Jones, Saeed. Prelude to Bruise. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2014. 124 pp. $16.00 (paper).

[View title on Goodreads]

Reviewed by Will Byrne

Saeed Jones’ debut poetry collection, Prelude to Bruise, is a juggler with many pins in the air.  Identity, sex, violence, coming of age, family, and loss—to name just a few—are all laid-out across the messy landscape of the American South.  The collection is held together as much by the physicality of the land—dirt and mud, kudzu vines and hyacinth flowers—as it is by Jones’ interest in the human body—its aches and pains, its connections, its yearning—while it follows the character simply named “Boy” from his childhood in the rural South to the lights of cities of his young adulthood.

The collection opens quickly, with “Anthracite”—a surreal, almost sci-fi account of arrival: “Halo of smoke ruined the sky/ and you were a body now/ naked and bruised in the cratered cotton” (pg. xi). Here Jones fixes his gaze not only on geography and race, but also a promise of the tortured beauty waiting ahead:

_________When they hear

you, they will want you.  Beware
of how they want you;

in this town everything born black,
also burns. (pg. xi-xii)

The first section of Bruise, however, eschews questions of race entirely.  Instead, the book’s early poems focus solely on Boy’s youth and burgeoning sexuality, specifically in relation to his parents.  These poems are full of dirt and earth—the messiness of sexuality—but as Boy, in the body of these poems, is pushed further out of his home and into the wilderness, Jones repeatedly uses the closings of his poems to drag Boy back to his family, his “burning house.”  The effect—used in poems such as “Boy At Edge of Woods,” “Terrible Boy,” and “Boy in A Whalebone Corset”—creates a push and pull between the familial and sexual in which the only options available to Boy seem to be escape or annihilation.  Take “Terrible Boy” as an example:

_________I turned the family portrait facedown
_________when he was on me,

_________fed gasoline to the roots of forsythia,

_________broke a mirror to slim
_________my reflection’s waist,

_________what he calls me is not my name

and I love it. (pg. 9)

Boy’s escape from his family is predictable, if still moving—“I pass/ what I thought was the end/ of myself”—but in this first section Jones demonstrates his greatest asset as a poet: his empathy (pg 15).  Two early poems in particular—“Isaac, After Mount Moriah,” and “Daedalus, After Icarus,” engage, from the perspective of the fathers, the difficult relationship between fathers and sons.  In “Isaac, After Mount Moriah,” the voice of Abraham describes Isaac, the son he would have sacrificed.  Isaac is alive, sleeping in the rain, and Abraham watches as “water collects in the dips of his collarbone,” an image that embodies Jones’ gift for the simple and beautiful:

What kind of father does he make me, this boy
I find tangled in the hair of willows, cured fetal
in the grove? (pg. 4)

Like Abraham, one wonders—is it possible to be a good father?  Isaac’s life is Abraham’s charge, just as his death might be—but the son is so separate, so outside of Abraham’s control.  Together or separate, both Isaac and Abraham seem doomed.  The poem ends: “Once, I found him in a far field, the mountain’s peak/ like a blade above us both.”

In “Daedalus, After Icarus,” a grieving Daedalus walks up and down a beach, wracked with guilt, seeing reminders of Icarus and his burnt wings everywhere.  A crowd of children whose “footprints burn holes in the sand” follow him. (pg. 11) The guilt of the father is thick, and again, Jones’ ability to empathize proves exceptional.  The crowd of children knows not what they do, or the pain they are causing this father.  He made his son, and gave him wings, and then watched him as he burned:

The children jump into the waves after him.
Over the sounds of their thrashes and giggles,
we hear a boy say, We don’t want wings.
We want to be fish now. (pg. 11)

In isolation, these poems are effective, speaking as archetype to fathers and sons.  However, when woven into the fabric of Boy’s budding sexuality, and indeed his father’s own violence towards him, they take on a particular added weight.  Jones is not content to be angry or bitter, but chooses instead to explore the pain from all angles.

In section two, as Boy escapes home, Jones returns to the topic of race.  One poem in the second section, in fact, leaves Boy fully behind in lieu of a new point of view: James Byrd Jr.—murdered in Texas by three white men.  The poem, “Jasper, 1998,” told in three sections, is immediate and terrifying, as Byrd accepts a ride from “Three nice men,/ white me,/ a bit too nice,” before slowly realizing their intentions (pg. 25). The last section begins with a work song rhythm, suggesting the rattle of chains attached to Byrd’s body:

Chain gang, work song, back road,
my body.
Chain gang, work song, back road,
my body.
These men play me dirty
tell my back to sing or break. (pg. 27)

The pairing of the violence in the image and the rhythm of the writing here is especially brutal.  The poem ends softly with faint end-stops: “Here me, Jasper./ Hear me for miles” (pg. 27).

It is perhaps the points where Jones’ interest in sexuality and race intersect that yield the poet’s most interesting work.  In the title poem, “Prelude to Bruise,” Jones rhythmically pushes two equally-charged words, “boy” and “black,” through varied connotations and iterations, strafing from sex to violence and racial oppression, and then back to sex in a way that is as physically painful as it is engrossing. “My boot, black./ Your back, blue-black./ Good boy. / Black boy, blue-black boy,says the Burly Man in Birmingham (pg. 21). The weight of the words pile up, pressing the question: can sex and blackness offer to Boy anything other than pain?

Jones resists seeing his character as a victim—throughout the book Boy exercises control.  He leaves his family.  He takes revenge, as poison, in “Thallium.” He fashions himself as a Kudzu vine: “I won’t be forgiven/ for what I’ve made/ of myself” (pg. 30). He shuffles his lover under his bed for safe-keeping in “Sleeping Arrangement.”  But the tool Jones best employs to confront pain, again and again, is empathy.

In the poem “Body & Kentucky Bourbon,” the speaker reminisces over the memory of a violent ex-lover—a white boy whose body is equally wounded as Boy’s:

_________Only now,
miles and years away, do I wince at the jokes:

white trash, farmer’s tan, good ole boy.
And now, alone, I see your face

at the bottom of my shot glass
before my own comes through. (pg. 43)

The result is an alternative sort of pain—the pain of difference, certainly, but also the pain of guilt.

Prelude to Bruise, at its core, is a book of asserted agency.  Boy’s movement out of his house, out of the country, and finally, out of “boyhood” into something new.  His actions throughout the book, while hemmed in by the land and his body, are distinctly his own.  Bruise is also a large book—one-hundred pages—and it can occasionally feel too drawn out.  Jones’ insistence on plot often gets in the way of his stronger digressions—“Daelalus, After Icarus,” for example, or “Jasper, 1998.”  Indeed, many of the poems throughout feel as if they’re treading the same subject or plot-beat (leaving home, or the paradox of pain and desire, for instance) in too similar a manner.  The penultimate poem—the nineteen part “History, According to Boy”—is a knock-out, and one wonders if, instead of closing with this poem, had Jones had opened with it, would his earlier poems have to perform the heavy lifting of plot.

A book full of promise, Prelude to Bruise shows an emerging poet digging his teeth into the thickest parts of life.  Sometimes it seems to feels like two or three books crammed into one—part coming of age novel, part exploration of the body, part discussion of identity and identity politics.  In his next book, perhaps Jones won’t feel so pressed to pack it all in.  In the meantime, however, he’s left more than enough chew on.

WILL BYRNE is a writer living in Amherst, Massachusetts.  He is a recent graduate of American University’s MFA program.