Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Comments on “Kinds of Camouflage”


For Robert Philen

1. Déjeuner, with Herbs

Then I am sitting naked on damp grass
(it rained in my yesterday)
while two white gentlemen
in black frock coats share lunch
around me, passing chèvre, cold andouille,
and baguettes, passing bon mots
in French, in someone’s nineteenth century,
my muddled impression of one. I can’t
understand a word. There must be
a picnic basket somewhere, lined with
a red and white checked cloth,
some visual cliché, although
I know the cloth’s pale blue, pale echo
of a sky that isn’t there. They hardly
notice me (two men now passing apples, and
a bottle of medium quality red wine), or no,
I exaggerate, they don’t see me
at all, my body naked to the breeze
too cold for noon although it may
be May; my skin responds
in kind and gets no answer, a situation
I am used to. Browned warmth of my flesh
tones is quickly cooling, and the day
is downcast, overcast: the basket’s
been tipped over, grapes, peaches,
and some fruit I can’t make out
spill over, shadowing green. I hate poems
about food. I am a painting
by now, varnish smudged and darkening
in storage, and getting hungry fast.

2. Field Guide

Above the highway we drove home
between two hills of snow (from one
classical town to another), a bird
you couldn’t recognize at first
when I asked, What is that?.
Something trailing confused you,
threw you off track, a streamer,
scrap of dragon kite, festoon or
crimson plume. Oh, it’s a red-tailed
hawk, with something caught
I can’t make out. Dinner, anyway
A piece of will defeated
in the wind, some little life’s
fluttered surrender. Perhaps
a red squirrel, rare color
around here (you told me
that), I could have thought
but didn’t. The hawk
won’t be hungry for long, we’re almost
home. It will be again.

“Kinds of Camouflage” has long been one of my favorite poems – by Reginald or anyone. The poem appears in Reginald’s most recent poetry collection, Fata Morgana, published last year, though it was written quite a while earlier, about a year or so after I first met and fell in love with Reginald, sometime during the winter of 2000 – 2001, or perhaps as late as early spring 2001. (I can place its writing in time because Part 2, in addition to being evocative poetry, is a pretty straight description of something we saw and a conversation we had while driving between Syracuse and Ithaca, New York, and that is the possible time range in which we might have made that drive with snow on the ground.)

Here I offer, paralleling the structure of the poem, two commentaries, distinct from one another, but related. Robert Philen


One of the most striking things about Reginald’s poetry is the strength and power of his images.

His images are typically straightforward and clear. In reading his poetry, I’m often reminded of the clarity of imagery in some of the poems of one of Reginald’s favorite modern poets, Williams – the red wheelbarrow (upon which so much depends) beside the white chickens, or “This is just to say”’s plums so cold and so delicious, to reference two famous examples.

Reginald’s imagery is also typically highly evocative. In Part 1 of “Kinds of Camouflage,” there is of course the reference to and evocation of Manet’s painting, but also a sense of the fear of exposure of nakedness (literal and figurative), fear of lack of interest in that nakedness exposed, and perhaps also a bit of a sense of the pomposity in which others are clothed (literally and figuratively).

But as Reginald was often quick to point out, in writing, speaking, or conversation, there are no images in poetry, barring some examples of concrete poetry. An important part the workings of his poetry was the tension between imagery and the fact of the poem as comprised of words.

This tension is often made explicit through calling attention to the “wordiness” of imagery. In Part 1 here, following imagery of food with “I hate poems about food,” followed by a new fiction and image, “I am a painting by now…” Similarly, in “You, Therefore” (posted below, and also published in Fata Morgana), it is made explicit that “you” and imagery of “you” are not the same, though with the ambiguity immediately reintroduced through the use of further imagery in presenting the reality of “you:” “…if I say to you ‘To You I Say,’ you have not been / set to music… you are / a concordance of person, number, voice, / and place, strawberries spread through your name…” Also, in “Kinds of Camouflage,” we encounter the ambiguity of straightforward images misperceived or unperceived (camouflaged), except because marked as camouflaged.


Among other things, Reginald was a poet of landscape and nature, though clearly not in any of the stereotypical sorts of ways.

Again, one (though only one) of the important components of most of his poetry is his striking imagery. This is one of the things that gives his corpus of work a cohesiveness, a style of its own. At the same time, the poems he wrote in different periods, and perhaps more importantly in different places, tend to have their distinct flavors. They’re all markedly “Reginald Shepherd” poems, but his Chicago poems have a different feel from his upstate New York poems from his Pensacola poems.

Much of his imagery he created or drew from subjective or interpersonal experiences or from encountering the poetry and art of others. Part 1 of “Kinds of Camouflage” uses such imagery, and taken in isolation could have been written by Reginald in any of the places he lived. Much of his imagery, though, was drawn from his physical surroundings. In Part 2 of the poem, the imagery is drawn from an incident in upstate New York. He would have emphasized, and I emphasize now, that once placed in the poem, the imagery takes on an existence independent of the occurrence, not at all dependent on the occurrence (which in this particular instance happened to have actually happened), but the imagery did have its initial inspiration in that event and place.

