Ishmael Reed is primarily known as a novelist. Most critical works about him deal with his fiction, and the leading books about contemporary African American poetry mention him only in passing. His poetry, however, repays reading and study—for the light it casts on his novels, for its treatment of the Hoodoo religion, and for the same verbal facility and breadth of reference that is praised in his fiction.
New and Collected Poems includes the earlier works Conjure (1972), Chattanooga (1973), and A Secretary to the Spirits (1977). Conjure, Reed’s first and longest book of poems, is a mixed bag. Filled with typographical tricks that Reed later all but abandoned, it also has moments of striking wit, like the comparison of the poet to a fading city in “Man or Butterfly” or the two views of “history” in “Dualism: In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.”
Conjure largely deals with the Hoodoo religion, Reed’s idiosyncratic combination of ancient Egyptian and contemporary North American elements with the Caribbean religion of vodun, or voodoo, itself a mix of Yoruba and Christian elements. In “The Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” Reed invokes American musicians, from jazz and blues greats to white rock and rollers, as exemplars of a religious approach based on creativity and bodily pleasure. Hoodoo is polytheistic, excluding only those gods who claim hegemony over the others....
(The entire section is 431 words.)