You, Therefore
Reginald Shepherd

 

“You, Therefore,” which was first published in APR in 2003, has been taped to my office door for nearly ten years. I want to write about this particular poem of Reginald’s because I have always been in awe of it. Because it continues to do the “top of my head taken off” kind of thing that Emily Dickinson says is the visceral mark of poetry. Because much of the poem’s core is compressed into its title, but the reader doesn’t initially know this. Because after the title’s two word face-off across a deceptively simple dividing line, the poem deftly blends the oratorical with the intimate, via the “but not today” negation at the end of the first line. Because the title and the first line’s employment of the language of logical consequence is necessary (though not sufficient) for the poem to become the complex and stunning love poem that it is. Because even though the poem turns away from the first line’s momento mori, that language (“you will die too”) is the filter through which we must read the poem’s consoling shift to the beautifully rendered unfolding of the “you.”

That this unfolding is just as much, if not more, an emphatically linguistic arrangement as a romantic, sentimental address to the beloved – accomplished partly by nesting the trajectory of the “argument ” through a series of segments marked by colons – is one of the major delights of this poem. Delightful too is the way traditional properties of demonstration and argument are undermined by persistent negation and appositional slippage. Colon-enabled, the poem’s semantic units turn this way and that, refreshing the catalogue of what otherwise might be read, mistakenly, as a series of run-of-the-mill comparisons used to distance the beloved from or equate him with elements of art and nature. “This” is illustrated or explained by “this,” a colon says, but, really, it is the poet’s incessant naming and renaming of the attributes of the beloved via a weird accumulation of fantastic figures, ones that are just slightly “off” – person, number, voice, and place? flowers and snow? flying trees and seas? – that create a thick, contradictory concordance – with concordance defined as both list and agreement – of relationships with the “you.” This poem is thus open to explication on many levels: accessible on first acquaintance, it paradoxically becomes less accessible and more phantasmagorical the deeper into it you go.

Formally, the turns in this poem are numerous and technically savvy: one could almost say they are hairpin turns, in that they tightly and quickly turn in on themselves, requiring you to slow down and pay attention to where you and the poem are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going. If you drive through this poem too fast, you will get the emotional but not the intellectual and artistic heft that, word by word, make the poem so thrilling. One key “pivot” occurs in the second line, where the original syntactic pattern of “you, therefore” is expanded to “you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine,” with the negative “incommensurate” neatly positioned to set in motion rifts throughout the entire poem. If you read “incommensurate” as meaning that there is nothing that can adequately correspond to or be in keeping with the “you,” you are discovering one of the principal (and most principled) paradoxes of the poem. The poet declares that the beloved is “incommensurate,” but then proceeds to seek out language that approaches commensurability anyway. This move is brainy and playful and characteristic of the poem as a whole. If, for example, the poet indulges in adamic naming throughout the entire poem, he also knows that such naming is inadequate. The desire to get beyond the limits of language is of course a poetic commonplace, but the poem gets at this point in an original way: If on an existential and linguistic level “home is nowhere, ” the beloved still provides a “kind of dwell and welcome” – a descriptor which, in its discordant wrenching of verb, noun and parallel structure is syntactically “off,” but just what is necessary to demonstrate how linguistic leaps to the phenomenological are impossibly possible. One cannot think one’s way outside of language – we are simultaneously constrained and liberated by it – but even so, one might be able to imaginatively “stretch” oneself into an “almost” breakthrough to some other mode of being.

Beyond all the incommensurate, promiscuous naming that functions as an idealistic attempt to convey the perfection of the beloved, the “you” as noun/verb is paradoxically free of this imperfect naming, i.e., “free of any eden we can name” and, outside the poem, more than an idealized “concordance of person, number, voice and place.” Not a linguistic construct, but a physically present, much-loved person, free from edens, from which one inevitably gets turned away. (This poem, of course, is one of those edens from which we must eventually be turned away.) Here, in the last three lines, the poem arrives at what I read as the poem’s most moving, tender moment: the elegant flipping of the title to achieve a shift in tonal register via the comma-less “therefore you.” This quiet reversal away from the strident intonation of the title, as well as away from the list of fancy, partially concealed eroticisms in the preceding colon-marked segment, for which the poet can only “call it loving you” (my emphasis), is a skillful way to pull the poem gently back into its rhetorical and linguistic core, the poem’s arrival at “therefore you” completing the tension and release cycle often characterizing a poetic turn, all the more powerful here because of this turn’s intellectual, emotional and linguistic restraint. After which there’s a commensurate, appositional reinforcement of this retreat from embellishment, a retreat into the “you” depicted now as action and not as object: into “dwell and welcome” rather than water, leaves, lips, snow.

