Autogeography by Reginald Harris
Northwestern University Press
Reviewed by Saretta Morgan
Autogeography begins and ends in transit. The first and final poems, “The Poet Behind the Wheel” and “Packing,” bookend a collection that is well versed in the art and necessity of transition. From literal sidewalks and interstates to the more figurative “streets of promise,” these poems navigate the interior land-and-lovescape of a poet who is both liberated and burdened by movement.
Whether moved by the rhythm and repetition in the poem “The Spinning Song: Pantoum for Herbie Nichols,” or by the mechanical left left left-right-left marching of soldiers in “Captain Blackman,” Reginald Harris’s poems guide us through a carefully crafted world.
Throughout the work, there is a strong attention (perhaps bordering on anxiety) to place. Titles like “Approaching Baltimore” and a meticulous network of epigraphs—North Carolina, I-85, 4 A.M.; Uptown/Avenue Market Metro Station; Louie’s Bookstore Café, Baltimore; Mobile, Alabama; Jasper, Texas; Camden Yards, Baltimore, Maryland—root Harris and his work in the cultural and geographic south. These locational tags also provide a sense of bearing for the reader as we wander where the poet has wandered, at all times aware that his movement is not, by any means, a thoughtless meandering.
As I followed Harris’s journey, Glissant’s Poetics of Relation stayed close to my mind—particularly Glissant’s concept of an errantry and exile that “silently emerges from the destructuring of compact national entities … and, at the same time, from difficult uncertain births of new forms of identity that call to us.”
There are true gems of poems in this book, but the real treasure is how they work as a collection. The simultaneous emphasis on rootedness and escape create a productive tension that compels the reader forward.
In the poem “Dream of My Cousin’s Wedding,” two children, both aware of their family’s suspicion of their burgeoning queerness, stage a make-believe wedding ceremony.
High on Communion wine transformed
into grape juice, we race to fly out of this
church, those clothes, that small town,
into cities, adulthood, our true names.
Seal our vows of escape
with a stolen kiss.
In this poem we glean one catalyst of the desire to flee. The preceding poem, “The Star,” confronts the same source of conflict. The young speaker of the poem rummages through the closet of an older woman (likely a mother or grandmother), lavishing in lace and bright colors, stepping into likely-oversized women’s dress shoes, as he—likening himself to Lena Horne—wonders:
How could they not love him as
he made his grand entrance, posed,
placed a trembling hand on narrow hip,
waited breathlessly, sure of their applause?”
This poem approaches the topic of gender non-conformity within black communities with a more hopeful tone, and the speaker seems eager to give his community the chance to accept him. But the additional space before the last line makes it too easy to attribute the question mark at the end of the poem to the surety of the speaker, rather than to the “how can they not?” that began the stanza. His cautious hope ads a level of complexity to the narrative and reveals the vulnerability of the poet, whose desire for acceptance leaves him open to pain, rejection and worse.
One of the things I appreciate most in Autogeography is the poet’s commitment to exploring his position within black communities as opposed to comparing himself to predominant (white) cultures. In the poem “Reunion,” Harris relishes an afternoon spent family-style around the backyard with cultural super-stars like Bearden, Lorde, Basquiat and Charlie Parker along with the poet’s own siblings, parents and grandparents. “Reunion” places Harris in a tradition of black artistic production. At the same time, this poem’s melding of public and family figures reflects the poet’s fusion of personal life and work—another maxim of radical black discourse which is best exemplified in figures such as Lorde, Baraka and Baldwin. Like Harris, these writers used their own lives and experiences to examine larger cultural issues.
Harris’s desire to secure a place for himself in the communities of his youth (the church, Baltimore’s city streets, his immediate family) is simultaneously an attempt to dismantle hegemonic representations and problems he acknowledges within black culture at large, such as homophobia and the stigmatization of urban youth (which the poet views through child-eyes as his grandparents blame a group of “Loud and Wrong” kids for spoiling their neighborhood). Both of these issues further marginalize segments of the population that already live under the threat of violence. This is something Harris returns to often. His poem “The Lost Boys: A Requiem,” names men and boys in his life lost to a list of social symptoms, among them: AIDS, prison, suicide and drugs.
In one of the collection’s most successful poems, “On the Road,” Harris remembers James Byrd, Jr. The poem opens, “Imagine you wake up with / a second chance: Silent evening,” and goes on to imagine Byrd’s final hours until:
Funny what the mind will focus on:
A silent calf standing in a field.
The blink of fireflies.
The way your leg twists back
onto itself. A dented license plate
the last thing of this world you see
The poem ends with the repetition of “Imagine / you wake up.” The shedding of italics signals that the dream is over. You, the reader, are here, alive and left to confront your own actions (or inaction) in the wake of a brutal murder.
Published in 2013, these poems pre-date our now-post-Ferguson existence, but, sadly, all the grief of our contemporary moment haunts these pages in lines such as:
No sudden movements
Like from your neighborhood
To someplace you don’t belong
and even the seemingly trivial:
swimming down the block, calling
loose ones, loose ones.
Despite this acknowledgement of pain and injustice, there remains space in Autogeography for love—both familial and sexual. The bittersweet complexity of joy in the midst of grief (as it must often emerge in black communities) makes this book a lesson in survival. Surviving as wandering. Wandering as forging a new way.
Saretta Morgan earned her B.A. from Columbia University and is currently pursing an M.F.A. from Pratt Institute. In addition to text-based writing, her interests include photography and performance.