By Roger Reeves, PhD
At first, I thought to trace an aesthetic through-line in Cyrus Cassells’ poems, from The Mud Actor, his first book of poems, a National Poetry Series winner published in 1981, to More Than Watchmen at Daybreak (2020), his most recent collection, a sequential poem broken up into twelve sections which was written while in silence / silent retreat at the Benedictine Brother at the Christ in the Desert monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I thought I might trace Cassells’ shifting use of nouns and verbs or his deployment and performance of queerness or Blackness since his writing life and books span a vast historical period that have seen seismic shifts in the way that Black folks and queer folks have been treated and incorporated into the mythology and narrative of America. The Mud Actor appears at the beginning of the Reagan years, in a post- Jim Crow America, that will see the rise of the HIV / AIDS epidemic in queer communities that the Reagan administration will belligerently, nonchalantly address. Cassells writes his latest book, More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, at the height of a neo-fascist turn in right-wing, mainstream American politics—this fascistic turn ushered in by the Trump administration’s xenophobia, which Cassells deftly alludes to in the first poem of More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, “Winter Abbey with Venus Rising,” when the speaker locates himself “Far from the deriding republic” and ‘mint-new Herod decrees’ (14). I thought to trace or overlay palimpsest-like these concerns, conflicts, and histories overtop Cassells’ work to see how he either explicitly or implicitly contends with the shifting nation and his place or the place of the poem in it. Or, more so to see how these moments of contestation, rupture, and crises shaped the poetics. But, you know what they say about best-laid plans. And, I, somewhat, sabotaged myself by reading the poems in reverse chronological order, beginning with most recent work and moving backwards—starting with More Than Watchmen at Daybreak moving to The Gospel According to Wild Indigo (2018) and so on. However, whenever I moved on to the next books—The Crossed-Out Swastika (2012), Beautiful Signor (1997)—I couldn’t shake a bit of Latin that appeared in the second poem of the sequence of More Than Watchman at Daybreak, “Accepting the Peace of Saint Francis Hermitage.” The poem begins with a command to the listener (reader) which also might serve as an admonishment to the speaker as well: “Listen, out of love and goodwill,…” (15). And you do, you listen, but what’s surprising is that after learning of the speaker’s small room he’s been gifted, a Latin phrase flutters down almost like the spirit of God descending like a gauze from the ceiling above: “….Benedictus qui venit / In nomine domini,…” (15). Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord, I believe, is the translation. Please forgive my Latin or lack thereof. The phrase is a canticle from the New Testament of the Bible—Luke, Chapter 1, verse 68. But more than a hymn or chant from a Benedictine worship song, it is also a prevailing poetics or aesthetic concern of Cassells’ poems. But I would extend that snatch of Latin to say: Benedictus qui venit nominee domini…and the Body.
Cassells comes to the poem to not only write in the name of the Lord, in the name of the celestial, in the name of the divine at “the cusp of inchoate vermillion,” at “the sacramental banks with pallid embroideries of ice,” but also, as the two aforementioned quotes gesture towards, Cassells comes to write devotionally with impeccable precision of the body, the body “far from the deriding republic” and the body mocked by the same republic for ‘resembling a ‘red-boned’ angel in a hammock, one who finds himself falling in love with another boy with ‘tea-brown fingers’ (4). These devotional poems, which are always in proximity and conversation with “Herod’s decrees,” historicize and reframe a vast array of abuses—from national abuses enacted by governments and political regimes to the ongoing struggle against homophobia and queer antagonism in Black communities—through an attention to what is circumscribing or surrounding them—the stars, the sun, the beauty, the “deep-down plenty” in “the midst of bondage” (16). Cassells’ poems remind me of that moment in Cornelius Eady poem “Gratitude” where the speaker proclaims “I am brick in a house / that is being built / around your house”—the “your house” being the master’s, the nation’s, the oppressor’s house (143). Cassells is not only a brick in a house, but he, himself, is building a house to surround and neutralize various disasters and catastrophes as if to say beauty exists here, too. You cannot take this from me, from us, you old “conniving Caesars of Cotton” and “Greed-Swayed Kings of Sugar.” Cassells subverts, pierces, and disrupts that which might annihilate life through a devotion to that which faces extermination, liquidation—those who are historically and continually remanded to the liminal position of eradication. You and me.
Cassells expresses this poetics, this devotion in the Black-est of ways—the hyphen. Or, maybe I should make that assertion differently, with a little less essentialism. Revision: I’ve come to trace Cassells’ devotion to life in the middle of ongoing catastrophe through the hyphen and hyphenated phrases like “star-scouting / soul-of-a-nighthawk leap—….,” what Cassells calls “the bull’s eye of the beguiling / compound words of Gullah” (11, 25). In “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Zora Neale Hurston calls these sorts of constructions double-descriptors, action-words that dramatize Black life through metaphoricity, performance, “the will to adorn” this drab English language that was thrust upon Black folks because of our captivity. In Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play, Jennifer Devere Brody advances Hurston’s claims about the funkiness of the hyphen by interrogating American grammarians and their sacrosanct grammar manuals with their call for unification of words—a sort of treatise against the hyphen—as an extension of U.S. hegemony and liberal forms of consolidating power, politics, patriotism, and American nationalist ideology. Hyphens, in their visibility, highlight an incommensurability, an unresolved in-between-ness that performs the impossible while yet not healing or correcting the impossibility.
