The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd, in memorium, Reginald Shepherd, poet, essayist, friend, brother 1963 – September 10, 2008.

This memorium was presented at the 2010 AWP Conference in Denver. The panel, entitled A Tribute to Reginald Shepherd, consisted of a series of memories about Shepherd and his poems. Other presenters included Reginald’s surviving partner, Robert Philen, Brad Richard, John Gallaher and Catherine Imbroglio.

“Be bold, be bold, be bolder still.” Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen

“When death comes he’ll be a fine young man
and I will kiss his rotten lips and find her there.
Here I go, singing low.”  Reginald Shepherd, “Until She Returns”, from Some Are Drowning

So I’d like to begin by reading the poem “Until She Returns,” which is an elegy for Shepherd’s mother, the terrifying muse who both begins and ends this first book, Some Are Drowning.  Here’s the text of the poem in full:

 

Until She Returns

This is how I say it ends, Bronx County, 1978.
Packed up all my cares and woe in a plastic
garbage bag. It took an hour, maybe
less.

I take myself into the river of salt
for pages at a time, lying for the sake of
accuracy. All that summer it was winter; I said it
for her sake.

(For a year after she died
I dreamed of her; she came to say
she was just hiding. Death was just
a place to stay, a drift of cloud smeared half-way into
snow. I watched it fall.) (It never snowed there,
pine needles on red clay and heat-reek of the paper mill
for months. Mere decor, you might say, caves of kudzu
and no sidewalks. I missed sidewalks
most of all.) Some Thursday’s drift of cloud stole forty years
in passing, and an extra for good luck. Some other spring
I’ll give them back.

Days spent
curled around a tattered name, erased: white
piss-smelling flowers, intimate
spring air against the throat, some warmth
not far enough away. My little sister said
we’ll have to find another…; we were named
after each other, before the fact. Who isn’t her these days?
Hat boxes and a closet full of coats with fur collars,
someone to betray over and over. (The personal effects
incinerated, with no one to say
mine. I’ll take the rhinestone buckles on the shoes.)

When death comes he’ll be a fine young man
and I will kiss his rotten lips and find her there.

Here I go, singing low.

 

So, this is how I say it begins: in the Co-op, Iowa City, Fall of ‘94. Carolyn Forche had picked Some Are Drowning for the AWP Award in Poetry the previous year and Reginald was there to give a reading at Prairie Lights.  Back then, as a nervous, 23 year old wannabe poet, I didn’t think they even let graduates of the Writers’ Workshop publish books, much less books of such bold and bolder still witness.  This is how I say it begins: with the poetry, of such courageous imagination and overwhelming consequence, and with Reginald, in the produce section, right there by the arugula, black leather jacket, shaved head, handsome, dogtags around his neck, and when we were introduced by Jan the all-important keeper of the poetry section at Prairie Lights, when I confessed that I hadn’t been able to make his reading because of work, he let loose with one of those great Reginald Shepherd lines: “I’ll forgive you,” and even though he was joking, he did not laugh.

This is how I say it begins, in earnest, with a phonecall, years later: it was Reginald Shepherd, did I remember him?  He’d picked a poem of mine for an Epoch special issue focusing on unpublished young poets—maybe some of you on the panel were in that issue?  It was a phonecall of several hours duration, I recall, for we hit it off right away, and at one point I asked him something like “are you okay?” which was shorthand for, ‘I’ve read your poems and I know that you have AIDS,’ and before I could clarify, he said: “You mean do I have aids and am I dying?” And this time he did laugh—as if to say, let me help you find the words to talk about this, I’ll help you, I’ll listen, but I won’t make it easier: as in ‘I forgive you, in advance.’

“Some other Spring/I’ll give them back”

That phone call began for me a truly extraordinary period during which Reginald not only championed my work—publishing my poems in more than a few different journals when he was invited to be guest-editor, and for The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries—but also published five books of poetry, two books of essays, including the new one, gave readings, edited, taught—well, read the bibliography.

What the record doesn’t show, however, was his relentlessly uncompromising support and loyalty for so many of us, especially the ones who had trouble getting our work out there. He gave back, simply because he felt that work needed to be read, and the relationships followed from that act.  What it doesn’t show is that he struggled and survived and lived with AIDS, mentored and taught many students, and last but not least, fell in love with Robert Philen.

