Reginald Shepherd is dead.
This moment of ending is also a moment of return, and I am 20 again, roaming in bookstores and bookstores, between sheets and pages, looking for mirror-images in reflecting pools.
I am 20 and I already know that the people around me, my club friends, my online friends, the community I have cobbled together, that as wonderful as these might be, I can never have certain conversations with them, that I must agree sexuality counts more than race.
I am 20 and have fallen in love with Melvin Dixon and Essex Hemphill and Assotto Saint, and I am learning, daily, that these men, these love objects, can only exist as words on a page, as other people’s memories. I have picked up a book and it is dedicated to the many thousands gone.
It’s difficult to capture, now, as it always is, what then was like, learning how to be foreign in unfamiliar locations, to be familiar in unrecognizable ways, to inhabit a language of desire that warred, daily, with a well-trained religious instinct, to inhabit a body that, even then, felt awkward.
I am 20 and familiar with the clichés about being lonely in a crowd—but I hate crowds and I dance to forget there are others around me. I dance to forget that I don’t register in this space, but that it seems like the only possible one.
I am 20 and learning the affective difference between gay and queer, that gay spaces, which, in Pittsburgh, mean white, very white, gay spaces filled with college students, and they are so white, that these spaces don’t exist for me, and they are all I have, or all I can find.
I am 20 and it will be three years before I have the courage or foolishness to follow my desire.
* * *
At 20, I knew three names: Reginald Shepherd, G. Winston James, and Carl Phillips. I knew they were black and gay and wrote poetry and were alive.
I don’t remember how this trinity became one, the rationale through which these figures became metonymic, evidence there was life after the 1990s.
Of the three, Reginald Shepherd stands out the most clearly. We read Some are Drowning in a poetry workshop I took in Pittsburgh; I read and re-read and have taught his beautifully crafted essay “Coloring Outside the Lines,” a reflection on desire across lines, living across lines.
Grief, writes Essex Hemphill, “is a wig / that does not rest gently / on my head.”
* * *
I am 20 and want to write poetry, but it is fragmentary and inchoate, and refuses to be a well-wrought urn. I am reading essays that tell me black poets are angry and write about politics or black poets write narrative poems and that black poets always have messages and that black poets, there’s a list of things.
I am 20 and don’t find myself in these descriptions.
I am 20 and reading so-called innovative poetries and Reginald Shepherd hands me a lifeline, allows me to dare otherwise.
* * *
It’s difficult to write about those who allow us to write, those permission-givers, those who mentor us by example.
One writes to repay a debt.
I never met Reginald Shepherd, but have often slept with him on my pillow. I have asked my students to read him, have spent hours thinking about what he says and how he says it.
I am 20 and restless and confused and a little less lonely.