Lightning Rods and Line Breaks: The Malevolent Volume by Justin Phillip Reed
“Within this one freckle of world, everything / and I vibrated with need.”
Justin Phillip Reed’s The Malevolent Volume makes lightning rods of line breaks. In the span of only a few buzzing words, the electric sophomore collection of the 2018 National Book Award-winning poet brings to life monsters and mayhem of most remarkable complexities. Easily an improvement to the quick-stitched skin grafts of Shelleyan chimeras dreamt up to refute Western patriarchal bigotries of the late nineteenth century, the patchwork of the author’s terrors aren’t patchy at all. Seamlessly weaving the mythos of Old Europe with the Black paranormal, vintage cinema with the current sociopolitical landscape, Reed makes tapestries of fright and anachronism with a time traveler’s finesse.
As an archive of the perverse monstrosities against Black queerness, The Malevolent Volume speaks truths of the mythic with profound fluency: the horrors of anti-Blackness are neither exaggerated nor exceptional—it is indeed the norm, as seen in this excerpt from “When I Made a Monster”:
For the life of me
I could not thwart its Jim-Boy
paradox: it always appeared to leap
backward to infancy but up the slope
of death. This was a matter in the epic
labor I daily laid out with a sharp
armamentarium, end-to-end, to end
the replication of my enemy’s illogic.
A master of synthesis and precision, it is in creating this type of tension—or rather, juxtaposition—where Reed’s craft shines most. The South Carolina poet’s sentence-making is mystifying and surreal—easily a UFO inconspicuously hovers over a cornfield (unlucky beamed-up bovine witness included). Or, put simply, Reed’s language is continually (and refreshingly) staggering.
A mindful collection that trumpets gothic timelessness, Reed’s speakers summon cryptid beasts, fallen angels, and several creeping, crawling antagonists to sing of their fear-inducing deeds. In “When I Am Queen,” the late singer-songwriter Aaliyah’s Queen Akasha glows with cult-classic blood-thirst again. With sparkling eyes tilted toward relieving herself of the lackluster facets of everyday whiteness, the speaker is dazzled or perhaps possessed by Akasha, speaking as if a momentary henchman of her primordial bidding. “These kids have / the waste about them, have been bastardizing / night and night out the world’s restless / circulation,” Reed writes. Here, the speaker slickly chides the overwhelming dissatisfaction of regularity, carefully toothing the observed kids’ pulsing, oppressive membrane for a weak spot.
Like Akasha, Reed is bored with society’s pale quotidian, favoring instead the stunning gleam of ekphrasis and employing sharp, attentive syntax to create chilling scenes. Frighteningly detailed, this poet knows horror well. Preferring psychological thrills to cheap macabre, the stirring collection often casts both its speakers and audience as extras in unsettling cinematic close-ups. In “Minotaur,” Reed makes use of the titular Grecian half-breed, startling the reader with a disconcerting sonnet. Setting both text and speaker against a deeply contrasting black page, a physical allusion to one of the bullheaded Minotaur’s own terrifying reputation, Reed opens with meandering nonfinite clauses, lingering, for multiple lines, in the present participle before introducing the “I” and ultimately, declaring that they (the speaker) are not “the bull thing saddled with shadows of corners.”
I was perhaps the labyrinth: crook swagger toward the scene
and, passing myself, away from; wound, meaning once
there was no road; vignette of false exits. Or I was the blood:
what cardinal-pointed the would-be conqueror out to beach,
then became his mind’s unmooring, then the still black
sail, and then the night inside it. Have bent a shore’s knees.
Have been where day breaks like someone else’s father’s face.
Insisting they are, perhaps, “the labyrinth,” the seeping blood from an undeserved puncture, or another byproduct of such an industrial prison’s inhumanity, the speaker knows their guilt is unavoidable. Seen as a demon, a sin, an abominable lovechild by birthright, their thoughts classically hulk “starward” like many a Black American child in a police state, a note to one of the possible unmentioned names of the mythic character, Asterion, endlessly searching for some sort of escape beyond this life, restlessly looking upward for some reality where their name is just as important as the stars.
If not apparent before, it is clear that this poet is surely no stranger to monster hunting, or better yet, to the sensation of being hunted. As such, arming himself with as much as equipment as can be found to tackle both historical myths and supernatural visitors to this world alike. Slinking down the page like sirens and selkies of old, “The Lorelei,” a cryptid deep-cut nestled nearly halfway throughout the collection, forgoes punctuation to invoke a banshee-wail truly belonging in the Rhine:
am horn and head and harlot
forger of your poorest rhyme
romancing babble lullabies
in slow controlled leak o hear me
whistle in the whorl
ich bin es recluse of wreck
it been me curator of canon holes
Honing an unapologetic syntactical flare that could easily declare him a close literary descendant of Carl Phillips, the Indecency author often pivots away from grammatical restrictions with a keenness like that of a classical marksman. To some extent, it is here where this collection’s queerness is felt most. Carefully watching their target, the speaker coos, breathlessly requiring their reader’s full attention before (SPOILER ALERT) making a meal of a man nearby. Channeling feelings of longing and desire through repetitive use of the quintessential “o” and rhythmic indentation, the poem’s design syncs with its speaker in luring the reader into what feels like a doomed dance, a scene reminiscent of introductions on queer hookup apps. Actively conscious of its surroundings and its circumstances, the poem insists on tiny winding rebellions, making full use of the mouth when read aloud. Perhaps a beauty, perhaps a targeted fetish, the speaker, lackadaisical but desirous, knows exactly what they’re getting into. There is no guesswork: on the other end of this interaction sit possibilities of both pleasure and harm, a looming gamble with mortality that many a Black queer person knows intimately.
Like any diehard horror buff, Reed does not shy away from the inescapability of death. In fact, The Malevolent Volume embraces this inescapability time and time again, ghost-riding many a thumping old vehicle given new rims, eerily glowing a shivering chrome against the backdrop of a cool night sky. In its pages, both devoid of and flush Black, this collection undulates with anger and curiosity towards acts of radical Blackness. Reed, a maker of breathtaking proportions, fashions his literary labor as reality, or perhaps, an alternate reality, working to dream newly imagined possibilities in the mythic strangeness of the everyday. In a society that constantly replies “Where, where” to an outcry of our lives mattering, like a bigoted spirit or poltergeist understudying for “When I Had the Haint,” Justin Phillip Reed’s equally indecent follow-up collection whispers and moans furiously against such absurd notions. In an oft nonfictive experience bound in less than one hundred pages, The Malevolent Volume painstakingly insists that mattering does not die, but continues to feverishly haunt and do work in indestructible unrest.