Mister Jones, Mister Jones… You have done it again.
Saeed Jones is no amateur when it comes to poetry and lyric. He is a beast. And this book is his offspring. Offspring? Yeah, sure, offspring! While reading this collection I was taken back by the immense amount of boldness, brutality, and blatant disregard for the reader’s comfortablity. And I loved every bit of it. However, be that as it may, its constant attack at one’s own thoughts, it is subtle in the most brutish way. Not to say Jones is throwing experience after experience at you like knives to the forehead. But it is to say, they come at you without you even knowing it’s at you. Yet, we should be use to this, yes? In Jones’ first collection, When the Only Light is Fire, we get that similar suffocation. We understand the boy inside that boom for what he is – a boy discovering sexuality and the male body. In this latest collection, it is more of a boy discovered.
The collection starts off at a steady pace. Notice I said, “steady” and not “slow.” Jones plants us directly in his realm of thought with the first poem, “Anthracite,” showing us his lyrical benevolence – “A voice mistook for stone, / jagged black fist” – we are immediately introduced to a character who is troubled in some way. The poem continues with more scorching verbiage such as, “crack open the field’s skull” and “in this town everything born black also burns.”
The first section of the collection is quite lovely with metaphors and the relationship between the boy and the father. I was very intrigued by this section because of the, seemingly, non-linear timeline in which the poems were crafted. However, it is was the “boy” of these poems that made me keep reading. Jones titled numerous poems with “boy” followed by him doing something or in something. For example, “Boy in a Whalebone Corset,” and “Boy at the Threshold.” There something powerful, here, about stating “boy” that I have fallen in love with. It’s a distance thing for sure, but it make the mind create a face to the name. For me, I seen my face. I was “boy.” I was encountering many, many things. For example, in “Boy in a Whalebone Corset,” I was the boy who’s father looked for clothes to burn – “Father in my room / looking for more sissy clothes to burn. / Something pink in his fist, / negligee, lace, fishnet, whore. / His son’s a whore this last night / of Sodom.”… “His son’s a whore.”.. Wow!
In the second section, Jones gives us the black body. While, like me, I was already imagining a black body in the first section (being familiar with Jones’ work), it wasn’t necessarily stated until the second section. We don’t see father in this section. We see boy, not stated as “boy,” as what seems like an adult. He is in different cities, encountering different men, pushed against his race, his sexuality, and his “bruising.” It is not only enthralling to read him in different situations, but to understand how he understand himself. In this section, his sexuality seems realized. He is not afraid or indifferent about his attraction to men. It even seems like he does not care about the bruising of his black body. Why? In various poems, things are simply stated (with metaphor, too), but it is what it is. Matter of fact. For example in the poem, “Thralldom”:
When the men with cruel tongues
worked me, each grunt gnashed
between my teeth. One fogged
night to the next, my palm
pressed against each thrust.
Or in the poem, “Cruel Body”: “you answer his fist and the blow / shatters you to sparks.” Everything in this section (and maybe the collection) is simply stated. Everything that happens to boy, older or not, is just what it is. And as readers, all we can do is accept it. There is no room for us to ponder. While reading it, I wanted to help, or to have a moment of rest where I was getting an otherwise. But, there wasn’t any time for that.
Sections 3 and 4 go hand-in-hand for me. These two sections are heavy on experiences. From boy dealing with, what seemed like one man, in section 3 to boy dealing with different men in section 4. However, both fall under the same category of “bruising.” In section 3, we see boy and the man in every poem; how they deal with each other, what happens to boy, how boy’s body responds, how it doesn’t, etc. In the poem, “Apologia,” we see him playing with religion in the aspect of man versus God versus sexuality. It starts off with:
If I started with the words He made me—
not like He created me,
not like With my clothes off, you can still see his thumbprints
in the clay that became my skin.
We can see him wrestling with this contrast of being made versus being created. And what it means to define man as God or to question the acts of man with man, versus the acts of God to man. It becomes a theoretical poem in the sense.
I would be lying, though, if I said there wasn’t a stark difference between 3 and 4. And that is the theme of death/dying. In section 4, most of the poems, though deal with the same metaphorical notions as section 3, revolve around death. For example, Jones is using word and phrases like, “collapse,” “drowning,” “postapocalyptic,” and more. In the poem, “Casket Sharp,” Jones is talking about how a man dies and how he will clothe him for his funeral. In, “The Fabulist,” he talks about how a man claims he is empty; how his heart “isn’t a beat at all but an echo.” In the last poem of this section, “Postapocalyptic Heartbeat,” Jones is talking about just that, a postapocalyptic place, where boy and the man are surviving. He calls the man’s insides “toxic” which accounts for this prelude to bruise – that some way or another it will get to the boy. Just not right now. But, this is how it will happen. Further along in the poem, we see boy walking in the streets, thinking and singing, but it also upset that he is still alive. The poem ends beautifully in this upset state:
you are the first hour in a life without clocks; the name of whatever
fall from the clouds now is you (it is not rain),
a song is a dead language, an unlit earth, a coast broken—
how was I to know every word was your name?
Section 5, is golden. Purely golden. It is one poem, “History, According to Boy,” in 19 parts. Sounds like a lot, but trust me when I say – it isn’t (in the sense that it’s overbearingly long). In this, we are back to younger boy, boy who is trying to learning to understand his sexuality and place as a son, and as a boy who is curious. We see boy with classmates, in school, at home, with father, mother (barely), and boy with another boy. We see boy watching and thinking. We see him wondering, we are in his mind. In this poem/section, we are getting major themes of the collection. And the themes are said in just a couple of lines:
Boy lives in a house made of guns. (4)
“Here,” the body said. (5)
Boy wonders who wouldn’t want to be abducted. (12)
Boy opens his mouth to say “Father.” / Boy’s father’s fist comes down like a war itself. (14)
Boy has a name. (19)
In these few lines, and possibly others, we are getting so much of the boy, the book, and the bruising. Or the prelude to how the boy is bruised or becomes bruised. It is all a build-up. We see what the boy goes through, yet cannot decipher what happens once he is there. We notice the boy’s thinking habits, body habits, and confrontation with his race inside a structured sexuality that often condemns his skin. But we don’t know what happens after boy understands this. We get the before. But the before is heavy. The before is filling. Man, Jones. If you ask me, it is damn-near genius. It is damn-near genius.