The difficulty in reviewing excellent poetry is to keep from responding in kind. When I've thoroughly enjoyed a collection, it isn't enough to praise the rhythm, the intensity, the clarity of the work I've just read; I find myself writing about how the book is "seamed in smoke" or observing "the supple twisting of its narrative spine." But I don't want to do that here — Saeed Jones' Prelude to Bruise is so visceral and affecting, I can't risk burying it in my own figurative language.
Organised into six sections of varying length, the poetry in Prelude to Bruise is introduced with a quote from Kafka: "The man in ecstasy and the man drowning — both throw up their arms." It provides precisely the right flavor for what follows: poems that are several things at once, where words and poses recur with different, overlapping meanings. Consider the title poem:
Your back, blue-black.
Your body, burning.
I like my black boys broke, or broken
I like to break my black boys in.
In the poem, "boy," "black," "body," "broke" repeat and twist, twine and change. As a consequence you're always hearing at least three meanings simultaneously: a literal meaning, a metaphorical meaning and the meaning before last — "burning" before it became "burnished" or "burned."
It's impressive to see this kind of contrapuntal wordplay in a single poem, but Jones sustains it over the whole of the collection, as each piece is dressed in the resonance of those that came before. There is a core melody threaded through the collection as well, a theme: the story of Boy, a queer African-American child navigating family, gender and desire in the South. The result is a tight, complex, glittering work that pulls no punches and dims no light.
The collection is not so much curated as choreographed, such is the precision and potency with which image follows image from poem to poem. One of the stand-outs, "Boy in a Whalebone Corset," follows "Daedalus, After Icarus," which ends with "we don't want wings. / We want to be fish now." The translation of a winged youth into a boy dressed in whalebone, becoming something different, fish-like, something
with my corset still on, stays
slightly less tight, bones against
is utterly breathtaking. These are poems that look at hard, ugly experiences and wring a mythic sort of beauty from them. They bring to mind the Little Mermaid, whose every step on land felt like knives — if her dancing were translated to poetry, it would read like this.
I keep coming back to music and clothing as I try to describe the language of these poems: reading them is like watching a dancer perform in a corset. The control is muscular, the restraint painful, the release tremendous. There is also a curious focus on the body as an item possessed, separate from the self: In one piece "Nina Simone sings / in the next room without her body," while in another, the speaker asks, "would you use your body to guard my body tonight."
There are too many exceptional poems here to single out, and not a single one that didn't at least impress me; to itemize them would be something akin to admiring individual stitches in a fabulous piece of couture. This is indeed a book seamed in smoke; it is a dance that invites you to admire the supple twist of its narrative spine; it is hard and glaring and brilliant as the anthracite that opens the collection: "a voice mistook for stone, / jagged black fist."
Where it lands, it will leave a bruise.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Saeed Jones works two jobs. And at first they might seem at odds. He's an editor at Buzzfeed, one of the Internet's most modern creations. But he also works in maybe the oldest form of literature - poetry. His new collection is called "Prelude To Bruise." Here's poet and writer Amal El-Mohtar with a review.
AMAL EL-MOHTAR: When I read great poetry, I have to stop myself from reviewing it poetically. It's never enough to praise the rhythm or the intensity of the work. I find myself wanting to say things like this book is seamed in smoke or to point out the supple twisting of its narrative spine.
But Saeed Jones' poems are so visceral and affecting, it would be a shame to bury them in that kind of language. The book begins with a quote from Franz Kafka. He writes (reading) the man in ecstasy and the man drowning both throw up their arms.
It's the perfect way to flavor what follows - poems that are many things at once, where words and poses reoccur with different overlapping meanings. Here's a little bit of a title poem - "Boy, Be A Bootblack" - (reading) Your back, blue-black. Your body, burning.
In the poem, boy, black and burn repeat and echo each other, so that you're always hearing multiple layered interpretations of the same words. Jones keeps up the wordplay. But he's also telling a story. It's about Boy, a queer African-American child, navigating family, gender and desire in the South. These are poems that look at hard, ugly experiences and ring beauty out of them.
They reminded me of Hans Christian Anderson's "Little Mermaid," whose every step on land felt pierced by knives. If her dancing were translated to poetry, it would look like this. I wish I could read them all out loud. This really is a book seamed in smoke. It really is inviting you to admire the supple twist of its narrative spine. Just listen to the first line of the first poem "Anthracite." (Reading) A voice mistook for stone, jagged black fist. Where that voice lands, it will leave a bruise.
RATH: The book is "Prelude To Bruise" by Saeed Jones. It was reviewed by Amal El-Mohtar. Her latest book of poetry is called "The Honey Month." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.