One of the delights of reading autobiographical poetry is the thrill of being upstaged. Somehow the authors’ problems upstage your own, and you have no choice to relinquish your own personal tragedies and pay attention to their amusing failings. That’s the pleasure of empathy: while you’re feeling bad for the person, there’s the undeniable happiness in not having their lives. “Woe as you,” and “I mean really woe as you,” because “the last place I would want to be is in your shoes.”
Pity is never monotone. It also comes in many different shapes and sizes.
I always prefer large.
There’s a smallness to Steven Reigns’ poetry collection “Inheritance.” I could see some people arguing that what I’m claiming to be smallness is a thoughtfulness, a refusal to take up that much space, a special consideration of others. You don’t have to look any further than his reputable professional credentials for proof of someone who genuinely cares about others. He has taught numerous writing workshops to gay and lesbian youth. No doubt his studies in psychology will lead to important work if it hasn’t already.
The book deals with the usual: affairs with married men, drugs, wanting to be beautiful, etc. etc. What I was hoping for was that with these unsurprising, yet wholly dependable tropes, he would see his own problems as something grand. He’d want to upstage us with his own miseries. But he does something much kinder and somewhat less effective, at least in the realm of poetry: he thinks about us.
One of the poems includes a description of a friend at a gay bar who is intimidated by all the muscle men. Rather than obsessing about himself, and seeing where those obsessions go, he pontificates: “We are all slaves to a feeling/whose rival is self-love,/whose force is the desire to be loved.” What fun is self-obsession if you ultimately refuse to upstage your friends’ concerns?
I’ve always been more interested in solipsistic people. If you ask my friends, no doubt they’d agree. Their singular, blind-siding obsessions excite me.
Solipsism is something you can depend on; it’s sturdy and doesn’t waver. Us Democrats need more of it. We’d be much more powerful. That’s why the Republicans triumph: they refuse to even consider thinking of anyone other than themselves.
One of the better poems “Recipe Box” has a promising opening:
He had a large stack of the memorial cars handed from funerals,
friends and lovers stolen by AIDS
I had joked once,
that he might need a recipe box
to categorize and alphabetize the mounting stack.
The insensitivity refreshes. It’s one of the more rare points in the book where Reigns allows himself to be thoughtlessly callous. Unworried about offending, he lets himself become something large. More self-obsession might direct Reigns into odder, admirably unreasonable directions.
Memoirists often claim their writing to be cathartic. I’ve always been jealous of writers who feel that. When I write something, I feel sleepy. And all I have is a mess on the page.
Reigns’ certainly stays clear from any messes. He provides conceits, the thoughtful self-assessments, and universalizing. I have no doubt Reigns would say that the writing of this book was cathartic. I want more proof of that. A genuine emotional catharsis eliminates the chance for structure, order, reflection. It happily rushes toward us without a care in the world.