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Rodney Jones

1950–

Rodney Jones was born on February 11, 1950, in Hartselle, Alabama. He received a BA from the University of Alabama in 1971 and an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1973.

His books of poetry include Village Prodigies (Mariner Books, 2017); Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985–2005 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and a finalist for the Griffin International Poetry Prize; Elegy for the Southern Drawl (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Transparent Gestures (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award; and The Story They Told Us of Light (University of Alabama Press, 1980).

About his work, David Baker writes, “The breadth of his attention is as wide as any poet's currently writing—from songs of play and praise…to the most wrenching laments for the indigent, the hungry, the overlooked.”

His numerous honors include the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year, the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Excellence, and the Peter I. B. Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets. He has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Guggenheim Foundation.

For years Jones served as a professor in the creative writing program at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale; he also taught at the University of Cincinnati and DePauw University. He now teaches in the low-residency MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College. He lives in New Orleans, Louisiana.


Selected Bibliography

Village Prodigies (Mariner Books, 2017)
Imaginary Logic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)
Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985–2005 (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
Kingdom of the Instant (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)
Elegy for the Southern Drawl (Houghton Mifflin, 1999)
Things That Happen Once (Houghton Mifflin, 1996)
Apocalyptic Narrative and Other Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1993)
Transparent Gestures (Houghton Mifflin, 1989)
The Unborn (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985)
The Story They Told Us of Light (University of Alabama Press, 1980)

By This Poet

3

The Language of Love

It has taken thirty-five years to be this confident
of what happens between the noun and the verb.

Eventually, love goes. The image. Then the thought.
No? Then you are still alive. Only a little. And then,

I do not mean to depress you. Men have to hear
before they see. Sacred vows. Dropped shirts.

Women do not speak to men. They are overheard.
Sadness mounts people. Around the burn-scar high

on one thigh, the body of the beloved will vanish.
And the come cries and salt hair-smells of lovemaking.

Secret fiction, holy matrimony, longest short story
the troth two lovers pledge to one another is none

of the president’s business, let him say what he wants.
He is no good with words. Ask any true lesbian.

He should take a poetry workshop with Adrienne Rich.
He should try using the world less and words more

The Watergate

For most in the United States the word brings a phase
when mortars in Vietnam still whistled around them
and the scandal of Nixon and his Machiavellian buds
poured from the news into their subconscious—I see
that Watergate too: the televised hearings, and in particular
one session—Sam Ervin had just asked Ehrlichman
or Dean or Haldeman, a long-winded, periphrastic,
left-branching question—it must have lasted
forty seconds and seemed three days before he paused
for effect, and Ehrlichman or Dean or Haldeman
answered: “Senator, could you please repeat the question?”
And he did, verbatim! And that is one Watergate.
 
But I think also of the morning my father sent me to the creek
that ran through our pasture to remove a dead calf
a flood had floated north to lodge against our water gate—
a little Guernsey heifer—I had petted her often—
Now flies buzzed around her, bloated and entangled
in the mesh—and I remember her eyes were open,
so she seemed to watch as I pulled first one leg
then another from the vines and wire that trapped her,
and pulled her to the bank through the shallow water.
 
Because the second water gate, which features the tender
relationship between a dead calf and a little boy,
happened twenty years before the first, in which men
break into an office complex in a hotel, I prefer its
posts and hog wire that kept cows from a neighbor’s field
to the gray rows of filing cabinets that brought down a presidency.
The water pours out of the mountain and runs to the sea.
Sometimes I say it to myself, until the meanings leave.
I say Watergate until it is water pouring through water.

For Katy

When Milo was a kitten 
and spent the night
with us in the big bed,
curled like a brown sock
at our feet, he would
wake before daybreak,
squeak plaintively 
in his best Burmese,
cat-castrato soprano,
and make bread on our stomachs
until if one of us did not rise,
sleep-walk to the kitchen
and open his can of food,
he would steal under the covers,
crouch, run hard at us,
jam his head
in our armpits,
and burrow fiercely.

Probably he meant nothing by that.
Or he meant it in cat-contrary,
just as he did not intend
drawing blood the day
he bolted out the door
and was wild again
for nearly three hours.
I could not catch him
until I knelt, wormed
into the crawl-space
under a neighbor house
and lured him home
with bits of dried fish.

Or he meant exactly what he smelled,
and smelled the future
as it transmogrified out of the past,
for he is, if not an olfactory
clairvoyant,
a highly nuanced cat—
an undoer of complicated knots,
who tricks cabinets,
who lives to upend tall
glasses of Merlot.
With his whole body,
he has censored the finest passages of Moby-Dick.
He has silenced Beethoven with one paw.
He has leapt three and a half feet
from the table by the wall
and pulled down
your favorite print by Miró.
He does not know the word no.

When you asked the vet what 
kind of cat it was, she went
into the next room
came back and said,
“Havana Brown.”

The yellow eyes, the voice,
the live spirit that plays into dead seriousness
and will not be punished into goodness,
but no—

an ancient, nameless breed—

mink he says and I answer in cat.
Even if I was not
born in a dumpster 
between a moldy cabbage
and an expired loaf of bread,
I too was rescued by an extravagant woman.