Prayers and Incantations – Michigan Quarterly Review

Prayers and Incantations

            Roger Reeves’s second collection, Best Barbarian, confirms him as a remarkable poet. Reeves conjures poems in a language rooted in ancestral acknowledgment, metaphors, and rough tenderness, and finds balance within form while bringing the imperial spectrum of the ode and the elegy. The lines, the images, the terror, the joy, the beauty, and the horror cause the reader to latch on to all the sounds uttered by the speaker. It is a prayer, an incantation to a large world in an even larger universe.

            With a deep focus on American folk and blues, Southern Baptist mysticism, and collectiveness, every poem is a necessary, taut, and beautiful surprise that is able to bring about the examination of Blackness and Black identity in America.

            The conjuring of the dead, of places, and spiritual practices lends Reeves’ verse its foundational weft of power: 

His voice as weary as water broken over his scalp
In a storefront Sanctified Church’s baptismal pool
All those years ago when he wanted to be
Somebody’s child and on fire in that being. Lord,
I want to be somebody’s child and chosen
Water spilling over their scalp, water
Taking the shape of their longing, a deer
Diving into evening traffic and the furrow drawn
In the air over the hood of the car—power
And wanting to be something alive and open.

The themes of fatherhood, spirituality, and journey are in conversation with each other. In many of the poems, the speaker brings forth ancestral connections as he contemplates the death of his father and his own journey into fatherhood. The speaker directly confronts his grief and fear:

     I never wanted to be this far 
Into the business of heaven 
     Chasing my father hunting 
His soul in the corn and confusion of this harvest
     My father who is hidden
In the last sheaf of heaven maybe 

            Reeves likewise confronts the interweaving violence of whiteness, brutality, and colonialism. For example, in Grendel’s Mother, he focuses on anti-Blackness through the continuation of state-sanction killings and the imprisonment of Blacks:

So furious. So furious, I was, 
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 […]

            And in one of my favorite stanzas, from “Grendel,”  Reeves writes:

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.

Black ecstasy, spirituality, and fatherhood frame Reeves’ sense of the past and the future blending both together to create the present. Reeves’ writing is a medium channeling ancestral voices through Black mysticism, eroticism, and the search for humanity.

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