”
In thinking back to childhood, Reeves remembers a sense of being free, without a consciousness of the dangers always at the edges of the space he occupied. While not failing to represent how the innocent suffer from violence, in this book, Reeves says, he also wanted to evoke “the beauty of hanging upside down in a tree, not because someone has put you there to kill you, but because you’ve decided that this tree is a space you want to hang from, and the tree holds your weight… I wanted to have someone hanging in a tree and it not be a lynching.” Reeves restlessly turns images in this way throughout the text, so that his thinking illuminates more than one way of seeing.
This malleability is a creative ethic for Reeves, a way of coping with the traumas of history and memory. In the poem “American Runner,” historical memory almost literally chases the speaker down a path beside the river Raritan, where “General Washington boated and prowled / With the teeth of former slaves in his head.” Visited by a series of such specters, the speaker refigures the tranquility of running in a riverside park as a hellscape, in which “There is no terror like this: running along the Raritan, / Watching snakes climb out of the water / And run through the forest like men.”
But, like the figure in the tree, the image of the snake, too, changes; it glints differently in a new context. In the book’s final poem, a “Black Child” who appears as hope in many guises shows up as “the healing snake in the heather / Bursting forth from your humps of sleep.”
Irrepressible, Reeves’ images are always moving, trying to get free.
A static view of history disserves so many. In contrast, writers like Reeves release symbols and narratives from the storied past to wander whole new avenues of meaning.
Reeves told me that he’s been “thinking about history as almost like clay, that can be rearranged, that can be augmented; the clay can be made into a cup or into a bowl; it can be made into a comb. It’s about taking one thing and making it into another; what it is to take a fragment of memory and make something whole, like a poem.
“That’s a way I’ve been thinking about memory, that we’re beholden to it in a sense, but we’re also free to play with it, or literally to change it. In changing it, we might offer ourselves some possibility that the historical moment didn’t offer us.”