Moving From Elegy to Ecstasy, a Poet Pushes Against the Canon


Two excellent poems, “Grendel” and “Grendel’s Mother,” recast infamous characters from “Beowulf.” In the first, Grendel emerges from the wilderness “With absolute prophecy in his breast/And a desire for mercy, for a friend, an end/To drifting in loneliness.” The monster’s status as “outsider” is precisely what enables the Danes inside the mead hall their positive self-regard. They see the “best vision of themselves,” a version that, Reeves declares, “must be slaughtered.” If men are “great” only in relation to the barbarian, the terms “barbarian” and “man” are suspect, not to mention the cultures that uphold these binaries. Who, then, Reeves asks us, is the “best barbarian”?

“Evil has no father,” Toni Morrison asserts in “Grendel and His Mother,” her feminist essay on “Beowulf.” She continues: “In true folkloric, epic fashion, the bearer of evil, of destruction is female.” In Reeves’s iteration, this misogynist archetype is completely subverted. For him, Grendel’s mother is a Black mother, despairing over her murdered son:

When my son called to me, called me out of heaven

To come to the crag and corner store

Where it was that he was dying, Mama,

I can’t breathe; even now I hear it — the limb

Of him broken in the black beast-bird’s morning

Call that pins the heaven to the black road.

The familiar public protest “I can’t breathe” is returned to its heartbreaking source, the moment of helplessness the mother feels for her dying son, which gives the rallying cry renewed intensity. In the book’s seamless mix of the archaic and the contemporary, the Middle English “crag” becomes the “corner store” and catchy hip-hop refrains like “we started at the bottom now we’re here” flow naturally with the wisdom of Augustine. Reeves isn’t asking himself what to take from this canon or what to leave behind. Instead, he expands literary tradition so that new political ideas, self-revelation and play can thrive.

“Sovereign Silence, or the City” is a haunting ekphrastic poem based on Vincent Valdez’s ominous painting “The City I.” In larger-than-life images, Valdez renders Klansmen huddled in a field, illuminated by the glaring lights of a pickup truck. At the center of the group, a hooded mother holds her hooded infant. This scene of intergenerational violence contrasts starkly with “Rat Among the Pines,” where the poet’s attention is turned to his young child, who already fears the police: “And my daughter hiding in the rose/Bushes, asking who, who the sirens/Have come to kill.”