Cassells’ use of the hyphenated adjectives / double-descriptors, particularly in the title poem to The Gospel According to Wild Indigo and More Than Watchman at Daybreak, dramatize several impossibilities / incommensurables at once—the incommensurability of English to account for African Diasporic (Gullah) culture ways, bodies, sensuality, and life; the impossibility of queerness to reside in parochial, Protestant houses. While this might be considered ‘a will to adorn’ (to call back to Hurston), I think we must expand what we think of adornment. It is not merely ornamentation—superfluous and unneeded. Extra. Rather, the will to adorn is the will to critique, an improvising that opens up possibilities inside of a standard, an orthodoxy, a cage. Cassells’ use of double-descriptors opens up the possibility of reaching for a known thing, something like a Black life, behind and beyond the captor’s language. For instance, in “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo,” Cassells begins with a meditation (an ode that is also an interrogation) of the Gullah word for daybreak, dawn, the new sun—dayclean, which itself we can understand as a type of double descriptor, action-word even without a hyphen. With its connotations of awakening in a new day after some conflict or contestation, clear of some dirt from the day before, the word dayclean acts as a presiding sentiment, an ontological space of fugitivity, a moment of possibility and renewal in the ongoing disaster of anti-Blackness and homophobia. Dayclean, its always-arriving, acts as a bulwark against annihilation. However, its multiplicity, its standing-in-for-so-many-things, makes the term quite slippery. And makes meditating upon dayclean, writing lyrically about it, even more difficult. This difficulty pushes Cassells to dramatize the unsayable nature of the word:
Dayclean’s the Gullah word
for the gala sun, the looked-for
It’s as if Cassells wants more out of the English, wants English to be able to accurately state multiples states of being at the same time. Cassells wants both a past (as evinced in the term “looked-for”) and present and future (as evinced in the term “up-and-coming”). He wants a state of being / a tense that exists an ongoing-ness. A state of being that can express not-yet-arrived-but-known, which is the voicing of the incommensurable. However, this state, this tense does not exist so Cassells dramatically and poetically enacts it through the winding sentence over the time and space of two couplets and the hyphenated adjectives.
These hyphenated adjectives do not make one such appearance in the first section of the poem and then fall away. Instead, they are the engine that drives the poem. In section II of “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo,” these double descriptors / hyphenated adjectives appear on every other line of the first three stanzas—“glove-yellow” to describe the morning, “crow-carried” to describe mussels, “priest-gentle” to describe the pines. The phrases act performatively. Here I mean the term performatively in the J.L. Austin sense of the term—they make something happen through their vocalizing. Something like movement, action. It’s as if Cassells calls the morning, the mussels, the pines into being, into a present or ongoing-ness. These phrases provide not only an impeccable precision to the visual and emotional register to Cassells’ poems, but they also act as a blessing—a benediction—in the form of praise. “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo” praises the margins and the marginal of (Black) life—the Gullah people of the North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia sea islands, the Mount Pleasant aunties, “okra-cooking grannies,” “shredded barbecue / in a Winn-Dixie plastic bucket,” “Marquetta’s stone-ground grits,” Augustus, the speaker’s boyhood crush (11-13). Cassells’ speaker even loves Augustus’ ‘gumption…to share // news of [their] pistol-hot love with [his] pew-strict, / disowning father….” (13). Cassells bring his mouth and ear to that which is castigated for its transgressions and transgressiveness, for its impossibility and incommensurability, and praises its difference—queer love, queer language.
This playing in the non-normativity of language and love simultaneously, through the use of the hyphen resists the unifying narrative of nationalism, resists a monolithic construction of Blackness. Locating American Blackness in the Gullah, a group of Black folks on the territorial margins of the United States, and in queer love in youth (youth being another position of political marginality), Cassells makes a poetic statement about the complicated-ness of nation, belonging, and community; he locates nation and Blackness not in its unities but in its moments of contestation and difference, in its ruptures—at the hyphen. There, Blackness becomes itself—its many varied and multiple selves, at its margins—dayclean. Divine.
It’s irony for sure, but it’s the divine irony of a poet who understands that it is being devoted to difference—to the banal and the celestial—that brings about the divine. In other words, Cassells’ attention to that which we might call God and that which we might call the flesh, the body, is a type of divinity, one that understands the secular, the corporal, the sensual, the sexual, the political as connected to that which historically and theologically we have thought as beyond the body, pure of its stink and wants. And Cassells performs this praising, this attention, this devotion through the difficulty of the incommensurable. Through impossible. And provides for us, the reader, a path through the shouting.
Austin, J.L. How to do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.
Brody, Jennifer DeVere. Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play. Durham: Duke UP, 2008.
Cassells, Cyrus. The Mud Actor. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1982.
—Beautiful Signor. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1997.
–. The Crossed-Out Swastika. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2012.
–. The Gospel According to Wild Indigo. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 2018.
–. More Than Watchman at Daybreak. LaFayette, New York: Nine Mile Books, 2020.
Eady, Cornelius. Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” http://www.ypsilonediteur.com/images/documents/Zora_Charateristics.pdf.
Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt
Roger Reeves first book of poems, King Me, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2013. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Nation, Poetry, among others. He’s won awards and fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts, The Whiting Foundation, and Princeton University. This fall and spring, he will be fellow at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. His next book of poems, Best Barbarian, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton in February / March of 2022.