The Malevolent Volume by Justin Phillip Reed // Margaryta Golovchenko

Who gets to write and tell stories? How do they withstand the test of time as well as reflect, or refuse to reflect, the times? These questions permeate the pages of Justin Phillip Reed’s new collection The Malevolent Volume. Using classics of poetry and mythology, as well as the horror genre in film and contemporary cultural history, as the foundation, The Malevolent Volume explores how marginalized peoples and identities have been undermined, exploited, and erased, a process that, as Reed reminds us, continues to this day. 

Of the different types of stories we tell, fairy tales are perhaps the most contentious—we are either too young for them, especially if there is violence and difficult themes involved, or we are suddenly too old, and therefore somehow above the naïve fascination with the world that is often presented in the form of magical elements. In The Malevolent Volume, Reed broadens the reader’s understanding of this literary genre. The texts and references Reed draws upon in his poems are not some far-flung distant kingdom that can be dismissed as being peculiar in its backwardness because it is “not our world.” The Malevolent Volume takes us on a trip through a world that is familiar but slightly askew, as if one were walking through a haze or looking into a funhouse mirror. 

Reed plays on this atmosphere of surreal uncanniness in “The Hang-Up,” giving a biting pseudo-fantastical edge to the forces in modern life that are strategically used against the marginalized and the vulnerable, as the speaker tells us how they 

slept over calls from the assorted gentlemen:

 Universal Debt, Universal Surveillance, 

the Usual Cruel Cruelties —

 all of whom knew how hot the pockets 

of my husband the gun.

 The distortion us unsettling; it is also the reality for many, as Reed and his speaker remind us in “Leaves of Grass”: 

I assured my children

 they would live if they

quit growing, kept moving, stayed 

out of the sun, stopped

only in well-lit areas, rearranged

their skeletal scaffolding. 

At the heart of Reed’s collection is the reality that one cannot separate culture from the creative product, that the argument in favour of doing so is an act of privilege that marginalized peoples cannot afford themselves, as the speaker in “Say Wussho Price” reminds the reader: “Unlike you, when I dream / I’ve failed to save my brother from the flood / again, I can’t afford a metaphorical interpretation.” In this way, The Malevolent Volume recalls and engages with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory, in which, as had been outlined by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas in her seminal book The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, Cohen posits the “monstrous menagerie as analogous to those who are positioned as different in the real world.” 

While the poems in The Malevolent Volume are populated with monsters we are familiar with, like the minotaur and the xenomorph monster from Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, Reed focuses on the fact that our contemporary narratives, while seemingly monster-less in the familiar sense, continue to perpetuate the archetypes and arcs that villainize the Black body in particular. Thus, the cycle described in the poem “Gothic” continues, where illustrated Bible stories continue to depict “white Daniel, white angel, / lustrous aureoles of heavenly favor, / no margin for surprise, no queer palette, all failure…” The Malevolent Volume confronts the reader with the question head-on—why does the thought of a Black, queer body in the role of a hero or saint continue to horrify some to this day?—which Reed proceeds to unravel and explore from a variety of angles over the course of the collection. 

The book’s design is an additional layer in this discourse, its role subtle but significant. I do not want to give away my own theory for the risk of reading too deeply into it. However, it is an element of enough significance that I think it cannot be omitted entirely when thinking about The Malevolent Volume. The shift from white to black pages signals a shift between the more ekphrastic and allusion-filled poems to Reed’s mesmerizing and gut-wrenching meditations on everyday life, resulting in a process of saturation that culminates in the final section of the collection, in which Reed’s mastery over language and emotion is unleashed full-force.

The ability to dictate narratives and establish tropes, to elevate a select while casting aside numerous others, is a privilege that has been abused by those whom it benefits. The Malevolent Volume is an interjection into this legacy of storytelling as a form of privileging and Othering. It is a collection that speaks in several voices to several different types of readers, as intricately layered as each of Reed’s poems. The Malevolent Volume creates moments of pause and opportunities for contemplation and re-examination, highlighting the continued privilege of readers like myself while amplifying the agency of those who have been overlooked and written off for so long. I will not speak for this collection—Reed’s poems know perfectly well how to make their reader stop and listen.

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