Reginald Harris’s Autogeography is his second book, and the winner of the Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize. The book has been praised for being great black poetry and great LGBT poetry, but it’s great writing beyond category. In a refreshing and thoughtful way, the poems use the urban landscape and culture of Baltimore as a background to the foreground of various artists’ voices (including Harris’s) speaking; they speak through music, through sex, and through navigating race.
What ties these themes together is always Baltimore, famous from The Wire; it’s a postindustrial city completely failed by neoliberalism and destroyed by racism, a place Harris describes, echoing Hughes, as “a dream transferred, outsourced, shuttered, boarded up.” A recent story in the New York Times, “Blighted Cities Prefer Razing to Rebuilding,” describes how “Baltimore lost nearly 110,000 jobs from 1990 to 2010, about 23 percent, and has seen its population drop from 950,000 in 1950 to 621,000 today. The city has 20,000 vacant buildings and lots, and more than one house in eight is vacant.” Autogeography has been born out of this human tragedy.
The poems’ relationship to the city is a perfect metaphor for the self-location of the title: how can a person experience freedom when everything has been utterly designed to limit you, if not kill you? Sometimes decades of a kind of post-colonial abuse in a place like Baltimore indoctrinated passivity and amoral pragmatism in its citizens; but it also created a honey-tinged hopefulness and beauty. It is this dynamic of being pulled in opposite directions of which Harris shows mastery. It can best be described as a blues aesthetic.
Harris is a romantic, and a profound lesson in Autogeography is the sensitivity of urban black men who live “the game.” So often in the American cultural imagination homosexuality equals weakness, in opposition to manliness, but the speakers here have to be tough as iron to negotiate the city. Likewise, the “thugs” on the corner, frequently raised by their mothers and grandmothers and aunts, have a gooey, romantic core beneath the hardened exterior. Harris describes all this breathlessly, as in “Eastside Alphabetics”:
Apostolic Beat down Chicken box
In another such poem, “The Lost Boys: A Requiem,” Harris conjures Etheridge Knight’s sensibilities in his listing of all the men killed by the prison system, by drugs, by AIDS, etc.:
Such stories are rarely in the daily news, and so Harris’s poems serve as witness; his poems actively try to destroy the idea of the poor as undeserving or as criminal. The work is an act of protest and an act of self-portraiture. In “The Man with My Name,” for example, the speaker imagines his doppelganger fitting in, obeying rules, and examines the edge of self-hatred and self-satisfaction: the other man lives an easy existence away from the invisible walls that have haunted the speaker, the real Reginald Harris, through his life.
In “The City Without You,” perhaps the most ambitious poem in the book, at least in terms of form, uses the page’s empty space to conjure silence, the absence of the beloved and the tension between this silence and the physicality of the words creates fresh meaning and metaphor. Other poems are less successful: “Captain Blackman,” an omnibus tour of black military service through the centuries feels more formulaic and predictable. The love poems, too, tend to repeat ideas and perceptions we’ve read before in Thom Gunn, Allen Ginsberg, J.D. McClatchy, and others. For example, in “Cuerpo de hombre,” the poem relies on adjectives to make meaning: “reed slim and dark / rich loam”; “legs / like tree trunks, ripe apple full biceps”; hypnotizes with / a sway and gentle shake.” All of these sorts of tropes leave the reader somewhat flat. These few poems for some reason lack the political edge and subtle thoughtfulness of the other 99 percent.
Harris’s poems work best with more freedom in form and content, and when the amount of risk increases. These let all of his musical influences seep into the texture: gospel in “Sunday Brunch” evokes “the riches / of the earth begging destitute a child / Looks like you’re writing a letter—would you like help? Restore / you to the years the locusts ate orange juice and champagne / homemade jam.” Here, various modes and voices interlace each other. In “While the Quartet Plays ‘Body and Soul’”, the poem splices the 1930 standard with the speaker’s own moving in and out of the song, and of past loves while sitting in a bookstore in 1998. Such poems are pure pleasure.
Autogeography is a book to return to again and again. Soothing, sympathetic, and solicitous, the poems have a playful, yet political edge that remains satisfying and gives a sense of a completed statement. Its most lucid gifts, though, show the speaker of the poems traversing an urban landscape, one of the most dangerous in America, and a place where Harris, in his marrow, feels the place and its absences. He channels all this in a language all his own. Great style and quality of style.