books proliferate now.
Hybrids are mix genres,
for example poetry and
essay, poetry and
photography, poetry and
autobiography. The Steiny
Road Poet starts with
poetry because that is
her prejudice, but it
could be fiction,
letters, or something
else. It used to be that
no publisher, even the
presses, wanted the
hybrid. It was hard to
promote and sell.
Booksellers didn't know
where to put it on their
shelves. We authors were
told that mixing was
Now it seems that poets
who want to get name
recognition and build
their reputation need to
write books of essays
without abandoning their
ties to poetry. Take for example, Dark Days by Roger Reeves. On
August 16, 2023 Steiny heard Reeves read and be
interviewed by cultural historian Martha S. Jones at
Loyalty Bookstore in Washington, DC. A casual flip
through the pages of Dark Days might seem that this is
a standard book of essays in prose format. Closer
examination yields "Instructions for the Underground"
which is appended to Reeves essay "Notes on the
Underground." The "instructions" are suspiciously lineated like poetry,
sound like poetry with rhymes and alliteration, and lack the logic of
instructions with its contradictions. For example:
:Fuss, fight, fuck, and carry on.
:Open the underground to others.
:Close the underground to others.
:Be here uncomfortable and be comfortable in it.
Another point is that the words of these "instructions" are scripted in
upper and lowercase CAPITAL letters—there are no lowercase letters.
Steiny thinks this choice matches the way the subpoem titles of
Gertrude Stein's long poem Tender Buttons are always supposed to be
scripted according to Seth Perlow's Tender Buttons:Corrected
Reeves also has included photographs—one of "Our Angel of history"
(a little Black boy with a serious gaze) that opensDark Days and four
that close Dark Days of the first cinematic kiss by a Black couple
1898. While Stein never put images of her painted Picassos inside with
the text of her books, she lived and breathed them, using Picasso's
cubism as her model for writing Tender Buttons.
Reeves' essay "A Little Brown Liquor" with its opening line, "If you play
with dirt, it will get in your eyes" made Steiny take notice. Dirt comes
up frequently in the first two sections of Tender Buttons.
Here are selected dirt quotes from Stein's Tender Buttons:
It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.
from "A Substance in a Cushion."
If lilies are lily white if they exhaust noise and distance and even dust,
if they dusty will dirt a surface that has no extreme grace, if they do
this and it is not necessary it is not at all necessary if they do this they
need a catalogue.
from "A Red Stamp."
If the chance to dirty diminishing is necessary, if it is why is there no
complexion, why is there no rubbing, why is there no special
from "A Chair."
The change the dirt, not to change dirt means that there is no beefsteak
and not to have that is no obstruction, it is so easy to exchange meaning
, it is so easy to see the difference.
A can experiment is that which makes a town, makes a town dirty, it is
Alas a dirty word, alas a dirty third alas a dirty third, alas a dirty bird.
Here are selected quotes referring to dirt from Reeves' essay "A Little
"1…I was raised to eschew dirt of all kinds—especially the dirt of the
body, carnal dirt—that of worldly or secular music, the music of
Michael Jackson and the Beastie Boys, the type of music that might get
up inside you…your body dancing next to another…a brush of silence
and collision of want and belonging, what you might call holy…Luther
Vandross's voice now lifting above the smoke, steam, and the liquor,
which you were also supposed to eschew, but Lord, the liquor, got you
in your body, got you right and Luther's pushing you toward the soft
part of the night, which is like a mouth, and there is a mouth on the
other side of the darkness…I don't want to do this guy I'm seeing dirty,'
but Lord we're here in the dirtiest part of the night, which is also the
clearest and the cleanest if you let the liquor tell it…"
"2 Dearly Beloved, Black life is a constant improvisation on what it
means to be human, which is to say dirty."
"5…the linguistic expanse of Black life, the dirt and the divinity of it."
"7 Dearly Beloved, in our playing in the dirt and dirtiness of the
intellectual life of Black folks, …turn your attention and your Bibles to
the signifying, cakewalking pleasure-practice of Zora Neale Hurston,
the hoodo-ist of the hoodoo of the Black vernacular, a Negro-ologist
who annotated and sometimes annoyed the Niggerati,…who collected
the bones of our knowledge often left in the dust and the dark of our
exile on these North American shores."
"8 Dearly Beloved, this signifying tradition of playing with dirt and
letting it get all in your eyes is jumping like kangaroos not only in
Hurston but in the work of the dirtiest of the dirty, the coldest of the
cold—them brothers Outkast."
Steiny pauses here to note a mixed genre approach in that most of the
sections of Reeves' "essay" begins with Dearly Beloved making "A Little
Brown Liquor" a sermon to a community gathered for spiritual
guidance. Next, Steiny suggests that the Gertrude Stein quotes
containing the word dirt, or some variation, point to contradiction,
misunderstanding, diminishment, outside the norm, difference,
corruption, condemnation. However, dirt is not always a negative. In
"A Substance in a Cushion.", Stein writes, "…dirt is clean when there is
a volume." Perhaps this happens when growing vegetables or flowers.
