Red Clay Weather (Pitt Poetry Series)
Red Clay Weather (Pitt Poetry Series)
Reginald Shepherd
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011
104 pp., $14.95

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Micah Mattix

Red Clay Weather

Orpheus in the Bronx.

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How to avoid this impasse? This is the second preoccupation of Red Clay Weather. One could make the case that art's ability to "redeem" alienation reflects Christ's actual redemption of the world. In Dostoevsky's The Idiot, the naïve, innocent Prince Myshkin states famously that beauty will "save the world." While the phrase is somewhat enigmatic, the beauty to which Myshkin refers is neither the human beauty of Aglaya nor the man-made beauty of art but rather the divine beauty of Christ. Christ endured "infinite suffering" to transform the chaos of our sin in his death and resurrection into ordered righteousness. And unlike beautiful art—which, in Shepherd's words, always "kills,"—Christ is risen.

In "God-With-Us," the final poem of Red Clay Weather, Shepherd compares Christ, whose birth is announced by a star, with the mythologies of the Greco-Roman gods, whose own stars populate Shepherd's poems:

What will I call you
when you are gone?
How will I know your name?
Little star, reflection
on the Sea of Galilee,
a lantern in the wood, half-hid,
reflecting on what can't be
touched, be known?
star of milk, star of a
nursing child's mouth, my
child, my lord, whoever
you may be today, tonight
which will not end, a cup
passed to me, from which I may
or may not drink, half-empty
star, still asleep by now?
And your small body, Emmanuel,
(how small my heart
to fit inside yours)
lies there, pearled, asleep …
How I want to believe.
(a pearl, an irritant).

Of his early attraction to mythology, Shepherd wrote: "Those myths' world of power and beauty and force corresponded much more to my sense of the world ruled by arbitrary powers answerable to no one than did the ethical prescriptions of Christianity, whose threats were always more believable than its promises, and whose insistence on a world ruled by law and justice and a moral order bore no resemblance to the world I suffered every day." Yet in this poem that concludes his last book, the cold power of mythology's gods is contrasted with the humble power of grace. Here we have a God who descends to man, becoming a weak, suckling child, in order to save. This God is indeed different from the cruel, misanthropic Greco-Roman gods of pure force. In this final poem, Shepherd captures the essence of what makes the "star" of Christianity unlike the mythical "stars" of the Greco-Romans. And it is something that both attracts and repels Shepherd. It is "a pearl, an irritant."

Robert Philen informs us in his introduction to the volume that Shepherd wrote this poem "in late August 2008 from his hospital bed, about two weeks before his death." It was around this time that Shepherd was also baptized into the Episcopal Church. It is difficult not to lament the poems he might have written following this conversion, if it indeed was a true turning. What insights might the language of faith have opened up for a poet with Shepherd's sensibilities? Yet, what he left us are hard, gem-like poems of a precocious, God-haunted boy from the Bronx—a beautiful gift, nonetheless.

Micah Mattix is assistant professor in literature at Houston Baptist University and the review editor of The City.

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