What I’m trying to get across here is really the simple point that he drew great inspiration from and responded to his surroundings. His Chicago poems are often full of the imagery of Lake Michigan, the waterfront, and the industrial trappings of that city – imagery largely absent from later poems. (Other waterfronts are present – but not that one.) I find it virtually impossible to imagine (aside from the fact that I know it was written in Ithaca, NY) Part 2 of “Kinds of Camouflage” having been written in Chicago. It’s possible something somewhat similar could have been written in Pensacola, though without the snow, without the classical towns, without the musing of hypothetical suppositions about whether the hawk’s dinner could have been a red squirrel, i.e. he might have written a poem in Pensacola involving a red-tailed hawk, but the total set of images bears distinct markings as one of his upstate New York poems.

Monday, September 22, 2008

You, Therefore

Of all Reginald's poems, "You, Therefore" is among those that seems to resonate most with people. It's the one I've seen most used as part of the many online tributes to Reginald that have been put up since his death. It's one of two poems I selected to be read at his memorial service (along with his last poem, "God-With-Us").

I can't say with absolute certainty that it was his favorite among his own poems, but "You, Therefore" was definitely among his favorites. From the time he wrote it, he always closed any of his many readings with this poem. Robert Philen


For Robert Philen

You are like me, you will die too, but not today:
you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine:
if I say to you “To you I say,” you have not been
set to music, or broadcast live on the ghost
radio, may never be an oil painting or
Old Master’s charcoal sketch: you are
a concordance of person, number, voice,
and place, strawberries spread through your name
as if it were budding shrubs, how you remind me
of some spring, the waters as cool and clear
(late rain clings to your leaves, shaken by light wind),
which is where you occur in grassy moonlight:
and you are a lily, an aster, white trillium
or viburnum, by all rights mine, white star
in the meadow sky, the snow still arriving
from its earthwards journeys, here where there is
no snow (I dreamed the snow was you,
when there was snow), you are my right,
have come to be my night (your body takes on
the dimensions of sleep, the shape of sleep
becomes you): and you fall from the sky
with several flowers, words spill from your mouth
in waves, your lips taste like the sea, salt-sweet (trees
and seas have flown away, I call it
loving you): home is nowhere, therefore you,
a kind of dwell and welcome, song after all,
and free of any eden we can name

Wednesday, September 17, 2008



after Jean Valentine

What will I call you
when you are gone?
How will I know your name?
Little star, reflection
on the Sea of Galilee,
a lantern in the wood, half-hid,
reflecting on what can’t be
touched, be known?
And the sheen of milk
across the sky, the galaxy poured out
like me, true sky, false dawn,
and a young woman’s nipple,
star of milk, star of a
nursing child’s mouth, my
child, my lord, whoever
you may be today, tonight
which will not end, a cup
passed to me, from which I may
or may not drink, half-empty
star, still asleep by now?
And your small body, Emmanuel,
how small my heart
to fit inside yours)
lie there, pearled, asleep…
How I want to believe.
(a pearl, an irritant).

Note on "God-With-Us:" This was the last poem Reginald wrote. He wrote it while in the hospital, about two weeks before he died. It was read at his memorial service by his longtime friend Jocelyn Emerson. Robert Philen

Monday, September 15, 2008

Reginald Shepherd, 1963 - 2008

As most readers of this blog are probably by now aware, Reginald Shepherd died September 10 after a fight against cancer.

Reginald was my partner, my best friend, my constant companion, my lover, my confidante, and much else besides. I don't know what I'll do without him for the rest of my life. I do plan to occasionally post material about Reginald here, along with writings from his files.

The following is a short piece about Reginald I wrote for his memorial service, which was held yesterday. Robert Philen

Reginald Shepherd, 1963 - 2008

Reginald Shepherd was born April 10, 1963 in New York City and passed away September 10, 2008 in Pensacola, surrounded by people whom he loved and who loved him.

Reginald was the son of Blanche Berry, who was originally from Macon, Georgia. He grew up in Bronx, New York, along with a sister, Regina Graham. He moved to Macon and lived with his aunt, Mildred Swint, after the death of his mother when he was fifteen.

Reginald earned a B.A. degree from Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, and M.F.A. degrees in Creative Writing from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and the University of Iowa in Iowa City. He taught literature and creative writing, most recently at Antioch University and earlier at the University of West Florida, Cornell University, and Northern Illinois University, and he was remarkably dedicated to his students and the craft of writing.

Reginald was a magnificent writer. He published five books of poetry (Some Are Drowning; Angel, Interrupted; Wrong; Otherhood; and Fata Morgana) and a book of essays (Orpheus in the Bronx), and he edited two poetry anthologies (The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries and Lyric Postmodernisms). He recently completed a sixth book of poetry and a second volume of essays that will be published posthumously. Among many awards for his writing, he most recently earned a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 and won the 2007 silver medal for poetry in the Florida Book Awards.

Reginald met his partner, Robert Philen, in December, 1999 in Ithaca, New York, and ever since, their relationship has grown, based in conversation, compassion, sharing, friendship, passion, and profound love. The two have lived in Pensacola since July, 2001.

Over the past year, Reginald faced tremendous adversity and continuous pain from a series of illnesses related to cancer, but he faced it all with profound strength and courage, tenacity, love of life – and gentleness, dignity, and innocence. He fought long and hard against the illness, but as one nurse who worked with him toward the end put it, “He remained a gentleman to the end.”

Any of us who knew Reginald are devastated and heartbroken at this loss, and we will miss his unique combination of verve and vivacity, wit and intelligence, tenacity and strength, gentleness, empathy, and sweetness, generosity and innocence. We will also, despite our profound sadness, remain ennobled, happy, and blessed by the time we spent with him.