LURKING behind the pedestrian title of Ishmael Reed’s “New and Collected Poems, 1964-2006" is a more apt moniker, something like “The Cantankerous Plot to Save America by Mixing Myth, Neo-Hoodoo Spirituality, a Horn Section or Two and an Innovative Multicultural Poetics.” With such a conjure, we might see the real Reed appear before our eyes, bearing his brick of a book and giving no evidence that he has not published a collection of poems in nearly 20 years.
Reed’s career is marked (some would say marred) by the culture wars that began with the onset of “multiculturalism” -- an ideal the poet has long championed -- in the early 1960s. As a participant in the Black Arts Movement, starting with his membership in New York’s Umbra Workshop, Reed was part of a group of young male African American writers attempting to define a new black aesthetic. He soon left black nationalism and separatism for a more nuanced “transculturalism,” evidenced by a willingness to explore the fact that significant cultural and social realities are shared by all racial and ethnic groups. In establishing the Before Columbus Foundation, he has reached out to promote the work of overlooked writers of color, and white writers, as well.
Still, Reed’s stand on most racial issues could be termed more confrontational than conciliatory, and he is known for engaging in rough-and-tumble rhetoric -- although the targets of his critique are not always easy to categorize. He can sling it against the white power structure and also against black feminists, some of whom he’s accused of colluding with their white counterparts to denigrate the image and experience of the black male in the United States. Ask Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Color Purple,” what kind of rebuke came her way because she wrote about black-on-black childhood sexual abuse.
But to discuss Reed’s work only in the pyrotechnic light of politics would be to miss the mark. There’s no denying that he has made a place for himself and his work at the center of American cultural life. A man of many talents, he has used them all in his drive to redefine American values in the face of racism.
“New and Collected Poems” gathers Reed’s four previous volumes of poetry and adds a substantial selection of new work that takes up a full third of the book. The most important contribution he makes is the recovery of Egyptian, African and Afro-Caribbean mythologies, histories and spiritualities. Using a street-smart vocabulary, Reed weaves these worlds into the fabric of mainstream American culture. Famous for this linguistic mix is his poem “I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra”:
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra,sidewinders in the saloons of foolsbit my forehead like Othe untrustworthiness of Egyptologistswho do not know their trips. Who was thatdog-faced man? they asked, the day I rodefrom town.
Reed calls his approach Neo-Hoodooism, a syncretism of elements influencing black history before, during and after slavery. “The Neo-Hoodoo Manifesto,” from the 1972 collection “Conjure,” is the key to his work. What he argues for is not a melting pot in American life -- not the submersion or integration of black, brown, red, yellow and white into an acceptable monoculture -- but a society with all cylinders firing (a gas-electric hybrid, so to speak), one that truly challenges the hegemony of Western cultural values from the Greeks forward.
On the other hand, Reed is careful to acknowledge that any identity can become straitjacketed, leaving one in a bemused fog:
it is like lao tse’s dream, mystrange affair with cities.sometimes I can’t tell whetheri am a writer writing abt citiesor a city with cities writingabt me.a city in peril, everything thatmakes me tick is on the bum. allmy goods and services are wearingdown. nothing resides in me anymore.I am becoming a ghost town with noteven an occasional riot to perk meup
In his introduction to “New and Collected Poems,” Reed calls his 1974 book “Chattanooga” the collection where he finally became the poet he hoped to be, mixing recovered history and poetic form to meet demands of his own. Poems from the volume “Points of View,” on the other hand, center around individuals and events, most directed at small life lessons set forth in the musical forms of ballads and blues poems. “The Ballad of Charlie James” recounts the fatal police shooting of an elderly black man in the Hunter’s Point section of San Francisco:
He survived the crazy rhythmsin his chesthis lungs whistling likeghost winds, but he couldn’tsurvive the policeHazardous to your healthif you are poor, Indian, orChicano, or if you’re a sixtyyear old black man asleep inbed “Bring them hands fromunderneath those sheets so’s wecansee them, let us see what you gotbeneath those sheets”
Some of the poems here, composed in Alaska, tune into environmental concerns. Having spent the better part of a summer living in the home of the chief of the Tlingit Frog Clan, Reed immerses himself in yet another culture:
The pioneers and the indiansdisagree about a lot of thingsfor example, the pioneer says thatwhen you meet a bear in the woodsyou should yell at him and if thatdoesn’t work, you should fell himthe indians say that you shouldwhisper to him softly and call him byloving nicknamesNo one’s bothered to ask the bearwhat he thinks
The real test of political poetry is how well it can shape-shift from one era to another. The typical political poem has a short shelf life, based on how long the names of people, places and events resonate for the reader. The political poems that live on past their moment contain a gnarly seed of elemental human truth. You can be fuzzy about who, exactly, Andrei Gromyko was, but it is hard to forget the dynamics of a poem rendered ageless by design, as in this chronicle of a moment in the fall of the Soviet empire:
It’s sad what happensTo old revolutionariesWhose salad days have peaked
While everybody else isDowntown having a partyYou’re sitting in the parkFeeding sparrowsWho don’t know theoryFrom bread crumbs
The risk Reed runs is that not all his poems end so well. Some lose strength as they reach for ultimate resolution. Shorter and more lyrical poems, especially, are not what this maker of chants and boogaloos does best.
And yet, with all the verse that appears in print these days, it’s easy to forget just what it takes to achieve the professional stature and body of work that calls forth a volume of this kind. A poet has to be able to keep a grip on the reading public’s emotional and critical eyes and ears for a lifetime. Few poets can pull this off, especially when they are also writing novels, creating and producing music, making films, parenting presses and literary magazines and mentoring a generation or two of new political and literary activists as Reed has done.
Reed has been honored with a MacArthur Fellowship and represented in almost every anthology of major black writers. You have to hand it to him: His main political point is well taken. The America he dreams of and demands we try to create isn’t in view yet. But he is moving ahead with his expansive creative program. In his new work, he ventures into writing poetry in Japanese, translating Yoruba folk tales and penning the libretto for an opera called “Gethsemane Park.” Still plotting after all these years.