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Reginald Shepherd's Angel, Interrupted

by Jough Dempsey
29 September 2002
Angel Interrupted Cover

Angel, Interrupted
by Reginald Shepherd
96 pages | PB $12.95 | University of Pittsburgh Press | 1996
ISBN: 0822956144 | Order from Amazon.com

Reginald Shepherd's Angel, Interrupted is a solid volume wherein poem after poem reveals not only the poet's strong background in various mythologies and an exemplary command of the music in well- written phrasing, but also a tuned-up return to lyricism that is missing in most contemporary poetry.

It's a hard line that Shepherd walks, grounding philosophical abstractions in the real world, deftly moving from the perceptual to the literal.

In the first poem, "The Angel of Interruptions," Shepherd writes:

          The only thing
between us is the world, sidewalks and shrubs, windows
glutted with finite regrets.

The speaker doesn't have regrets - the windows are "glutted with" them. In "Jouissance" he writes "I tried / soldering a scene together out of white, my / absence, but snow collapsed inside my palms."

Location is vitally important to Shepherd's poems - the places are another voice in the poem, figuratively because the locales are so integral to the action, and literally through the ample noise of signs, names, slogans coming out of nowhere; out of the living streets the from which the poems emerge.

Shepherd can move naturally from lofty academics "In Plato the soul has wings (strange irritations / at the shoulder blades)" to a simple bum on the street, as in "Crush":

      Across the street another black man's
holding up a cardboard sign that says PLEASE HELP
ME I AM HUNGRY: he doesn't look like me, and then he does.

Appearances are at the heart of many of these poems. In choosing figures of antiquity, Shepherd could not have chosen better than Plato and Narcissus.

Six of the poems feature Narcissus as a modern man, who "knelt for generations by an algae-clotted lake, / waiting for someone I'd drowned there." Shepherd's Narcissus isn't about self-love per se, but about desire for sex, for love, for anything he doesn't have. Desire is his crime - self-awareness his sentence. In "Narcissus Learning the Words to This Song," he's "a thoroughly modern fable / narrating his own moral: a story that survives / tonight, and all the undressed pictures of desire / corrected into beauty." He's outlived his godliness, has grown beyond the simple bounds of mythology and into a man with his own neuroses and insecurities.

It would be simplistic to say that Shepherd is Narcissus. It would be foolish to say that he is not. Narcissus is at the very least a mask Shepherd wears (although perhaps Reginald Shepherd is a mask that Narcissus wears). As a poet who is both black and gay, I initially feared the whining, preachy self-righteousness that usually accompanies gay and lesbian poetry (send your hate mail via our feedback form, please). Not so with Shepherd, who of course acknowledges his selfness but never panders to the easy complaints so many lesser poets delve into.

If Angel, Interrupted fails at all it's in being too telling, too declarative at times. From the very first line of the book "Here is the ruin of representation at rush hour." the poems often falter a few steps, stumble over their own cleverness ("We interrupt this broadcast / to bring you pebbles spilled from an open palm" or "The photograph / is a funeral, a limited edition of the death of love."

Despite these clumsy missteps, each poem recovers well from what I'd consider to be only near-spills and the result is better than the sum of its parts - Angel, Interrupted is a powerful collection that struggles with the sadness of desire, insecurity, and sexual frustration. At its heart, the book is about love and how it redeems these sadnesses. As Shepherd writes in the final lines of the final poem, "West Willow":

    Wherever love is found
(bent penny cured to ruddle, rust, raw chestnut
half cracked open), my hands are stained with it.

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