Justin Phillip Reed’s National Book Award–winning debut collection fixed its gaze on the void at the heart of whiteness, and illuminated what we know as blackness to be a foil constructed by those who believe themselves to be white; and Reed’s incendiary new collection, The Malevolent Volume (Coffee House Press), celebrates a selfhood germinated in the darkness of those spaces that society deems monstrous. With breathtaking lyrical dexterity, Reed first rebukes and then remakes western literature and myth, bringing Black queerness to the forefront, while also gesturing toward the vast, glittering kingdom those traditions loomed over and obscured.
Reed highlights how queer Black subjects are excluded from personhood as a prerequisite for abuse and annihilation. In “I Must Be Some Kind of Impossible,” the speaker wonders, “Yes, to whom does this / human belong? I’ve outpaced / the cage of its use.” This dehumanization is accompanied by incuriosity that is deadlier than outright hate in poems like “Gothic,” “They are looking for proof of the devil. / They have no interest in their kingdom’s architecture.” Whether prefigured as animal or monster, Reed’s speaker knows, “I signify the sub- and / the superhuman // in the same body” (“I Must Be Some Kind of Impossible”).
In “Of Someone Else Entirely,” Reed responds to a poetic tradition in which Blackness is represented as little more than metaphor or persona, saying of Plath’s “The Jailer,” “Sorry they so / resembled costumes to you / that you have been burning / the cork of yourself.” Though Reed’s verse is unrelentingly cerebral and crystalline, he remains suspicious of the poetry reverie, elucidating how this convention (along with those of beauty and craft) represents the exclusionary and oftentimes violent erasure of marginalized viewpoints, as in “Considering My Disallowance,” “my senses rippled: / dragonfly in the breeze / or Dixie flag in the fucking breeze.”
Taking this critique a step further, “Leaves of Grass” gestures toward the failed project of America, doomed from the start by white supremacy. In this purported idyll, “I lived nowhere near / nontoxic water. I walked / and was accosted. I drove / and was accosted. I gave / up driving, but the ice caps / had already begun to collapse.” Everything that catches this speaker’s eye is a travesty in this America where “The bodies of activists / turned up shot in locked cuffs / and burned in locked cars / in the century after / a century of lynchings.” Reed continues to spins a lyric kaleidoscope, revealing the fractured ways even those subjected to empire’s racialized horrors are ensnared in culpability simply by surviving:
The faithful believed
in bombs and not refugees.
I slept in a bed and the children in cages.
I slept in a bed and the children in cages.
The children died in detention.
I paid my bills and therefore
I perpetrated. I paid taxes to be
more effectively terrorized.
So where can a queer Black speaker locate strength and perhaps even pleasure? Here, the book figuratively—and quite literally—darkens. Since representations of Blackness and of queerness are either nonexistent or malignant, Reed performs a deft sleight-of-hand to embrace the territory of horror and monstrousness—harnessing its inherent power to threaten the status quo. Whether the mythical woman with snakes haloing her face in “Head of a Gorgon” (“Strange to them, a gaze fatal and not theirs”) or the xenomorph bursting from a chest cavity in “When I Am Alien” (“When my skin cannot contain me, I shrug into a frenzy of gap”), Reed understands how a culture’s fears pinpoint nexuses of power, strangeness, and even liberation.
Within these lacunae hurriedly overlooked by straight, white supremacist society lies potentiality—“I want to say I love me / in the language of a place where / it is possible” (“Every Cell In This Country Looks Like a Choice You Can Walk In and Out Of”)—or at least, something like connection. Reed doesn’t offer hope—there’s little to be found along the edges of a ravenous empire, where “We are settling into / natural disasters lately like lace / into ripples of lace” (“It Singing Over the Glass Field Comes”)—but instead, he gives marginalized readers a manual for survival, for carving out an existence in the dark corners where the “most we can do is use this door and swing its hinges off” (“Aubade: Apocalypse”).