Justin Phillip Reed


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Indecency Summary

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Indecency (2018) by Justin Phillip Reed is a collection of poetry that explores questions of racial equality, political unrest, and sexual identity.

In the first poem, “Performing a Warped Masculinity En Route to the Metro,” Reed forgoes capitalization. The poem describes each person as a container of personal histories that aren’t always visible. In an interview, Reed admitted that he was considering the history of black people in America, and in St. Louis. He says of the poem “With the way, this city’s planning kind of moves always in the direction of ‘progress’ and trying to forget what had been thriving communities of color, there’s always this possibility to me that those legacies are overwritten. And I’m walking through that constantly.”

Reed’s work was informed by the police shooting of Michael Brown: “We felt immediately that we had to go out and march,” said Reed. “I had never been a person who goes out to a march or a protest, but I felt compelled to do so.” On August 9, 2014, eighteen-year-old African American Michael Brown Jr. was shot by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson while in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. The shooting resulted in protests. Reed also addresses this issue in “The Day ____ Died” where black men were being shot down with such regularity that Reed didn’t feel it was necessary to even give the victim a name.

In “Orientation,” Reed uses the concrete form, with the printed words creating a male figure based on the sculpture “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” This poem speaks to the precarity of being a young African American who also identifies as queer. Another of the concrete poems, “Portrait with Stiff Upper Lip” is arranged to look like a head turned in profile.

These poems point out the importance of words and their weight, in contrast to the “sticks and stones” adage. Reed says words “can lodge in the body like a stress point or splinter or blade, and can cause the body to react as though the material of the assault makes no difference.” Reed calls this concept “the physicality of utterance.”

In many of his poems, he reveals the isolation he feels as a black man working for a predominantly white institution; he discusses his financial difficulties in “Snowfall Throws Its Pretty Noise Upon Weary Sameness”: “The debt collection mail in columns. I keep trying/ not to smoke or smoke again or smoke so much/ but fuck it.”

The book also addresses the story of Michael Johnson, a black, HIV-positive college wrestler who was portrayed in the media as a “Gay Buck” intent on spreading the disease to his white lovers. At the time, Reed had dated primarily white men. He writes in the poem “To Every Faggot Who Pulverized Me For Being a Faggot”: “To believe that white men had my back/ was a facile act: who else so long/ prepared me to hate me?” He quotes a journalist’s unnamed source, a white lover of Johnson’s, in “A Victim Dissolves into tears”: “I knew they were clean by looking at them,” a white man says of his previous partners.

The poem “Gateway” is printed on the binding of the book so that the text is separated by the crease. In it, the speaker is walking in St. Louis, recalling the history of Delmar Street. Next, the poem “About a White City” explores other histories, stating at the end, “The truth, daily work./ The past is/ suddenly ahead./ Stand it/ it utters questions.”, implying that the city’s historical story is as important as the current story.

When choosing a title for his collection, Reed thought of his mother calling out to a guest while she was dressing. She would say, “I’m not decent.” To Reed, this called to mind vulnerability. He says, “I tend to call the poems ‘little rooms,’ not unlike Momma’s, where the threat of intrusion is thoroughly felt. The nation-state is always on the threshold of coming down the hallway with its violent systems, demanding that you get dressed.”

The book won the 2018 National Book Award for Poetry and was a finalist for the 2019 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry. Library Journal named it one of the Best Books of 2018, and The New York Times said the poems “take up the body in desire and violence, and they do so by thrusting the reader into a stark and visceral encounter with their material.”