NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2014)
This collection opens with a quotation by Franz Kafka: The man in ecstacy and the man drowning – both throw up their arms. The British poet Stevie Smith made a whole poem out of a not too dissimilar observation when she wrote “Not Waving but Drowning.“ Its last two lines – I was much too far out all my life / And not waving but drowning – underscored a sub-text that was to become one of her most celebrated poems of all time. The quotation from Kafka gives the reader a hint of what is to come because these are poems that dance on the edge of danger.
Saeed Jones is a 2013 Pushcart prize winner and the author of a chapbook When the Only Light is Fire (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011). He was born in Memphis, Tennessee and raised in Louisville, Texas. He received his MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers University-Newark and is a recipient of several fellowships from Cave Canem and Queer / Art / Mentorship. He works as the editor of Buzzfeed LGBT and lives in New York. Prelude to Bruise is his first full-length collection.
Structurally, the poems are divided into several sections of varying length: a prologue, four substantial segments, an extended poem and a postscript. At its core, the dominant theme that weaves its way through the text is that of Boy –a boy named Boy- who is a Black African-American child struggling to cope with his homosexuality in an unforgiving landscape. Desire, and how we choose to channel it, or struggle to control it, is at the heart of many of these poems.
One of the earliest poems in the collection, Closet of Red, is about a child who enters a kind of fantasy world when he steps inside his mother’s wardrobe and sees her clothes. The opening lines are shot through with an unexpected beauty:
In place of no, my leaking mouth spills foxgloves.
Trumpets of tongued blossoms litter the locked closet.
Up to my ankles in petals, the hanged gowns close in,
mother multiplied, more –there’s always more
corseted ghosts, red-silk bodies crowd
For me, the surprise element in this collection is the imagery that Jones chooses to employ to describe sexual feelings or encounters. These images are developed further later on in the collection. Some of them are reminiscent of the sexual attraction of plants to bees who enter the bells of foxgloves to cover themselves in a dust storm of pollen. Against a backdrop of male brutality and lust he conjures up images from the natural world that are feminine, tender and beautiful and it is this that makes these poems so powerful and engaging.
A child hiding in its mother’s wardrobe or trying on clothes is all a part of growing up. In The Blue Dress Jones offers us an extended reflection on a mother’s dress. Desire for the dress is portrayed through the image of water. The desire becomes overwhelming and unstoppable as the boy is carried away by the current of his desire. The physicality of the body is very present in this and other poems. The human body is made up of between 50% to 65% of water and a lot of water flows through this poem. It also flows through a number of other poems in the book. There is a sense of inevitable progression here. What starts off as a puddle becomes a flood and then a river and then a sea. What starts off as a small boat becomes a ship. Jones propels the reader along with his imagery.
The sexual attraction of clothing and the excitement of cross-dressing comes to the fore in “Boy In A Stolen Evening Gown“:
In this field of thistle, I am the improbable
lady. How I wear the word: sequined weight
snagging my saunter into overgrown grass, blonde
The dress is only put on so that it can be taken off:
and I’ll slip out of this softness, the dress
a black cloud at my feet. I could be the boy
wearing nothing, a negligee of gnats.
“Boy In A Whalebone Corset“ gives us an insight into the painful restraint that a boy feels when he is unable to be himself because of the presence of a threatening, homophobic father:
.....Father in my room
looking for more sissy clothes
to burn. Something pink in his fist,
negligee, lace, fishnet, whore.
The early sexual encounters are edgy and furtive and suffused with guilt. In “Boy At Edge Of Woods“ we witness the aftermath of such an encounter. This is no afterglow. Boy walks back to his burning house. This house is no place of welcome. He already feels the full force of his father’s wrath upon him.
It is from such encounters that he seeks protection. This takes various forms. It might be by hiding inside his mother’s wardrobe, it might be by lacing himself up in a woman’s corset or by dreaming that he is living inside a wolf.
Boy cannot help himself. He knows he is in a minority. He knows he will be misunderstood. Above all, he needs to express himself. In “Boy At Threshold“ he says:
I’ve always wanted to be dangerous.
Several of the poems in this volume deal with racism and racist acts of violence. At the very beginning of the book, in the Prologue, Jones already hints at what is to come later on:
of how they want you;
in this town everything born black
The title poem comes in the third section. It is a harsh and powerful exposé of racism in America today. Jones writes it in such a way that the poem itself becomes an act of violence not least through the frequent alliteration of the letter b and the constant repetition of the word Boy as some kind of racial insult:
In Birmingham, said the burly man ...
Your back, blue-back,
Your body, burning
I like my black boys broke, or broken.
I like to break my black boys in.
The same kind of verbal punching is replicated in the staccato rhythms that are to be found in "Thralldom II."
In “Jasper 1998,“ a poem told through the voice of James Byrd Jr, a Texan who was murdered by three white supremacists, Jones describes the last moments when Byrd was hauled along the road, his ankles chained to a pick-up truck, to meet his death.
The extended prose poem “History, According to Boy“ looks back in many ways to the first part of the book. Taken together, they are some of the finest poems in the collection. They are also the most accessible. In them we find an honest account of a boy growing up in an atmosphere of homophobic aggression and racial tension. The poems about Boy are the most direct. His voice is central to the whole collection. His distress is all-too apparent and heart-breaking. As he says in “Postapocalyptic Heartbeat“:
Half this life I’ve spent falling out of fourth-storey windows.
Pigeons for hair, wind for feet. Sometimes I sing
Stormy Weather on the way down. Today, Strange Fruit.
The recurring imagery that Jones employs throughout the book helps to give the reader a more complete picture. This has the effect of drawing the poems into a cohesive whole. One of these images is the gun. It is not too difficult to make the connection between an erect phallus and a loaded gun. The image is present in “Apologia“ and it is at its most explicit in the prose poem “History; According To Boy.“ Another, more frequent, image is that of the mouth. This works on several levels. On one level it is a receptacle of sexual pleasure, of deep-throated desire; on the other it acts as a metaphor for hunger, for sexual craving; and on yet another it is the body part through which we articulate our thoughts in speech.
This is a powerful debut from a poet who knows what he is about. It is bold and it is timely. There are some astonishing moments of beauty within it but a little judicious pruning might have guarded against some of the subject matter becoming too repetitive after a while.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016).