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The title of Reginald Harris’ deeply felt debut collection of poems, Autogeography (winner of the Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize), is happily deceptive, a play on autoerotica (or autoerogoneous). Like a map, the title opens itself to neighboring zones and states of being. Title and collection are viscerally complemented by deeply marine-blue cover artwork, a boy wading in the ocean and staring to that always ambiguous border between earth and voyage, that launch pad to imagination, the horizon.
There’s much connection and love in these poems, albeit love on the road, rear view mirror-love. “Memory of your / heartbeat pulsing in my hand: / all the windows open Dawn. . .” (from “Travel Journey”). The poem is enormously evocative, the short lines breathy, as if quickly jotted in a spiral pad stashed in a slightly damp shirt pocket so at least the memory can live, even if the love reduces to longing immortalized in poem. Not a bad reduction, true.
From the same poem, “’Wore your undershirt; / Green apples drifted through / my clothes all day / then went out to a bar.’” The brevity of the lines enables Harris’ frequent avoidance of the first person “I.” Without the poet claiming the emotions or beloved as “his,” we easily slip into memories of our lovers and that ecstatic, treasured, aching sense of longing that is ours. “Lifeboat for a shipwrecked / heart, phone lines / taut between us.” That phone line is between myself and X, not just Reginald and his X, and that inclusion (these poems invite readers) is beautiful.
The driver of this collection stops for a longer reflection in “Reunion,” in which many of America’s icons, including Malcolm (X), Coretta (Scott King), Romare Bearden, Pres (Lester Young), mingle (as many of us imagine happens in the next world) with each other and the poet’s family. Deftly aided by Harris’ unobtrusive rhythm, the lines suggest (a bit) a jump rope song, as if this intermingling were a common dream repeated by kids. It is, isn’t it? “Basquiat’s on the back steps with my niece / helping her to draw a picture of us all, / tossing back gray dreadlocks as they fall / into his eyes.” The intermingling is all-Black, making this a true heaven for many.
Harris has a fiction writer’s instinct for observation of the smallest moment and the people who inhabit those moments. In “Gospel,” for instance, he draws us into the not uncommon scene, those few minutes in which commuters overhear music and a one-person sing-a-long, sneer slightly, return to their morning selves. And in the brief ending couplet, Harris somehow shows the entire train and street transmuted by grace. It’s a reveal; following the heart’s dictates specific as directions on a map, may or may not require blinders, but is grace for the world. Sooner or later the world will catch up with the vision.
spills out from the headphones
to hum low in her throat
so full, the music over-
flows from her mouth
onto the crowded bus
bursts from her as she leaves
to fill the morning streets
Commuters murmur, nudge
each other, laugh at her departure,
return to silence, morning
papers, their own thoughts.
a God-shaped echo in the air.
More of that detail of insight in “The Star,” in which a cross-dressing diva prepares, selecting from “brightly colored dresses / a standing field of flowers.” That could be Gatsby showing Daisy his finely tailored shirts of as many colors as Joseph’s coat. Harris’ star is not on the north shore of Long Island, like Gatsby, but living with “a cramped stamp of dirt behind the house.” We know things don’t pan out for Jay Gatsby—but for the star? As long as imagination and hope live, as long as audiences are generous, “How could they not love him as / he made his grand entrance, posed, / placed a trembling hand on narrow hip …” This is a performer in love with presentation and spectacle, and not one making fun of women as can be the case with female impersonators. This is a performance of love.
And speaking of love, I love the poem “Magicians,” and so I shall leave you with the poem in its entirety to, maybe record so you can lie on your soft bed, close your eyes, hear, and relive the gorgeous ache.
After I got up this morning
to wipe your silken kisses from my body,
rinse your whispered lies out of my ears,
you showed me one last card trick
To end our time together
as it began
I know one, too, I said,
taking the deck, shuffling:
This is called,
the disappearing hearts,
Weep, reader. And then get hold of Reginald Harris’ Autogeography.
by Reginald Harris
Northwestern University Press
Paperback, 9780810129153, 84 pp.