Amorous Shepherd is an amazingly ambitious book. By every measure its range is large. Formally, Micheaux is a master, but not a show off. His concerns and subjects are geographically diverse and span a good three thousand years. Speakers don’t seem to reappear, and rarely would we guess they are Micheaux himself. Despite how different each poem is from the next, we learn how Micheaux’s mind moves. What emerges over the course of the book is a map of how he thinks and feels. This book is neither and autobiography or narrative, but it offers a steady and accumulated sense of intimacy. What matters in the book is commitment and desire. The specificities of those commitments and desires are perfectly elaborated in each poem, but in flux across the architecture of the sequence.
Micheaux’s technique is virtuosic. He praises Willy Laury in a perfect Italian sonnet, speaking of the dancer’s perfection and loneliness. What Micheaux says of Laury’s skill could easily be said of himself: “O, when it is good it must employ/ no longer novice but a master.” This book is a masterpiece in the original sense of the word. Micheaux is proof of that old axiom that all verse is formal. For each new speaker he seems to discover a new line, a new stanza. The toolbox of traditional form is open all the time, but the most exciting forms here are nonce forms built around received texts. The poem “Bohemia” uses a line from Whitman to form the left spine of the poem that pays clear tribute to the poet. But Whitman receives a more significant tribute in the prose poem “Negation.” Listen to how Whitman’s syntax has schooled this opening: “A man is not his body; not the things his body does; not his lust, nor heavy hand; not his manhood, nor his strength; no brute is he.” Micheaux masters Whitman’s technique, letting anaphora and syntax guide the poem in the absence of line. Micheaux is a poet’s poet in his formal mastery, and yet his prosody is never ostentatious. It was only as I went through the book multiple times that I really began to consider just how significant an achievement his prosody represents. Here’s a quick sample of his terza rima in “Old School Dance”:
A yellow galboy takes the center and gets to getting it,
catches the heat of a big brown beauty whore—
who makes the boy crawl up a wall with a hit
of his magic stick. Then everybody’s favorite song
is played at once, the new jam you have to admit
makes you want to slip your spine and dance so wrong
The way that Micheaux works the syntax against the line, letting the rhymes pop and fizz builds is a kind of hot magic. He syncopates the form with the kind of rhythms that owe as much to Kanye West as Percy Shelley.
Micheaux handles a wide sweep of history and location with ease. Part of this is how he constantly pays tribute throughout the poem, explicitly and implicitly invoking a roster of heroes that include (in addition to Whitman) Constantine Cavafy, Sharon Olds, Reginald Shepherd, Édouard Glissant, Constantine Brancusi, Jane Austen, W. H. Auden, Beyoncé Knowles, Nina Simone, and Aeschylus. In letting these guides to the surface of his work, Micheaux offers his qualifications as well as homage. These are his teachers, and he shows us that he has learned. His erudition is stunning, his pose one of expert ease. He can put “Analingus,” a poem about an unsuccessful attempt to discover the joys of rimming, next to “Pentheus Up in Drag” because he knows his Greek Tragedians well enough not to imagine them on a sexless pedestal. Micheaux can play on the strands of his identity (not least of which is “intellectual”) because his knowledge of their histories is the foundation on which he builds.
I’m tempted to say that this is a sexed book, rather than a sexy book. But this would be a false choice. This is the end of Micheaux’s “Ode to Subhojit Mitra”
O maker of dusk and fellation,
keeper of the male perspirations,
O sacred silliness,
ignorer of advances,
this heart cannot sustain
the dancing of your tiny feet.
Micheaux neither ogles nor eschews sex, and I think that his approach to physicality might be what one would call refreshingly adult. The pleasures and enticements of sex are clearly limned, as is the shame and restriction that surrounds sex. Two poems remember gay teenagers killed for their homosexuality, though I find the memorial to Lawrence King (shot by a classmate in California) more compelling than the one to Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni (sentenced to death and executed in Iran). I couldn’t quite accept the Persian youths as stoically heroic lovers, willing to hang if that is the price of love; I couldn’t accept the conceit that their martyrdom was intentional.
And the book does strike erotic notes. Like Cavafy, he knows that the erotic lies in the approach to the explicit, in the regions that surround sex, and the memories that revive sex. In those moments, Micheaux is a smart seducer, showing his hand even as he draws us in. And who doesn’t admire a seducer at work, being told the steps even as you follow them? Micheaux is also the master of the conceit, which is a way of inviting the reader to enjoy the structure of the poem’s movement, of pointing out what is figurative, and taking it seriously.
This is a first book that has been a long time coming. It shows Dante Micheaux as a poet with many obligations, but first among these are ethics, erotics, and prosody. We feel the sharp observations of a mind that calibrates thoughts, feelings and histories such that we see how foolish it would be to ever try to disentangle them. The poems balance so much that the reader is thrilled to see everything in play. Simply put: it’s been worth the wait.