How do you distill a friendship down into fifteen minutes?  So I’ve chosen a few sentences from emails to underscore and broadcast that goodness, that true generosity, along with the difficulties and the struggle and the fierce intelligence.  These are in no particular order:

These, from emails in Spring 2008, after he very nearly died:

“Thanks for your notes, for the revised version of the poem (which is wonderful), for your kind words about me and my work, and for your good wishes about my kidney.”

“I am gradually getting better—the wound vac is off and my wound is sealing up well, more quickly than my infectious disease doctor thought it would—but I’m still on IV antiobiotics, which make me queasy and fatigued.”

And a year or so before that, these:

“You too, my friend, are a brilliant and talented writer, and a very kind and caring person, both of which are incredibly rare—the combination is almost unheard of.  So it would just be wrong to let the bastards grind you down.  So we will just decide that won’t happen, okay?”

“For now, I must sign off, as I am exhausted and need to start getting ready for bed.  I have been running around all day accomplishing not much of anything, but I at least also did a very intense workout today, so I achieved something.  And I wrote to you, which is always a good thing.”

More advice on academia, which I still need:

“The system is indeed cruel, but though it’s mauled me a bit, it hasn’t chewed me up— I’m still standing, and still more or less intact. If anything, I’m more sane than I used to be.  How’s that for a positive attitude? :-)”

“. . .for example, being told during a campus visit at the University of Nebraska that they’d heard that I had “difficulties with authority” and that “we will of course say and do racist things without meaning to—how would you respond?”

And this one, just after Reginald reconnected with his little sister:

“It is amazing to me that my sister and I are back in contact, and that we’ve been able to reconnect so easily and so well. I’m hoping to (re)meet in August, when I will fly out to Oakland while she has some vacation time.  It’s an incredible prospect to me. Unfortunately, various other maternal relatives I have no desire to be in touch with have been coming out of the woodwork.  I am trying to politely but firmly blow them off.”

On whether or not to apply for a Guggenheim, which I did, and didn’t get. (Reginald got one the year before):

“As I said before, I think that it’s always better to try than not to, even if something is a long shot. After all, it’s a no shot if you don’t even  try. There’ve definitely been too many things I’ve not done in my life because of fear, and I regret it. Fortune favors the brave. He who hesitates is lost. And other inspirational platitudes. As Spenser wrote in The Faerie Queene, Be bold, be bold, be bolder still.”

And this last one, signing off, as always:

“Take care, my friend, and I hope to talk to you soon.  I’ll be at AWP also.  I hope that we can get together then.  Peace and poetry, Reginald, the Good Shepherd.”

That continued for years, and each time he wrote to me about his health, especially, I thought, at first, God, is this going to be it?  And then, Another bullet dodged?  Until finally, naively: I thought, That Reginald is a tough son-of-a-bitch, until one fine morning in September 2008, after a spell of silence, I got a long message from Robert Philen, informing me that Reginald was in hospice and that I was one of the people he wanted to talk to before he died.

“Here I go, singing low.”

I didn’t want to think this was my last phonecall with Reginald.  I kept putting that thought out of my mind.  But it was.  Later, much later, Robert Philen told me how difficult it was for him—how he didn’t have the energy to write, about his fear (“I’m afraid, I’m just not as afraid as I thought I’d be.”)  I didn’t want to ponder that it must have been an extraordinary expenditure of energy and a sacrifice of what little time was left just to talk to me by telephone.  And I recall, alas, very little, because I was upset, but I remember that his voice came from a very far way off, it was powerful and small, and it sounded ground down.  One thing I do recall, after I told him what he and his work meant to me, and what I meant to him, was that he kept talking about Robert.  “I’m so worried about leaving Robert.  What’s Robert going to do now.  I just can’t stand to think about Robert all alone.  If only things would be different, not for myself, but for Robert.”  It’s hard to interrupt somebody who’s dying, but I did it, and here’s what I said: “God Reginald, with everything you’re going through right now, and all you’re thinking about is somebody else.” And before I could ponder that this just might be—and I want to say this carefully and clearly—the moral center of the universe: before I could figure out what it all meant, Reginald stopped me, and his voice rose in stature, reared back, and it seemed to reach out for me across all that distance between us: “That’s because,” he said, “I can’t do anything about the fact that I’m dying.  I can do something for Robert.”

That’s the fine young man.  That’s the kiss.

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