It makes sense, then, that “You, Therefore” is not and should not be a “perfect” poem, given the poem’s rejection of “any eden we can name.” For all its technical adroitness, the poem, in fact, cultivates rough spots. For example, there is some (intentionally?) awkward internal rhyme (right, night) mid-poem and some purists might bemoan the stream of quick, surreal associational shifts that dominate the middle of the poem. Jack Spicer, however, that champion of nonsense and poetic imperfection, to whom the poem obliquely turns (via the ghost radio) would most likely approve. Spicer would also approve of this poem’s high rate of permeability. The reference to the ghost radio is a subtle acknowledgement of the way a poet might pick up stray bits of language and culture which would contribute to the architecture of the poem. (Spicer called his stray bits “furniture.”) “You, Therefore” follows along these Spicerian lines, permeated as it is by Spicer himself and more importantly by the title’s Biblical echoes. “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” turns up in the Revised Standard Version of Matthew 5:48, while the construction “therefore you” can be found in the New King James Version (as well as in other versions) of verse 48 : “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” In addition, the Revised Standard Version of Matthew 5 (the chapter which contains the Sermon on the Mount) is rife with the rhetoric of “I say to you,” which Reginald plays with to fine convoluted effect in his second line: “If I say to you, ‘to you I say.’” Coincidence or not, Reginald’s poem begins with the syntactic structure from the verse on which Chapter 5 ends (“You, therefore, must be perfect”) and from this structure develops a poem that contemplates the possibilities of human perfection through its configuration of the beloved.

Time, of course, also permeates this poem and inflects it in uncanny ways. While Roland Barthes argues in A Lover’s Discourse that it is normally the absence of the beloved that fosters the urge to write, this poem works from a different premise. The beloved was present and close by when the poem was first written; the poem does not so much yearn to close a gap between the poet and the beloved as to close the gap between the meaningfulness of the real life relationship and the terms available to express it. Despite the gap or maybe even because of it, the relationship could be gratefully explored and celebrated and (in conventional terms) immortalized through language. More poignantly, at the time of composition, the poem was written in anticipation of a future when the beloved would outlive the poet, so the beloved must be reminded, in the poem’s compositional present (which has now passed into its future), that he, like the poet, “will die too.” Hence the frisson in the title “You, Therefore ” is heightened by its conceivably being a response to a prior conversation that the poem’s lovers surely must have had, since at the time of writing, Reginald was battling an immune system disease which threatened to shorten his life and wreak havoc on the stability of the “you.”

Here of course, I am pulling in some biographical information that the body of this particular poem is not privy to, but that a reader might know if s/he is acquainted with other poems and the poet’s extra-poetical work. Since Reginald was indeed the one to die first (Robert Philen, Reginald’s partner, survives him), the poem now exists in a time frame that has a completely different “character” from when it was first written. For readers not personally acquainted with Reginald Shepherd, the poem, of course, exists in its conventional, eternally present mode, and time resonates in the poem for these readers through their own personal experiences with loss and time. For those of us who knew him, the poem partakes of a window of time in which he is no longer here, but we are. The phrase “therefore the hours shine” becomes a proleptic, bittersweet solace for close acquaintances when they turn to the poem. And some day, as the poem reminds us, this window will also close.

On a more public plane, the poem opens itself up to time in another important way. Western poetic and artistic traditions, which can be conceived of as manifestations of time, rooted as they are across different places and periods, also permeate this poem. The allusion to song and old masters briefly situates the poem in these traditions and sets up another of the poem’s characteristic turnabouts: “you have not been set to music” morphs into “song after all.” For a reader to fully appreciate how and why this particular denial/assertion dynamic matters, indeed why the poet does so much wrestling at the level of the word throughout “You, Therefore,” one must look outside this specific poem. Discussing well-crafted turns can be rich and rewarding, but ultimately for this poem (and I would argue for any poem), it is not enough. “You, Therefore” takes place within a larger context of Reginald’s poetry and prose, and for the craft and significance of the poem to be really appreciated, it must be considered in relation to the larger body of work and the multiple traditions Reginald was in conversation with. I could say more about those conversations, but in the spirit of the poem, I won’t, not here, and not today. For now, I leave it to interested readers to take on that investigative task, for which this poem provides a gorgeous entryway.

 

*

Catherine Imbriglio is the author of two books of poetry, Parts of the Mass (Burning Deck, 2007), which received the 2008 Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, and Intimacy (Center for Literary Publishing, 2013), which received the 2013 Colorado Prize in Poetry. Her poetry and criticism have appeared in After Spicer (John Vincent, ed.), American Letters & Commentary, Aufgabe, Conjunctions, Contemporary Literature, Denver Quarterly, Epoch, New American Writing, No: A Journal of the Arts, Petri Press, Pleiades, Web Conjunctions and elsewhere. A selection of her poetry was anthologized in the Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, ed. Reginald Shepherd (University of Iowa Press, 2004). 

Advertisements