Roger Reeves' "Children Listen"

Thoughts on witness.

Children Listen

               It turns out however that I was deeply

Mistaken about the end of the world

         The body in flames will not be the body

In flames but just a house fire ignored

         The black sails of that solitary burning

Boat rubbing along the legs of lovers

         Flung into a Roman sky by a carousel

The lovers too sick in their love

         To notice a man drenched in fire on a porch

Or a child aflame mistaken for a dog

         Mistaken for a child running to tell of a bomb

That did not knock before it entered

         In Gaza with its glad tidings of abundant joy 

In Kazimierz a god is weeping

         In a window one golden hand raised

Above his head as if he’s slipped

         On the slick rag of the future our human

Kindnesses unremarkable as the flies

         Rubbing their legs together while standing

On a slice of cantaloupe Children

         You were never meant to be human

You must be the grass

         You must grow wildly over the graves

from Academy of American Poets (2018)

In trying to figure out how to even talk about Roger Reeves’ work, I find myself thinking of a passage I read recently in Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (a delightful book that has literally nothing to do with that Tom Cruise movie). In the novel, DeWitt’s narrator stumbles upon a piece of music criticism that advocates for a new music “using a much wider range of notes.” The narrator imagines this beautiful possibility that arises out of thinking of the notes between the notes on a piano. What if a scale held 100 notes instead of just 12? 1,000?

I love this idea, and when I read Roger Reeves’ work, I think of how often his poems illuminate the space between things. Between objection and subjection, between real and imagined, between the present and the future, and between the past and everything else. In one of his recent poems, “Black Children at the End of the World — and the Beginning,” Reeves writes:

You are in a beautiful language.

You are what lies beyond this kingdom
And the next and the next and fire. 

There, beyond is another kind of between — one that exists between this world and the next. In another poem, “Cross Country,” from his book King Me, he writes:

This is America speaking in translation, in glitter,
in gold grills and fried chicken.

Throughout so much of his work, Reeves re-conceptualizes the enormous capabilities of language to re-imagine what the aftermath of harm looks like, what the future of a country looks like, and what agency — through voice, song, lyric, image — can offer in this space between and after and through and beyond the notes of a new music. Today’s poem is no different. It is a poem of absolute disaster and absolute hope and the space between those two things.

It’s worth it to listen to Reeves read his poem here. You can hear the deliberateness of the thoughts unraveling themselves through the elliptical nature of the unpunctuated lines.

The first two lines and the last two lines of today’s poem are two of the most remarkable beginnings and endings I’ve read. I mean, imagine beginning a poem by writing:

               It turns out however that I was deeply

Mistaken about the end of the world

So much about this is a testament to Reeves’ craft. The lingering “however” that alludes to a moment in the past when Reeves’ speaker did not think they were mistaken about the end of the world. Or the line break that cuts between “deeply” and “Mistaken,” and leaves the reader struck by the humility and loss of such a line. These lines set up the poem that follows, which is a poem that, in the act of centering the horror of this world, gives agency to those who are impacted by such horror. Even though it writes about how the “body / In flames” becomes a “house fire ignored,” Reeves’ work is a work of such devout witness that it finally tells the truth about something, and, in doing so, honors what has been lost.

What follows the first two lines is a litany of what is lost. I write a lot in these little essays about poetry’s potential as an act of witness, and I think, when I read this poem, that I feel so deeply the way in which Reeves bears witness, and the way in which witness is — to continue the earlier metaphor — a testament to the musical notes we are told to play in this life, a statement of the consequences that occur when we limit ourselves to just those notes, and a re-imagining of what we are allowed to play, should we give ourselves permission.

And, when I think about witness, I keep returning to those first two lines, and, particularly, to Reeves’ admission of being “deeply / Mistaken.” I think about Terrance Hayes’ “The Same City,” a poem I wrote about awhile ago, and how he writes: “Let me begin again.” And I think about “Winter Stars,” by Larry Levis, and how he writes: “I got it all wrong.” I wonder if, to witness something well — with compassion, grace, and vision — one must un-center their own worldview. Perhaps, in order to witness anything at all, one must admit being mistaken about something, anything.

It is that act of deep humility that allows this poem to unfold itself. I trust Reeves’ speaker implicitly because of those first two lines, and I trust the speaker more because of the fact that the word “Mistaken” is one of the most — if not the most —repeated words in the poem. I mean, look at these lines:

Or a child aflame mistaken for a dog

         Mistaken for a child

The sorrow that is bounced back and forth in these images. The deep, uncalculable sorrow. And the way so much of that sorrow is steeped in not knowing, is a result of a wanting truth, and not having it, of wanting to know what to mourn, and not knowing it. So much of what Reeves illuminates as horrifying in this poem is a result of a failure of witness. It is the people who are suffering, and yet the people are mistaken. It is “our human / Kindnesses” that we celebrate, and yet they are “unremarkable.” The poem devastates because of its depiction of truth. It says: look again.

In Solmaz Sharif’s poem “Personal Effects,” she writes:

Daily I sit

with the language

they've made

of our language

In the same way, Reeves’ work asks the reader to look again at what is made of the world, what is told of the world, what is sold of the world. When he writes “You were never meant to be human,” it carries the weight of all the witnessing that came before. To be human, in today’s poem, is to bear the travesty of a failure of language, a failure of witness, a failure of so much more. It is better, and perhaps more just, as Reeves writes, to be “the grass.”

When I read the final two lines of this poem, I think of hope. But more specifically, I think of the way language can offer access to hope, and I think of how metaphor — used as a tool of re-imagination, of newfound agency — can be a kind of hope. How can we reach into what has never been connected to us? How can we draw lines between newer imaginations of language, of people, of the act of being alive? Reeves’ speaker says to be like grass. To grow wildly over the graves. The poem doesn’t say this is how you do this. It simply says notice, witness what already is, and how you could be such a thing, too. The poem begins with what is mistaken and ends with what could be.

Sometimes I say: I don’t know. When I offer myself grace, I say: I don’t know, let’s find out together.