Why I Chose Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club

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The word indecency often makes me think of the often disturbing relationship our culture has with sex and violence. Indecency is usually connected to the latter, as in indecent exposure or an indecent proposal, with public sexuality and conduct, but it’s rarely (in my experience) used to describe violence. Justin Phillip Reed, in his debut collection forthcoming from Coffee House Press on May 8, muddles that boundary, and brings that idea of indecency as improper conduct of any kind to the forefront.

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Indecency, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Justin Phillip Reed, you’ll need to to subscribe by March 20!

Consider the opening of the prose poem “The Day ____________ Died.”

i disavowed “died” but didn’t mutter “murdered” in the direction of anyone who uttered it. i collapsed the umbrella of my shoulders into circumflex over a keyboard and clicked away morning. at lunch i was nowhere i could call you back from. there, i munched granola and grew miraculously blacker. my boss’s chin tilting collarward kinda meant to mean i matter, but i thought fuck if i’m two cool fingertips to the temples / i’m not fine but uncannily coarse as the mud-eyed jerk-bootied affect of a james brown mug shot / no thanks for the talk no tongues today counting downbeats we can syncopate tomorrow.

At this point I’ve quoted two-thirds of the poem because I couldn’t bring myself to cut it. Reed starts the poem in a public space where his speaker refuses to use the neutral term “died” to describe the latest killing but doesn’t have the—energy? patience? I’m not sure what word is appropriate here—to confront those around him with the more accurate term “murdered” and all it encompasses. I’m reminded of the ways Claudia Rankine, in Citizen, described not having it in her in the moment to challenge a colleague who’d said something racist, that she knew the same moment would come again no matter what she did right then, and how wearing that was on her. The “boss’s chin tilting collarward kinda meant to mean i matter” is as close as the speaker gets to acknowledgement of what has happened again (the blank line in the title tells us how common this is). Reed’s poems are full of this kind of movement and wordplay, and reward multiple readings.

Reed’s poems are also formally inventive, especially when he works in concrete ways on the page. The poem “Orientation” looks like blurry crosshairs; “The Fratricide” is two columns on facing pages with a separate block of text in the middle divided diagonally by the use of bold text on one half, with the left side’s lines growing shorter while the right’s grow longer. He uses repetition with small variation to tremendous effect in “The Fratricide” and in many other poems, much as a jazz soloist might gradually expand the range of notes they play off a chord progression to shift the emotion slowly and subtly. The reader winds up in a new place without realizing they were being moved there.

I hope you’ll join us in April as we read and discuss Indenceny first together, and then with Justin Phillip Reed in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by March 20 to make sure you don’t miss out on this challenging, worthwhile debut collection!


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →