The Malevolent Volume by Justin Phillip Reed
The Malevolent Volume is a text that inhabits several registers. It is at turns quiet, a murmuration of starlings sweeping through, until that murmur turns into a gasping, screaming maw. “Volume,” in this case, refers not just to the physical volume of the text, but also to sound and how sound creeps in at the edges of your perception until it unceremoniously breaks through. In The Malevolent Volume, Justin Phillip Reed explores the horrors of white supremacy while reinscribing classic poetry and mythology. Each poem builds off the last, shaking loose the tenets of institutionalized racism and a society that exploits the oppressed.
In some ways, The Malevolent Volume builds from Reed’s earlier work, Indecency (2018), wherein he takes on white supremacy and examines masculinity, sexuality, exploitation, the prison industrial complex, and existing as a Black person in the abject failure of white America. In this new offering, however, Reed digs deeper, echoing the creeping, psychological horror of films like The Witch and Midsommar. He harnesses some classic literary topoi and responds directly to prominent poets such as Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath to peel back the veneer of structural racism.
Reed’s references to classic poetry and mythology allow him to subvert traditional notions of what classic really means. The first allusion is to the Minotaur from Greek mythology, and curiously this is when the format of the book changes. Up until this point, the reader encounters a fairly standard black text on white page. The introduction of the Minotaur, however, literally flips this convention, and we read about a monstrous and sublime “shape most / unnerving, hulking starward, jacketed in alley walls, claws, / grill and grope, the twin glints that could be grief, hunger, / Venus, Lucifer . . .”. As readers will know, the Minotaur is part man and part bull, and he dwells in a labyrinth at the command (and mercy) of King Minos until Theseus comes along and kills him. Reed takes the Minotaur and breathes new life into him, imbuing him with a new subjectivity even as he collapses into the labyrinth, and the labyrinth collapses into blood, until the three are indistinguishable from each other and the once-familiar myth is completely unmoored from expectation.
In another reinscription of a familiar genre, Reed harnesses the solemn, rapturous nature of the aubade and twists it on itself. The aubade has its roots in Medieval literature and courtly love à la Geoffrey Chaucer and is typically a song or poem about lovers tenderly separating at dawn. However, Reed’s aubade makes an appearance with the subtitle “Apocalypse,” ruminating on current trajectory of humanity and who would have thought “[t]hat we’d splice / ourselves into a species built for this,” a species built upon the denigration of others. It is not so much the tender lamentation of two lovers upon separation, but rather the bitter appraisal of the status quo as society crumbles into a final entreaty of “Help us.”
Aesthetically and structurally, The Malevolent Volume mirrors its content. It switches between swathes of white pages to brief glimpses of black, until the black pages and white text take over for the last twenty pages of the text. The reader waits for a return of the white pages, but that does not happen. The poems become more experimental in structure and lengthen the closer we get to the end of the book. Reed employs a mix of prose poetry and rhyming poetry, with varying use of space on the page that prompts the reader to shift gears to take in the new form. The result is a reading experience that emphasizes pause and breath in a world filled with wildly vacillating sounds and sensations. Justin Phillip Reed’s The Malevolent Volume is a thorough, thoughtful, and deeply intimate book of poetry that urges the reader to stop for a moment and reflect on what is happening in society, and to pay attention to the murmurings and screams in equal measure.
DEVAN SCHNECKER is pursuing an MA in Literature, Media, and Culture with a focus on British Romanticism at Florida State University.