Sometimes we don’t sense the monster til its hot breath is at our nape.
Not so in Nicasio Andrés Reed’s “the devil riding your back”, in which a young person has come of age in the aftermath of a monstrous invasion. When they were ten, “the ocean spat beasts and they / walked the world with strides the size of cities and i hid / i coward-cowered from the noise of it and the dark”. The beasts settled into mountains, and the world went on with the business of living, even in the wake of so much death, but our narrator never forgot.
One of my favourite things in poetry – writing it, reading it, you name it – is vigilance. I love learning how we remain steadfast when we’re terrified and terrorized, what it means for us to keep watch in peaceful times of indulgence, and how quickly we need to react when the peace inevitably shatters. This is a huge part of why I love what Reed’s done in this poem: these lines keep an unsettled, frightened canter: even if you read it aloud very slowly, very calmly, you can taste the fidget under your tongue.
The poem is its own vigilance. It grows in a small, determined groundswell, protecting itself from the horrors to come: “i lived / the innocuous life i soft-stepped i folded down / and down, careful, prepared, precise.” In contrasts of motion and stillness, of ruin and repair, Reed presents us in a world where what walks out of the ocean can kill you and then take cover. In lines thick with punctuated pauses, culminating in a breathless, barely end-stopped concluding verse, “the devil riding your back” asks you to keep watch from the confines of your writing desk, asks you not to turn your back to the mountains.
This is the twelfth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.