Saturday, December 10, 2011

WHEN THE ONLY LIGHT IS FIRE by Saeed Jones


First things first: you should buy this book:

If you are anti-Amazon, it's also available from Alibris or from Sibling Rivalry Press.

Second things second: you should buy this book because buying books of poetry is not difficult, helps the universal purpose of poetry (to communicate), and also keeps the economy healthy. Thus, it's patriotic.

Third things third: you should encourage other people to buy this book because then you can discuss the poems. It will give you something important to talk about aside from your pointless existences or the new ailments and sufferings of your life. 

Fourth things fourth: While you can read the rest of this post without reading Saeed Jones's book, the post will make a little more sense if you've read the poems. Plus, I can't just quote the whole damn thing here; it wouldn't be fair.

"I've heard that some men can survive / on dust mites alone for weeks at a time. // There's a magnifying glass on the night stand, / in case it comes to that." -- "Sleeping Arrangement"

Now, to the point:

I have a general issue with poetry -- I don't think it's a waste of time and ink; that's not a valid critique generally or in this case, even if I believe that the role of poetry has been marginalized in our visual- and narrative-demanding culture. But I tend to see poetry as highly personal and highly personal things like poetry and song lyrics often need to be decoded in ways that cannot always be done successfully, especially if the poet would prefer NOT to let us in. Sylvia Plath, for instance, writes poems that are highly coded. She wants us to experience the poems as poems, not as cliched windows into her soul. "Daddy" has a beautiful rhythm and sound, and it rises to a climax that can be felt when she closes with "I'm through." There's no denying the aesthetic beauty of that poem. 

But once you know that Plath didn't hate her father, that her father taught German at a university, that her father wasn't a Nazi, etc, "Daddy" takes on a new and more complex meaning outside of how beautiful it sounds. No longer is this a "poem about daddy issues." It's now a poem about grief and loss. And grief is so much more profound (in my opinion). How would we know that meaning aside from decoding things? 

Basically, I cannot see a work outside of its time and place or disconnected from its author. This doesn't mean I must know an author's biography to enjoy the beauty of language; it just means that I tend to look for these things to enhance my understanding of the poetry as whole. That jerk TS Eliot would of course scoff and call me a ninny. Fair enough, but he's dead and also willingly spent time with Ezra Pound so I don't really have to worry about him. 
TS Eliot: poet, jerk.


And yet, even if I look at WHEN THE ONLY LIGHT AS FIRE as simply a text, in the way that total dick T.S. Eliot would suggest, I don't miss out on the emotional power of a line like: "And if I ever strangled sparrows / it was only because I dreamed / of better songs." 

Sure I can celebrate that line metrically, but there's a human voice there, a human mind. A mind that is not mine, does not have my background, and yet has succeeded in communicating across the differences of race and class and age to punch me in the gut. I don't need to be Jones or to know him intimately to know that he is a specific, profound human being and that the speaker of this poem (Saeed? Someone else?) has felt something concentrated, unique, and real. TS Eliot wasn't denying that emotions needed to be at the center of poems; it's just the natural outcome of trying to experience art through only an aesthetic lens. Eliot would suggest that there are no barriers between a reader and a piece of art as long as the reader is looking at things aesthetically. I can't know the artist and even if I did, I might not know the artwork any better if armed with knowledge. So, I get what Eliot is saying. I just don't like to think that art lacks blood and fiery synapses.

There are, of course, specific barriers between me and Saeed Jones. I'm a white guy from New Jersey. Jones is an African American born in Tennessee, raised in Texas, who lives in New York City. I'm straight, he's gay. I'm this, he's that. We both wear shoes, we both have eyes, we both write. To paraphrase Tim O'Brien: everything is true if you generalize enough.

Saeed Jones: poet, not a jerk.
But, really, none of this is a true barrier unless I make it one. It would be easy for me as a straight white guy to only read poetry by straight white poets. From New Jersey. Easy, and perhaps not nearly as dull as one might expect. (Seriously, BJ Ward is an excellent poet. So is William Carlos Williams.) But  those labels on bookstore shelves or on Amazon ("Gay/Lesbian Literature" or "Gay/Lesbian Poetry") signal things that can act as barriers even though they do not have to.

Put simply, I don't need to be a gay black man to like Saeed Jones poetry. Just like I don't need to be a British actor to like Shakespeare or a baseball player to root for the Phillies. And yet, the labels can make it easy for me to dismiss a text. 

Think of it outside of poetry for a second. If my wife tells my she wants to see a film that's called a Romantic Comedy I might balk at seeing the film with her. I don't think I need to belabor the point or even suggest certain movies that are "romantic comedies" and yet don't feel like romantic comedies, right? 

Right. So as a straight guy I can read these poems. And as a great poet, Saeed can write about anything he wants without losing the power that he has as a great poet -- the power to wrestle/shape/control/unleash words. He does not have to (and does not) write only about the topics determined by labels. 

Because the labels are guides but they are not the writer. Sure, some writers might be happy to hang onto a label and give their readers exactly what they expect -- that is essentially how genre fiction works, how erotica, thrillers, action movies work. But if we assume that all labeled things are only what their label says, then wouldn't we be seeing the entire world as genre'd? And then we'd see less and less of the world.

Consider: 
"I don't read young adult books."
"I don't read memoirs."
"I don't read books with male/female narrators."
"I don't read gay or lesbian poetry."
"I don't read literary fiction."
"I don't read fantasy novels."
"I don't read."

I can read this:
"After his gasp and god damn / grunt, after his zipper closes its teeth, his tongue leaves / its shadows, leaves me / alone"

and feel a certain kind of loneliness. I don't need to be Jones or the speaker to know that feeling. I don't need to have ever had that loneliness to know that loneliness.

Isn't that what self-professed book nerds love? To feel things we've never felt? May never feel? Isn't that how stories and poems get all wrapped up in the concepts of compassion and empathy? 

True, the labels we are given or adopt (or both) can help draw in people who may understand us before we even speak, who already have expectations about us. Labels help filter the world so if we want to read something by a blonde Latino writer of High Fantasy Novels narrated by dragons, we can find such a thing. But those labels can be trouble -- they can give people excuses not to spend time with our words when our words might be exactly what they need. 

How lonely is that feeling? 

See the world in genres then start cutting out entire genres. See what you're left with: flavorless mush. Worse, the inability to connect to others about stories. 

Worse worse: you write blog posts condemning the very thing you've been guilty of a thousand times; but hopefully you (I) will change.


Back to When the Only Light is Fire. Let's just let some poems speak:

"Cigarette smoke / is the smell of the last couple here, / the ghost of their stains / still / on the sheets, / and the bed aches / with the weight / of my waiting." -- "Room 31"

"Go back: my throat sill / crowded with dirt / and loose teeth/ but I speak" -- "Jasper, 1998: I"

"The front door kicked open / to a sky of wind-blown herons, pewter / blue wings bent back // by dark gust." -- "Boy at Threshold"

"I won't be forgiven / for what I've made / of myself." -- "Kudzu"