“Your grief will be useful some day, says no one,” writes Saeed Jones in his poetry collection Prelude to Bruise. It’s a bleak, true pronouncement in a book that makes many of them as it dives into the wreck of loss, violence rooted in racism and homophobia, and the raw beauty of experience.
That sounds depressing, but I’m saying you should read it. Jones’ poetry is evocative and rhythmic, at times tilting into a songlike cadence, and moves uneasily and strikingly between imagery of sex and violence. In this regard, it’s tempting to compare it to Richard Siken’s Crush, with its emphasis on living and dying within a male body. But Prelude to Bruise is also deeply concerned with race—from a poem that chillingly pulls its language from a newspaper article about sundown towns (“Don’t Let the Sun Set On You”) to almost-offhanded references to the threat of violent racism (“A bare lightbulb shines above them like a lynched moon” in “History, According to Boy”).
I can’t really tell you what Prelude to Bruise is about (a question I don’t like fucking with when it comes to poetry, anyway). What I can say is that it crams numerous disparate universes into 108 pages, and lives comfortably in its varied approaches. Some poets do one thing stylistically to the point of tedium. Jones is not that kind of poet. His is a book of earthbound fixations and dreamlike states, taxonomies of color, what’s clearly a muddle of narratives both autobiographical and invented, allusions to Greco-Roman myth, and reminders of the edge of violence that skirts the world, from a neighborhood gone missing after Hurricane Katrina (“Lower Ninth”) to the “black paper body” shot during target practice. Some of Jones’ poems are abstract and associative, others sketch clear narratives, some just seem interested in experimenting with the possibilities of language, in listing, Stein-esque wordplay.
Jones, who works as executive editor for culture at Buzzfeed, will read at Reed College on Sunday, July 9, along with Margot Livesey and Danielle Evans, as part of the Tin House Writer’s Workshop reading series. The workshop is prohibitively expensive and competitive, but the readings are free. Each summer, I can’t wait for the list of readers to come out, but if you can, I don’t blame you. All too often, writers are not great readers of their own work—many of us are wonky and shy and find our strongest voice on the page, not in real life. Whether they’re comfortably ensconced in academia and so phoning it in, or haven’t put out a book in years, or don’t seem jazzed to read their early greatest hits, I’ve sat through many a reading from a writer I liked and respected and ultimately left wondering why I’d bothered at all; I love reading, but I don’t universally endorse readings, unless you know the author you’re seeing knows how to make contact with an audience and not devolve into quavering boredom.
So I’m happy to report that Jones is a powerful reader of his own work—if you are skeptical, you can listen to him reading on a number of recordings Buzzfeed released prior to Prelude to Bruise’s publication. And if you’re planning to go to one Tin House reading this summer, I’d make it this one.
Prelude to Bruise
by Saeed Jones
(Coffee House Press)