Perhaps this uncontaminated state (and let's not ignore that clean can
mean free from dirt) occurs when a person has ownership of land and
therefore a place to belong.
What Stein does with dirt is abstract but applicable to her secret and
forbidden relationship with her lover Alice Toklas, while what Reeves
does is specific to his situation as a Black man in America. His language
rings in the ear and beats in the body like our hearts because it is the
language of poetry. Both Reeves and Stein make music with their
words but Reeves makes it visceral by referencing musicians. He is
attuned to the world of popular music like the hip hop/rap group
Outkast or the late crooner Luther Vandross.
Like Stein, Reeves mixes high and low culture. He references, in close
proximity, the Bible and cake-walking. Cake-walking is a dance devised
by African slaves that both entertained Southern slave masters while
simultaneously but surreptitiously making fun of them. Reeves was
brought up in a Pentecostal church, so mixing holy scripture with
dancing is a dirty blasphemy and indicates how metaphoric dirt takes
on contradicting associations.
Other characteristics in common between Reeves and Stein are:
irreverence, absurdity, talking poetically in tongues, a tendency to start
with sonic inspiration, use of color symbolism. Most of these
characteristics can be spotted in the examples provided. Affinity to
land is one trait Steiny wants to discuss more specifically.
Dirt makes up land. However, land for both Stein and Reeves concerns
where a human being comes from. The ancestries of both Stein and
Reeves are tied to lands outside America, specifically across the
Atlantic Ocean. Stein's father Daniel was born in Bavaria, Germany.
Her mother's family also immigrated to America from Germany.
Reeves matrilineal ancestors were kidnapped from Africa and made
slaves in America.
A short glimpse into the importance of land in Stein's writing can be
seen in the above quote from "Cake.". The quote begins "A can
experiment is that which makes a town." Here's Steiny's two cents: a
can experiment as in I am able to do something (can do it) equates to a
philosophic thought experiment. (An aside here, Stein was taught by
philosopher William James and throughout Reeves' book of essays, he
makes references to philosophers and philosophy.) Stein's quote goes
on to say: A can experiment is that which makes a town, makes a
town dirty. The word town derives from the Old English tun meaning: enclosure, garden, field, yard; farm, manor; homestead, dwelling
house, mansion. The repeated phrase makes a town with the
appended word dirty means substantive as in solid, as in an expanse of
land filled with dirt like a field. Two more cents from Steiny is that town connotes a place where people congregate, where people belong.
If one were to read the entire subpoem "Cake.", one would see this
sentence: "A little leaf upon a scene an ocean an where there, a bland
and likely in the stream a recollection green land." Notice the words ocean and land. Steiny could spend more intellectual currency here,
but she will leave that up to you, Dear Reader. But one more point,
Stein spent most of her life living in France because she knew her
beloved America would never accept her neither as experimental
writer nor as a lesbian.
In section 5 of Reeves' essay "A Little Brown Liquor," he writes about a
slave (Henry 'Box' Brown) who mailed himself from Virginia (where he
was enslaved) to Philadelphia (where he could be a free Black man).
Here's the complete opening lines of section 5:
"5 'How can property [i.e., Box Brown] steal property
[himself, a slave]'? This question animates the ironic dynamic of not
only Black life in America but also the linguistic expanse of Black life,
the dirt and the divinity of it."
This question how can property steal property gives teeth to the
concept of real property. The legal definition of real property
(synonymous with real estate) is land, and anything growing on it,
attached to it, under it, or built on this land. Plantation owners could
not run their estates without slave labor, real human beings attached,
sometimes literally, by chains to the land. Such management—slave
-based labor—was considered an economic necessity by the plantation
owners. Ironically for Reeves as a Black man of the 21st century, one
asset that makes a Black man in America whole is attachment to the
land, that is land called the United States of America. The question
then is the Black man in America American? For this, Dear Reader,
Steiny returns to "Notes on the Underground" to ponder this quote
from that essay:
America has refused us our very lives. Why wouldn't we go
underground? Why not seek refuge in nowhere? Because the truth of
the matter is our freedom resides in this nowhere, in this invisibility.
Our freedom is invisible—not because it doesn't exist but because it has
yet to be achieved.
Thus, the country of Roger Reeves' birth—America—is stealing his
birthright: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
because as a Black man he is still held captive in that old life as a slave
and by those old attitudes that made Black people less than the White
Lots of gravitas in Roger Reeves new hybrid work Dark Days from
Graywolf Press and, yes, it takes some effort to fully appreciate this
lyrically written meditation on living in America as a Black man.