Review: Prelude to a Bruise by Saeed Jones

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by Allen Salerno

From the title alone, a reader would expect Saeed Jone’s Prelude to Bruise to revel in the jagged and interruptive. But this is not a collection where words do their painful work with only a localized accuracy–the blow of a fist, the puncture of an awl–but rather, like an eroding tide, with something altogether more constant and cumulative. At once deeply personal and painfully universal, this is a collection that embraces the lyrical, with all its capacity to leave a lasting mark.

In its scope, Prelude to Bruise is not quite narrative, not quite without narrative. “Beware / of how they want you; / in this town everything born black / also burns,” concludes the opening poem, inaugurating Saeed’s thematic throughline: sexuality, race, body, desire, all ricocheting through a world marked by danger and threat. In the opening section, the reader is introduced to the unnamed “Boy”–conscious of his difference, experimenting with sex, at times a figure in drag, at times a confused child–in a home fractured by his father’s revulsion; as the volume continues, this story is dropped and taken up again, so that the intervening poems become at once the mirrors of Boy’s experience and all the events that occur, as possibilities, in the interstices of his life. They are his and not his, the endless combinations that might arise from the same ingredients, the same catalysts, and with the same potential for sudden cataclysm as the Harlem bus passengers suddenly drawing curbside as a building collapses: “Passengers / choking on the dust rushed / to escape the wreck / of someone else’s memory” (“Skin Like Brick Dust”). This play of refraction is one of the collection’s greatest strengths; it binds the individual poems into a greater sense of unity than many books of poetry achieve. If a certain sense of repetitiveness creeps in now and again–many mouths are pressed in many different ways, for instance–the repetition itself could be said to serve this larger thematic point.

There is much to admire about Jones’s precision of language. Landscape imagery and domestic imagery are often the descriptions of choice, but he modulates both into something stranger and more somber:

After ruin,

after shards of glass like misplaced stars,

after dredge,

after the black bite of frost:                you are the after,

you are the first hour in a life without clocks;   the name of whatever

falls from the clouds now is you (it is not rain),

a song in a dead language, an unlit earth, a coast broken–

how was I to know every word was your name?       (“Postapocalyptic Heartbeat”)

Achieving its poignancy from a catalogue of the ordinary, this excerpt ends a sequence of poems seemingly about the death of a father, but could stand in for any death, any loss, any moment when the heart’s vacuum sucks in even what is most uncongenial to fill the gap. (Jones is also one of those rare contemporary poets who uses interruptive spaces for logical, rather than merely aesthetic, purposes, and even then he employs them judiciously.)

He is also a poet unafraid of classical weight. If many of his poems are culled from nature (in both senses of the word, and with all the casual violences see in it) and deeply invested in the injustices of the modern world (homophobia, racism), he nonetheless delights in allusion. Ganymede makes two appearances, and Daphne–“in the branches / of her raised arms, birds”–becomes the avatar of a night of pill-taking. “Guilt,” which hinges on dogs that may or may not have been hit by the speaker’s truck, is in some ways a riff on the Acteon myth. And in “Room Without a Ghost,” the Sibyl’s prophecies become a way of disavowing the body: “Papers rustled, then scattered around the room / mean nothing. Do not read them / in the wind’s order. Do not fall to your knees, / deciphering the air and its invisible ink, or look up wide-eyed / expecting. No one is standing there . . . ” Metamorphosis, or its failure, is Jones’s abiding interest, his core architectural device.

Or, more accurately, I think–and with a nod to the Sibyl–translation. These poems attempt to render what constantly threatens to escape representation, but even more so, try to chart the experience of moving from one state into another. It isn’t the change itself but the act of changing that fuels apprehension. That this never fully completes, that the act might be precipitated by violence but is a disruption in and of itself, a moment of conscious erasure, that one cannot help but bear the bruises–this is the wonderfully worked keystone of the collection. “If you cut open Boy’s head, at least fifty notebooks would fall out,” the speaker notes, “each full of what Boy had written down with his eyes” (“History, According to Boy”). Telling equals incision. Before understanding must come the splitting of the body. The best result, perhaps, is approximation, and that approximation always reveals the magnitude of what can’t be conveyed. It is no accident, then, that Jones inverts a typical poetic pattern; where many contemporary poems–if they use metaphor at all–wrest the poem back to the literal by the end, he will let the poem pool into the figurative: “Climb the broken stone stairs into the hills. / Climb them into the night’s throat”; “I could be the boy /wearing nothing, a negligee of gnats”; “[her blue dress] is only the moon sees me floating through the streets, is me in a / blue dress / out to sea, is my mother is a moon out to sea.” It is for this reason, too, that the most literal of his poems, like “Ketamine and Company,” are the ones that resonated least for me. This also includes the long final section, a lyrical prose-poem in which the history of Boy is narrated more or less chronologically. There is much to admire in it–flashes of phrases, an aching tone, descriptions of teenage surfeits (like glances up a boy’s gym shorts) and sheepish acknowledgements (like silent sympathy for Achilles and Patroclus in a school reading assignment) that every gay reader will recognize instantly–but it concretizes some of the mystery and elusiveness that the collection creates elsewhere. Because the contours of Boy’s story have become more defined–his father discovers his porn stash and leaves a gun in its place; tableau-like, Boy stands with the gun pointed at his parents in their bed, then moves away having taken up his name–we’re in danger of slipping more toward melodrama and away from the tough delicacy of the bulk of the poems.

For all its immersion in the present tense, Prelude to Bruise is, at heart, a kind of memory work, and the poems act just as memory does. They slip full categorization, precise placement. Their strength lies in Jones’s ability to show us how we are shaped, with all the loneliness and liberty that glimpse backwards might yield.

Rating: 10/10

Coffee House Press, $10

Allen Salerno teaches in the English Department at Auburn University.