Nothing Is Ever Itself Only: A Review of Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency / by Peter LaBerge

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

  Indecency  by Justin Phillip Reed (Coffee House Press, 2018).

Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed (Coffee House Press, 2018).

Justin Phillip Reed’s debut collection, Indecency, offers a sharp, uncompromising rebuttal to a society that would like to reduce the speaker to their race, sexuality, and gender performance. Reed turns the white, heterosexual gaze back toward itself, revealing the void at the heart of those identities, while simultaneously reveling in black queerness and expounding on the vast universes contained therein.

Indecency, asks, What is sayable? Isn’t propriety just oppression with a smile? Reed then makes space for the truth white western culture asks marginalized people to keep to themselves and demonstrates how it attempts to conscript them into protecting the privileged from the reality of what is done in their name to maintain that privilege, as in “They Speak of the Body and One Sits Up Straight.”

what's black    and red        and red        all over? the public
drops    its hand    from the ear where it had    what it thought
was the decency    to whisper.

Reed illustrates how our society reduces black people to their bodies and then demeans and discards those bodies in poems like “Pushing up onto its elbows, the fable lifts itself into fact,” where “The soil is thick with hidden Black girls, the myth that only quiet Black girls are worthwhile Black girls.” Reed negates this dehumanization by grounding Indecency in physicality. His speaker, “so black my elbows / stripe their char on the carpet” (“Take It Out of the Boy”), is determined not just to survive, but to raise their voice over what seeks to silence them. This is a speaker who has “scrubbed my own maroon out of the porcelain / mouth of a pedestal sink,” in “Slough,” and relates, “I haven't swept / the welcome mat, haven’t taken advantage / of the free counseling sessions, have been / here before” in “Nothing Was Ever Itself Only.” But there’s a fierce intellect here that refuses to look away, wondering in “Paroxysm,” “why Edvard Munch’s screaming figure isn’t black as the day is long.”

One of the collection’s most exciting through-lines is its examination of whiteness—the ravenous blank of it, and how its cold, relentless spotlight throws blackness into strange relief. Reed demonstrates how whiteness obscures itself by insisting that its many violences are done by no one in poems like “A Statement from No One, Incorporated,” where faceless white voices insist, “We are so / many blades in the yard the wind / runs screaming invisibly through.” By rendering itself invisible and innocent, whiteness attempts to make itself unassailable, so it’s remarkable how Reed peers into this lack to reveal not only what whiteness imagines itself to be, but also how the construction of whiteness prefigures blackness as the repository of and direction for violence. This is especially striking in poems like “Pushing up onto its elbows, the fable lifts itself into fact.”

Unlike missing Black girls, taking black girls is a Western custom. It seems likely that such a statement will soon appear inaccurate: the white space in the new textbook editions will have nothing to say about it, if the white spaces behind those textbooks have anything to say about it.

It’s certainly not a new idea that whiteness requires blackness to serve as its shadow and foil—that’s one of many the twisted logics of white supremacy—but Reed illuminates the contours of whiteness in ways that undercut and deftly dismantle it, rather than taking existing dynamic as inevitable, describing, “A feeling in which the rest of the world is a white couple riding horses down the spine of a beach at dusk” (“Paroxysm”). Even more remarkably, Reed lets blackness speak back to the forces that demand its negation in “The Fratricide.”

How can we tell ourselves apart for you. How can
we help you to tell us apart. How can we help
you tell us apart. How can we help you to tear
us apart. How can we help you. You tear us apart.
How can we tear us. You help us apart. You help
us part. How can we tear you. How can we tear
you. How can we help us to tear you apart.

Reed highlights the paradox of living in a world that wants you dead in poems like “On Life as an Exercise in Preparing to Die,” where the speaker notes, “carnation once referred to the color of flesh: beyond the black and white meats, the bloody organs arrange a bouquet of crushed roses, paling and exhausted.” Reed also illustrates how being systemically imperiled binds black people, particularly black men, as in the previously mentioned “The Fratricide,” where the speaker “was already / wearing the skin of his skull, molding its contours / to mine.”

However, Reed calls attention to the ways in which queerness excludes his speaker from that fraternity, as in “To Every Faggot Who Pulverized Me for Being a Faggot,” where the speaker addresses “Dear fellow / gay-ass nigga,” asking, “who loves you these days? / I hope it’s Black people. I hope no one / stole the certainty of that away from you,” and later in the poem, addresses the white man who disavows their relationship in favor of the closet:

From its stubborn clay I’ve shaped
a creature, hollowed into its guts
a pair of lungs, attached appendages
that make it capable of walking
out of every room it enters at will
and willed it to love. What have you done.

That’s a radical sentiment, just as this collection is an incendiary one, a work of joy as much as suffering, of celebration as much as tragedy, and of life as much as death. Reed’s wit and formal experimentation, quicksilver and luminous, shows the world as it is, while detailing how the very people that society most devalues, demeans, and seeks to destroy are its true visionaries.

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Luiza Flynn-Goodlett is the author of the chapbooks Unseasonable Weather (dancing girl press, 2018) and Congress of Mud (Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her work can be found in Third Coast, Granta, Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She serves as editor-in-chief of Foglifter Journal and lives in sunny Oakland, California.