Tuesday, August 26, 2008

On Alvin Feinman’s “True Night”

I am in the hospital for the fourth time in the past five months, this time for excruciating abdominal pain that turned out to be due to a partial bowel obstruction which has still not cleared up. I have had a tube down my throat and have been unable to eat for over a week. I spend most of my days trying to sleep through the pain and nausea.

In the course of the various tests to try to determine the cause of the obstruction, my surgeon found several large masses on my liver which, after a blood test and a liver biopsy, have turned out to be a fast-growing resurgence of my colon cancer. Thus I am in the hospital cancer ward for the foreseeable future, starting chemotherapy again (it had been on hold during my assorted medical crises of the past few months), before I have had time to fully recover from my recent illnesses and surgeries.

Despite all this, and to remind myself that I am not a bundle of symptoms and sicknesses, I am posting (or rather, having my darling Robert post) this final tribute to my recently deceased mentor Alvin Feinman, a discussion of his poem “True Night.” This is an excerpt from a piece on Feinman’s work in general that is included in the anthology Dark Horses, edited by Kevin Prufer and Joy Katz, and in my essay collection Orpheus in the Bronx.

True Night

So it is midnight, and all
The angels of ordinary day gone,
The abiding absence between day and day
Come like true and only rain
Comes instant, eternal, again:

As though an air had opened without sound
In which all things are sanctified,
In which they are at prayer—
The drunken man in his stupor,
The madman’s lucid shrinking circle;

As though all things shone perfectly,
Perfected in self-discrepancy:
The widow wedded to her grief,
The hangman haloed in remorse—
I should not rearrange a leaf,

No more than wish to lighten stones
Or still the sea where it still roars—
Here every grief requires its grief,
Here every longing thing is lit
Like darkness at an altar.

As long as truest night is long,
Let no discordant wing
Corrupt these sorrows into song.

“True Night” is a lovely example of what Bloom calls “a central sensibility seeking imaginative truth without resorting to any of the available evasions of consciousness,” whose temptations are both acknowledged and refused The poem opens at midnight, “The abiding absence between day and day,” a present absence which is both instant (and an instant) and eternal, because it is no given day and no single time, but rather the moment between dates. This no-time is all times, both everlasting and utterly ephemeral. It is (or rather, it is “As though”—what we know is not the thing itself, but only its appearance, our own knowing of it) an air which has opened soundlessly, an air which we take into ourselves with every breath. Particularly within the precincts of a poem, the phrase “an air” in conjunction with the evocation of sound calls up a pun on the Renaissance sense of an “air” as a song. Here, it is a song without sound; it was Keats who wrote that unheard melodies are sweetest, and this soundless air is sweeter than any song one could ever hear.

Here in this time which is no time, the polarity of identity and difference is suspended, and opposites meet. Things are beside themselves, at peace with their own restlessness and discontent, their own failure to be identical with themselves: they are “Perfected in self- discrepancy,” like the off-rhyme of the words “perfectly” and “discrepancy.” All wrongs are posed in the perfection of a still-life, no less wrong but now transfigured into necessity and equipoise: “Here every grief requires its grief.” The poet’s task is both to capture this momentless moment and to leave it undisturbed, to touch its untouchability into art without marring or altering it. The line “I should not rearrange a leaf” can be read either as “I wouldn’t rearrange a leaf even if I could, all is perfect as it is” or as “I should abandon any desire to rearrange a leaf, to insert my own will into the seen/scene.” For this poem, paradise is paradox, where longing (the source of suffering, according to the Buddha) is illumination, and to be lit is to be like darkness “at an altar,” at prayer, prayed to, or both.

The poem’s last stanza insists that no discordant wing (shattering the harmony of the soundless air) should be allowed to corrupt the sorrows the poem presents into song, at least “As long as truest night is long.” That is to say, this admonition holds both forever and only for the most fleeting of (non-) moments. And yet the poem itself, unavoidably, is a song (“lyric,” after all, comes from “lyre”), voiced and heard. The poem both “mystically” asserts a paradoxical concord (echoing and amplifying Stevens’s avowal that “The imperfect is our paradise”) and takes a potentially ironic stance toward it: the poem is both entranced and undeluded.

The inescapable paradox of “True Night,” the truth that it both embodies and struggles against in the name of truth, is that the poem’s discordant wing has corrupted the scene into song: it is helpless not to do so, for otherwise there would be no poem. But the poem has also acknowledged and honored the difference between scene and song: it has reminded us that is remains is however much mind and music might wish it otherwise, however much metaphor and song might wish to translate being into seeming.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What's in a Name? Part Three

Because I am not devoid of pride, and because I always want to know whether I’m being talked about and what people are saying if I am, I periodically look myself up online or, as they say, “google” myself. (Perhaps “Google” should be capitalized, since it is a trademark.) The only other Reginald Shepherd who comes up is an aged and very Caucasian Canadian painter, a self-described “poetic realist” who seems well-known in his native Newfoundland and in neighboring Nova Scotia, but nowhere else as far as I can tell, even in Canada. I think of myself as a kind of poetic realist as well, in life and in my poetry, so perhaps our kinship is more than name deep.

