This Will Leave a Mark: A Review of Saeed Jones’s Prelude to Bruise
Prelude to Bruise, by Saeed Jones, Coffee House Press, 2014, 124 pages,
The term “confessional” has never accurately described most of the poets it’s meant to classify. The idea that Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell were simply pouring out thoughts emanating entirely from dark, hurt places within themselves is one that most people who’ve read their work with any care know isn’t true. But the persistence of the image of the tortured artist “confessing” occludes the fact that the best “confessional” poetry bears witness as much as it confesses, and says more about the world we live in than it does about the poet.
Saeed Jones’s new collection, Prelude to Bruise, looks out over a landscape that appears to be both changing and stuck in place. In many important respects, America has made progress in its treatment of racial and sexual minorities. As I write this, gay marriage is on its way to being an unalienable right in the majority of states, a cultural and legal shift that has happened almost entirely under the watch of an African-American president and his African-American attorney general. But then there’s Oscar Grant. Trayvon Martin. Jordan Davis. Mike Brown. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Ezell Ford. The Lower Ninth Ward.
America in 2014 isn’t America in 1924 or 1954, but it’s still only sixteen years removed from the torture and killing of James Byrd, Jr. at the hands of Texas white supremacists. This incident is the subject of Prelude to Bruise’s powerful triptych, “Jasper, 1998.” The middle section takes us inside Byrd’s thoughts as the men who have offered him a ride drive farther and farther from his house. Byrd knows something is wrong, but outnumbered and hoping for the best, he keeps quiet until he’s finally forced to ask:
Where (say it)
are we going?
This question is the hinge that binds the collection, that makes the personal inextricable from the political. As a country, incidents like the spate of police killings of unarmed black men this past summer make it seem like the answer is “nowhere good.” At the same time, we all ask this question about our own lives, and the answer to that version can be scary too: “I have no idea.” Looking both inward and out at the world, Prelude to Bruise uses the ambiguity of not knowing how things will turn out as a chance to explore the anxiety, tragedy, exhilaration, and electric eroticism of life as it is right now.
Jones’s recent essay for BuzzFeed, where he serves as LGBT Editor, “The Last Time My Grandmother Slapped Me,” is reminiscent of James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” in its use of the personal to critique our cultural shortcomings. Rather than positing himself as the victim of his grandmother’s assault, he writes: “I am a grandson, not a hero. I am a writer, not a hero. I am a black gay man in America, not a hero.” The essay meditates on the human tendency to hurt those we most want to protect from the pain society invariably dishes out to those marked as “Other,” and this theme is prominent in Prelude to Bruise’s opening section as well. “Boy in a Whalebone Corset” is one of several poems that find the speaker being punished by his father for failing to “be a man.” Like the best poems in the collection, this one creates an easily understandable narrative without sacrificing imagistic abstraction. This isn’t simply a story broken into neat little lines, but a haunting, scattered verse in a Nina Simone song playing “in the next room without her body.” While there’s no sign in the poem (or in the collection, really) that the father has been forgiven in the manner that Jones forgave his grandmother, the same combination of desperation, fear, and anger that prompted the grandmother’s last slap can be felt in the image of the father building a bonfire to burn the speaker’s “sissy clothes.” These snapshots of a young black gay man are sensuous and brutal, making the end of “Boy at Threshold” all the more thrilling:
The air grabs my lapel, rough-tongued
gale, and drags me free.
It is when the speaker is loosed from love that seeks to protect by preemptively destroying that we see Jones at his Plathian best. “He Thinks He Can Leave Me” is one of the most playful poems in Prelude to Bruise, yet it still displays the collection’s ambiguous edge. The title runs into the first line, “by leaving me,” likening the speaker to a bad dream or drug. The kick here is metaphysical, not based on proximity. Unlike Lady Lazarus, this speaker doesn’t “eat men like air,” but his “mouthful of hell” promises a spiritual annihilation far worse than mere consumption. Travelling “[i]n curlicues of smoke,” the speaker’s siren song enters through the nostrils and fills his lover’s chest, squeezing his heart until “his darkness / mistakes me / for sunrise.” This isn’t the tough love of a terrified grandmother, or the sadism of an “Old Testament God” the father, but a bad love, a love that preys on the weak in order to mask its own precarity.
Prelude to Bruise is Saeed Jones announcing what he could become to a world that might think it already knows who he is. A collection of shocking diversity and beauty, Prelude to Bruise isn’t “gay literature” or “black literature,” “confessional” or “social.” It’s a book about identity that expands beyond the borders of the terms we use to cordon off safe spaces. In this respect, its closest relative might be Jean Toomer’s masterpiece on American race and selfhood, Cane, a book that still bristles against boundaries. Toomer was never able to build on his great achievement, but something tells me that won’t be problem for Jones, a writer using new and old forms to ask the most important unanswerable questions.