Justin Phillip Reed’s second collection achieves a saturated, sensuous beauty along with its high tensions and apprehensions. Against the pressures of familial trauma, “my interminable blues,” “my purple rage,” “the Haint,” Reed presents confidence, Black pride, and queer joy “stirred in response to starshine.” Biblical and mythological personae (the Minotaur, Daniel, a herd of cloven-hoofed demons) inform Reed’s takes on the prisonindustrial complex and on his own taut inward complexities, while a tour de force in choppy, short lines—provocatively titled “Leaves of Grass”—sums up many an American dilemma: “I slept in a bed and the children in cages…. I had a gun / because they had a gun.” “Unlike my fathers I never was / promised land.” Alive to all the risks of staying alive—those that accrue to us all, and those on bodies like his—Reed seeks better solutions than “hotter showers, / tighter sonnets on which to practice / arguments.” He finds them in a pride that emerges from shame, “where day breaks like someone else’s father’s face.” If these new poems—with their “hornets’ nest // of nameinvain,” their “holy and hopesburrow” all over—receive the attention they merit, critics may group Reed with D. A. Powell, Jericho Brown, and Derrick Austin, all poets who combine lyric description with demotic force.
This review originally appeared in the Books Noted section of American Poets, Spring-Summer 2020. Buy The Malevolent Volume (Coffee House Press, 2020) on Bookshop.org or the Coffee House Press website.