Years ago, when I lived in Chicago, another, decidedly less savory Reginald Shepherd popped up when I searched myself. An apparent career criminal (all that came up were his various arrests), he was something of an evil doppelganger. I once was almost denied an apartment because there was a record of my arrest for “criminal shoplifting” (I always wondered what legal shoplifting was) in 1991, two years before I moved to Chicago. And once I received a letter from a social service agency that some woman had named me as the father of her child. I had to call and explain that the last time I had been in the vicinity of a woman’s vagina was the morning I was born. One of the other Reginald Shepherd’s old addresses even appeared on my credit report, an error (among others) I had to call and write in order to rectify. My criminal double has either settled down into legal respectability or died (either is equally likely), as he hasn’t shown up in my web searches for several years. I would like to think that he has seen the error of his ways and now become a law-abiding citizen, but I have no great desire to inquire further.

When I look up the most common misspelling of my name, Reginald Shepard, which people sometimes insist upon even when they’re publishing or paying me, no matter how many times I sign and print the correct spelling of my name, besides finding various references to my misspelled self (I try to correct them when I can), I also find references to a death row inmate in Florida by that name. I don’t know what his crime was, but I imagine that it was probably murder. I find it a little disturbing to once again have a criminal doppelganger living (though who knows for how long) in the same state. At least there are two crucial letters separating my name from his, his fate from mine. But still…

Friday, August 8, 2008

What's in a Name? Part Two

Now that I am once again out of the hospital and able to sleep in my own bed without being wakened several times a night to be weighed or have my vital signs taken, I have the opportunity to think about other things every once in a while, or at least to return to thoughts over which I've been mulling for a while. Thus I present part two of my musings on names and naming.

The name Reginald has very different connotations for white people and for black people. For white people, the name sounds very English, and my Anglo accent, though one that I can’t hear, often makes them inquire as to whether I am English, or perhaps West Indian. I just reply that I got my accent from my Barbadian father (whom I met once) and my Jamaican stepfather (who abused my mother and me). But almost the only people in America nowadays with the name Reginald are black. It’s become an almost quintessentially black name, like Antoine (often spelled Antwan, or Antuan) or Leroy/Leroi (“the king”).

Mine is one of a set of categories of black names. There are the names that white Americans don’t use anymore, like Cedric or Tyrone, names that have been handed over to black people (though in the hospital I did have a white physical therapist named Tyrus—but then, the South has always been a bit backward). There are also names like Reginald, Maurice, or Roderick (this last one is on the edge) which have become predominantly black names but aren’t yet perceived so by white people. There are the made-up names, like Materia, Tawanna (a cousin of mine—she was meant to be named after the Mexican border city), or Chicalaundra (pronounced “Shalandra”). There are the Frenchified names, like LaQuan or LeVante or LeBron or LaToya (also LeToya), or the (male) driver of the Greyhound bus I used to take to work when I lived in Chicago, LaHarry. I remember joking once with a black friend that you can make any name black just by adding “La” or “Le” to it; then I realized it was true. (“De” will also work, as in DeWayne, DeMarcus or, my favorite, Da’Sean, pronounced “DAY-Shawn”—the apostrophe makes all the difference.) Then there are the faux-African names, like Kechia/Keshia/Keisha, Kena (another cousin of mine), Kima, and Kwame (this last a genuineWest African name appropriated by black Americans). There is an overlap between Frenchified black names and faux-African names, as in Lakeisha or Deshondra, and between the made-up names and the faux-African names, like Tawanna or Kima or Ebony/Eboni. There are also the Arab names, like Jamal and Malik, Omar and Raheem/Raheim. I’ve always found black Americans' tendency to give their children Muslim names odd, since Muslim Arabs were major slave traders for over a thousand years. A category which seems to have dwindled are names taken from words of rank and position, so that a white person calling a black person by (usually) his first name would still have to show respect, even if the act was meant disrespectfully. The singer Prince a/k/a “Symbol Thing” (born Prince Rogers Nelson) and poet Major Jackson would be examples. Mine is also an example of such a name, since, as I wrote earlier, my mother always told me that it meant “Great King.”

When I was a kid, and up until my mid-twenties, I went by “Reggie.” The only other two Reggies I knew of in my childhood were the baseball player Reggie Jackson and the Archie comic books laughingstock rich bad boy Reggie Mantle. He once went into an office and, unsatisfied by the secretary’s refusal to be impressed by him, announced “Someday my name will be a household word,” to which her response was, “Like dirt?”

