There’s no escaping the deep vein of emotions we carry from our childhood; indeed, as writers, we tap into those feelings whenever we create people and events to carry our plots forward. The happy moments are easy to relate, but it’s the slights, the injuries and the devestations that take bravery to put into words. And that makes Steven Reigns a very brave man, indeed.
Reigns’ latest book of poetry, Inheritance, is an unadorned picture of a troubled childhood made all the more powerful by his use of simple, direct language and an economy of words that draws aside the curtain of metaphor and puts these episodes into the dangerous language of reality. And I mean the reality we all remember, no matter how deeply we think we’ve buried those feelings. In all three sections of this book—“Seized & Possessed,” “Devise and Bequeath” and “Residue and Remainder”—we find poems about Reigns’ lovers, affairs and dreams, but the pieces about his family and childhood strike the hardest and leave the biggest welts.
In particular, I need to mention the one-two-three punch of “Playing With the Doll,” “Rifle” and “After the Ballgame.” In “Playing With the Doll,” Reigns observes his neighbor raping and defiling a blow-up doll and deftly, quietly compares that to his own rape at the hands of the same neighbor. “Rifle” is about his father’s attempt to turn his gay son into a ‘real man’ with a gun, but it’s “After the Ballgame” that I return to again and again.
In this poem, Reigns describes his mother’s invasion of his bathroom privacy as he was cleaning up after a baseball game just to tell him how disappointed and ashamed of him she felt.
I cannot think of ways to leave this situation.
My pants and underwear rest on my cleats
My ass dirty,
my torso naked.
“You seem to want to be a girl.
“Maybe we could go to the doctor and he could make you a girl.”
Reigns’ shame and humiliation are palpable here. I ache for this boy and his tragic upbringing, but I’m heartened by the fact that he was able to take this degredation and build art from its ugly underpinnings. It’s that courageousness that makes gay men and women survivors, and it resonates deeply—as do many of the poems here. Reigns has crafted an unflinching look at one man’s path to dealing with a destructive childhood, and here’s hoping that reading about his steps can help others do the same.
Because that’s what art is supposed to do. .
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler