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Justin Phillip Reed

Justin Phillip Reed was born in South Carolina. He received a BA from Tusculum College and an MFA in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of Indecency (Coffee House Press, 2018), winner of the 2018 National Book Award and the 2019 Lambda Literary Award, and The Malevolent Volume (Coffee House Press, 2020). Reed has been awarded fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation, the Poetry Foundation, the Conversation Literary Festival, and the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis. He is the Fellow in Creative Writing at the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh.

By This Poet

2

About the Bees

I do think of them
from time to time—
just now sucking the pulp

of a tangerine
the taste of which
is mostly texture,

in this spin-drunk season
that seems to forget
—us. —itself.

At the job I lost,
their husk carcasses
with the locust bean’s

cracked brown pods
rustled on the brick steps
leading into the white-walled

hours of computer screen;
their compressed toil
missing from the hives

they left agape in the backyard
of the next-door neighbor
who, recently divorced,

had brought us the jars
of honey I spooned into teas
I sipped in the break room

and watched at the window
as he continued to tend
the needle palm and hydrangea.

In the age of loss there is
the dream of loss
in which, of course, I

am alive at the center—
immobile but no one’s queen—
enveloped (beloved) in bees,

swathed in their wings’
wistful enterprise. They pry
the evolved thin eyelids

behind which I replay
the landscape as last I knew it
(crow feathers netting redder suns),

their empire’s droning edge
mindless in the spirals of
my obsolescing ears.

Beneath my feet
what kind of earth
I’m terrified to break

into sprint across to free
myself, to free them
from the myth they make

of me and then bury
below their dance
of manufactory;

what kind of future
they could die for if
punching into me their stings—

what future without risking
the same; and while, in either body
the buzzards of hunger conspire,

what kind of new
dread animal,
this shape we take?

What’s Left Behind After a Hawk Has Seized a Smaller Bird Midair

        for Jericho, with thanks to Carl Phillips

I like men who are cruel to me;
men who know how I will end;
men who, when they touch me,
fasten their shadows to my neck
then get out my face when certain
they haven’t much use for being seen.
I like men to be cruel to me.
Any men who build their bodies into
widths of doors I only walk through
once will do. There’s a difference
between entrances and exits I don’t
have much use for now. I’ve seen
what’s left behind after a hawk
has seized a smaller bird midair.
The feathers lay circled in prattle
with rotting crab apples, grasses passing
between the entrances and exits
of clover. The raptor, somewhere
over it, over it. Cruelty where?
The hell would grief go in a goshawk?
It’s enough to risk the open field,
its rotten crab apples, grasses passing
out like lock-kneed mourners in sun.
There I was, scoping, scavenging
the damage to drag mystery out of
a simple read: two animals wanted
life enough to risk the open field
and one of them took what it hunted.
Each one tells me he wants me
vulnerable. I already wrote that book.
The body text cleaved to the spine,
simple to read as two animals wanting
to see inside each other and one
pulling back a wing to offer—See?
Here—the fastest way in or out
and you knew how it would end.
You cleaved the body text to the spine
cause you read closely. You clock damage.
It was a door you walked through once
before pivoting toward a newer image of risk.