A few months before my twenty-fifth birthday, I decided that I was too old to be called “Reggie.” That was a child’s name, and it was time for me to put aside childish things. Since then I have gone by my full name, though people still insist on calling me “Reggie” and “Reg.” But even when I went by Reggie, already a shortened version of my name, many people insisted on calling me “Reg." Besides the obvious fact that it wasn’t my name (if I wanted to be called Reg, I would introduce myself that way), as my oldest friend Merav’s mother put it, “Reg” has the air of a hale fellow well met, a football player perhaps, and that's never been me or anyone I wanted to be. I've never understood why people would need to nick a nickname, anyway. Some people still call me Reg, and I always correct them, except for my editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press, Ed Ochester. He has loyally published me for many years, so if he wanted to call me “Joe,” that would be alright with me.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

What's in a Name? Part One

Steven Burt’s January post "all-name team" on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, and the posts I did in February here on this blog on gay poetry post identity politics, have had me musing about identity, social and personal, and about the role names play in producing identity. I’ve been thinking about names, what they are and what they do. As Burt points out, poetry is a kind of naming, and naming is in turn a kind of poetry. In poems, names are like magic talismans that contain and convey the essence of the thing named. So when two things are given the same name, then they are or become the same. And when the name changes, then the thing named changes.

The thought of changing names and things, in turn, has me thinking of my own name (everything makes me think of me), the changes it has undergone over the course of my life, and a couple of people with whom I share that name, whom I’m quite sure are not the same, as me or as each other. But when I look myself up, there they are. And when I look up the wrong spelling of my name, some other version of me, there I am anyway, as if I were two people who’ve led the same life, or at least who’ve published the same things in the same places. As Steve Burt points out, “Titles, names, labels ask questions, and raise possibilities.” So who are the possible me’s my name makes possible?


I was born Reginald Berry on the morning of April 10, 1963. Berry was my unmarried mother’s last name; like the protagonist of Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Love Child,” I started my life in an old, cold, rundown tenement slum, burdened by the stigma of illegitimacy, which for me was the same as poverty. The birth certificate I am always losing documenting the birth of “Reginald Shepherd” was issued in 1968, after my mother had sued my deadbeat Barbadian father to prove that he was indeed my father. What we got out of that I never understood, since he almost never paid the meager thirty-five dollars a week in child support as ordered by the court.

I sometimes wonder if who I am changed when I ceased to be Reginald Berry (I was five) and became Reginald Shepherd: indeed, when I ceased ever to have been Reginald Berry. Reginald Berry was erased, as if he had never been, and his place was taken by Reginald Shepherd, as if I had always been him and he had always been me, except that Reginald Shepherd came into existence at the age of five, having completely bypassed birth and infancy, not to mention the terrible twos and threes.

I was enmeshed in the social services network at a very early age (as everyone in her family always said, my mother knew how to work the system), and to this day I am in the Social Security Administration records as Reginald Berry Shepherd, a name I have never legally had or even gone by, a name that has never been mine. They remember all the pasts, and conflate them into one.

Would my life have been different if I had remained Reginald Berry, if Reginald Berry had not been erased as if he had never existed? At the least, people would have much less occasion to misspell my name, and who knows what effect that confidence that I would be correctly spelled could have had on my self-esteem?

My mother (who went from being Blanche Berry to being Blanche Graham—my stepfather’s name—without ever having been Blanche Shepherd) always told me that my name meant “Great King” in Celtic. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (whose only authority is that of its author, Douglas Harper), my name derives from Old High German and means “ruling with power.” According to Dictionary.com Unabridged (which bases its claim to authority on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary), it derives from an Old English word meaning “counsel and rule.” I believe that it’s related to the name of the Celtic goddess Rigantona, whose name means “Great Queen.” Someone in college told me that my name was the ablative form of the Latin rex, “king,” meaning something like “of the.” Perhaps I was the king’s favorite shepherd or, in my previous life, his favorite fruit. My younger half sister is named Regina (my mother had a plan); her name unambiguously means “Queen.” I confess to being a bit jealous of her name’s indisputable authority.

But despite the grandeurs of my first name, I have felt a little deprived that I don’t have a middle name. My mother had one, later my abusive Jamaican stepfather had one, and still later my younger half-sister had one. I settled on “Alexander” as an appropriate middle name: Alexander the Great was a famous king and conqueror, and the initials “RAS” spelled out the Amharic word for “prince.” (The late Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was known was Ras Tafari Makonnen, “Prince Tafari Makonnen,” before his ascension to the throne. Hence the group name Rastafarian, though this quasi-religion has never had any connection with Ethiopia.) But I never had my name legally changed, and as I got older I lost interest in the matter.