The Poetics of Horror: A Review of Justin Phillip Reed’s With Bloom Upon Them and Also with Blood

Mathew Weitman

Following the success of two widely acclaimed books of poetry (Indecency, winner of 2018 the National Book Award for Poetry, and The Malevolent Volume, finalist for the 2021 Lambda Literary Award in Gay poetry), Justin Phillip Reed’s newest work is an innovative collection of hybrid essays that is equal parts craft talk, personal essay, film criticism, and queer theory. Through the logic and lens of horror films, Reed examines the market demands of poetry (yes, these do exist), academic life, and the anxieties produced by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising fascism. “I could be overstating horror’s generic intelligence,” Reed writes, “though I don’t believe I am. People tend to automatically underestimate horror films, generally dismissing them as desensitizing fodder among new visual technologies, while they are in fact as referential, allegorical, archetypal, punctuating, and self-conscious as the poems that first incited me to write poems with any devotion.”

For those familiar with Reed’s poetry, it may come as no surprise to learn that horror films are a palimpsest of the haunting imagery in his previous collections; for those unacquainted with Reed’s work, With Bloom abounds with plenty of deeply personal glimpses into his formative teenage angst amongst the metalheads and misfits of South Carolina. In fact, the book begins here, with Reed’s scathing analysis of Tate Taylor’s unforgivably cringeworthy film Ma (2019) alongside Rita Dove’s poem “Mother Love”. Here, Reed offers Dove’s poem as a solution to the problematic film: “Maybe I take everything too seriously. Tate Taylor wants to tell us about what and who have happened to Black folks in Jackson, Mississippi—what out to incur nightmares of grotesque vengeance—but he can’t resist the predictable interventions of bad wigs, high drama, Madonna-whore drag, and the persistently facetious myth of the American Midwest as an unaccountable setting…” whereas “[Dove] finishes, as she started, in the problem of memory. If this is an American problem, there’s some idea who can forget and what’s to remember. If this is a personal problem, it is still American.” It is precisely these considerations of memory, American myth, poetry, and horror (his image archive) that moves Reed from section to section. After “Beginning with Alternative Taglines for Ma”, Reed revisits the sensation of being a “child immobilized in viewership” while watching the scene of riot police beating Angela Basset in Strange Days (1995): “…for twenty years I remember nothing more about the film—maybe not always that it is a film…instead of memories, I have an archive.” 

While the first half of the book explores this archive through braided personal narratives and film criticism, the second half of the book is largely comprised of a series of recorded lectures and craft essays. It is here that Reed constructs his metacommentary on the “poetry world” by considering the privileges (or “promises”) afforded by his critical acclaim and literary prestige: (“Prestige is a word that used to refer to conjure or illusion,” Reed reminds us). My favorite of these pieces is a lecture first delivered at Bennington College in 2021 titled “Leisure, Labor, Reticence, Violence.” Reed begins this essay by assuring readers that he has nothing “useful” to teach us about the craft of poetry. Reed then draws a fitting comparison between Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and the formulaic poems one might encounter in a poetry workshop, on Twitter, or an elite literary magazine: poems that seem to know early on “how they want to end.” While Reed enjoys talking shit about these ubiquitous McPoems (to borrow Donald Hall’s phrase), it is the essay’s deftly self-reflexive turns that undermine Reed’s promise of teaching us nothing. As Reed moves from the film “that stops questioning its shape” to the poems that undergo a similar “structural anxiety”, he soon finds himself writing this very lecture in the same room in which he wrote his poem “Considering My Disallowance” (The Malevolent Volume). Once again writing while watching the workers “mowing, weeding, and clearing the backyard” of his friend’s house, Reed questions his somewhat leisurely position as a full-time poet freely enjoying the privileges his friend (a college dean) must work for. After pointing out that in many horror films leisure is the state of existence that the protagonists attempt to regain (for example, think of the beginning of Wes Craven film, where teens are always comfortably home alone in palatial houses), Reed exposes the capitalist myths latent within these plotlines: “that protracted labor is a means toward protracted leisure.”

Though much of With Bloom Upon Them is marked by Reed’s signature blend of stunning lyricism and heady criticism, the book is (more than anything else) a fucking good time. There is an illuminating essay on Brian DePalma’s cinematography in Carrie, a wonderful of analysis of Blacula as equal parts Tragic Drama, Gothic Horror, Creature Feature, and Blaxploitation Crime Thriller, and a series of gorgeous ekphrastic poems inspired by the much-overlooked film Ganja & Hess (1973). There is a sense that no film is too campy or cult for critical engagement; an essay about The First Purge is followed by a close look at the 2013 French thriller/drama Stranger by the Lake. Much like a horror film, With Bloom Upon them and Also with Blood is a serious book that refuses to take itself too seriously. And, like the best horror films—or the best poetry, for that matter—it is a book that does not give into any audience’s expectation of genre or form in its refusal to stop questioning its shape.