Arms in the Air
Prelude to Bruise is filled with Boy. In Saeed Jones’s debut he appears in portraits, such as “Boy in a Stolen Evening Gown” and “Boy Found Inside a Wolf,” as well as a longer prose bit “History, according to Boy.” It is a poetry collection in which “On the shore, our clothes / begged us to be good boys again” and “Head down, shit boy, look back, bruise.” But before all the boys, Jones preludes Prelude with two men in a Kafka quote: “The man in ecstasy and the man drowning—both throw up their arms.”
Prelude to Bruise
(Coffee House Press, 2014)
It’s easy to take Boy as a stand-in for the poet, biography and verse dovetailing. But what matters here isn’t Boy, really, but Boy becoming a figure with arms up, and so becoming both “man in ecstasy” and “man drowning.” This transformation is also Boy becoming poet. On the dance floor of “Ketamine & Company,” this metamorphosis is “I’m burning. I’m not / burning. I’m / dancing. I’m Hell. Guernica on all fours. Horse-mouthed and—/ How do you say easy?” Elsewhere, it’s “Even a peacock feather comes to a point. // He thought / I was kissing him.” And in a poem about two boys playing at drowning in order to play at eroticizing their bodies, it’s “I sank into the depth to see you / as the lake saw you: cut in half / by the surface, taut legs kicking, / the rest of you sky.”
Jones reckons. To reckon with is to confront a power; to reckon on is to rely; and to reckon at is to calculate. All of these find their way into the book. Partially, this has to do with the accrued meanings of “boy” in the landscape of identity. With many of Jones’s poems set in the South, there is the “boy” used by white people to assert power over black men; likewise, the gay “boy” who never qualifies as a mature man is here, as is the “boy” subjugated by a father. They all show up, and are all the same boy too. There is a poem in memory of James Byrd Jr., who was murdered in an anti-black hate crime. There is also a poem where “Boy’s father’s fist comes down like war itself,” and another where “In bed, we keep combat boots on.” The violence of politics and bodies is there, then, to be reckoned with and on and at. It can be challenged just as it can be relied on to happen again, figured into the ongoing equation.
Blurb-language, that Jones is fierce and bright and real, proves accurate as he faces this history, faces Boy. For a lesser poet, a reckoning might work toward fixed meaning, maybe something like transcendence, or a past that stays passed. For Jones, who is honest, this reckoning works toward a man with arms in the air, never one thing only. “In my empty bed, I dreamed / the record’s needle pointed into my back / spinning me into no one’s song.”
It’s Jones’s lyric powers, of course, that really pull this off, that confront and sing. “I’ve lined my throat / with the river bottom’s best / silt, // allowed my fingers to shrivel / and be taken for crawfish.” His voice straddles the language between familiar and peculiar, luring until it surprises. “Sheer, breeze-caught curtains aren’t full-bodied, / just billowing. The wind isn’t trying // to touch you.” It takes language this full of yearning (yearning for the beauty of words and of bodies) to render Jones’s thinking, a thinking whose intelligence draws from sounds both as facts and affects. Like the fact and affect of “Mississippi River.” Like “Silver Saloon.” Like “zipping me up.” The poetry is made from a physical reality, like when the sounds of a song are made by a mouth.
The book closes with “Last Portrait as Boy.” In it, Jones asks “Or / is this the locked room of my body” as wolves circle. Its final, brief stanza reads, “I am not a boy. I am not / your boy. I am not.” I read that “I am not” and its clarion certainty as a declaration of what the poet is rather than what Boy is not, as a hint as to how this particular voice will move into the future. “I won’t be forgiven / for what I’ve made / of myself,” another poem declares with analogous certainty, yet with the poet’s expert profusion of meaning. Prelude to Bruise is a thunderous title for a first collection. It promises that a bruise will come later. It says that, even when we feel like we’re drowning, we can still be ecstatic.