In recent years, I’ve found that some of the most compelling and exciting poems I’ve encountered are those by American poets of color, and many of them LGBT. These poets have stepped into an arena of a true democracy of voice, often publishing their first works, sometimes a chapbook of poems, with little known and/or regional presses. Many of these poets want to explore not only gender identity but also the sexual transgressions that make a culture doubly nervous; these concerns are often coupled with issues of race as well. One especially notable, though admittedly high profile, example of this is Eduardo C. Corral’s book, Slow Lightning, selected by Carl Phillips (his own recent poetry a superb example of the sexual transgressions I’m noting) for the 2012 Yale Younger Poets Prize.
Let me now introduce to you another wildly compelling young poet, one who has not yet published a full collection—Saeed Jones. His chapbook, When the Only Light Is Fire, was published in 2011 by Sibling Rivalry Press, a small press in Alexander, Arkansas, that places an emphasis on LGBTIQ literature. Many poets already know Jones from his blog, “For Southern Boys Who Consider Poetry,” dedicated to emerging queer poets of color.
In Jones’s poems, there is something of Rimbaud’s proud but wounded sexual bravado, an assertiveness of the self that denies compromise. Many of these poems recount the speaker’s complicated sexual involvements with white men, about which both he and the men expose their, at times, dark responses to their own desires. In the poem “In Nashville,” the speaker says, “At the Silver Saloon, you show me / what a white boy in Wrangler Jeans / can do with my moves.” The black speaker/dancer then says, “… I feel a bit / betrayed dancing in this crowd / of snake-skin boots and red, white, and blue / rebel tattoos with the moves I thought / I had some kind of claim to…” And then come the startling final lines of the poem, which situate the speaker in the conflict of his circumstances, “a way / of mapping out hell with my feet.”
When the Only Light Is Fire takes as its epigraph these lines from one of Jones’s most beloved influences, the late poet Reginald Shepherd: “What’s left of burning / burns as well / me down to blackened glass / an offering in anthracite.” For Jones, it is those extravagant fires of desire that illuminate our lives, for better or worse. Jones’s speaker knows quite profoundly who he is as an individual, and he will not allow any shadow of shame to rest upon him even if those shadows sometimes pass over him. Each of his speakers claim their own sexuality with a fierce independence, something I’ve previously noted (in Ploughshares) as Jones’s “exquisite carnal grace.”
With their often rural settings and their, at times, physically brutal encounters, Jones’s poems remind me of the late poet Ai’s extraordinary debut collection, Cruelty (Houghton Mifflin, 1973). In the work of both of these poets, their speakers seize their own racial and sexual identities step-by-step as they come face-to-face with abuse that is both physical and psychological. Like Ai’s poems, Jones’s poems share the destitution of desolate rural landscapes, giving us scenes that provide a raw starkness as backdrop to the human encounters. Like the shocking poems of Cruelty, the poems in When the Only Light Is Fire are exceptionally cinematic and establish a sexual candor that is revelatory. In every one of Jones’s poems, intimacy is revealed as a kind of violence to the body and the soul, not to mention to the heart. In the poem “Terrible Boy,” the speaker says,
. . . I sing the sins
that brought me here:
I turned the family portrait face down,
when he was on me,
fed gasoline to the roots of the forsythia,
broke a mirror to slim
my reflection’s waist,
what he calls me is not my name
and I love it . . .
Jones specializes in southern fried Greek myths and biblical narratives, especially those mirroring the presence of the looming father/patriarch of his own family—“Out of the water, in a wet wheat towel— // I wake / in my unlit room. // Father standing at the door.” His poems are replete with mythic transformations, often set against the landscape of a mythic southern terrain, a place equally alive with menace and ecstasy. Jones is also dedicated to the queering of nature itself, a cross-dressing that cloaks the speaker in thistle, leaves, grasses, and foliage of all kinds. This merging with the natural world provides a kind of shield of protection for his speakers as they become part of or disappear into the intimacy of the landscape (the chapbook’s final poem, “Eclipse of My Third Life,” is a heartbreaking example).
In the chapbook’s tour de force opening poem, “Kudzu,” Jones speaks as that invasive, take-no-prisoners southern plant in the act of asserting its dominance upon the landscape. In this dramatic monologue, we see the boy as kudzu itself—assuming the power of the kudzu as he seeks that transgressive freedom to alarm, destroy, and subvert. It’s a poem that could serve as a kind of ars poetica for Jones’s poetry as a whole. The speaker here is a self-actualizing Daphne who has taken her fate into her/his own hands and has chosen to become not the poetic laurel tree but instead the sardonic, rude, and pervasive kudzu (kudzu can starve and strangle other plants and trees as it overtakes them). The poem is also a highly sexualized metaphor of raw desire and indiscriminant ravishment; in a brilliant reversal, Daphne becomes Apollo. As we read Jones’s poetry, we understand that his speakers are not simply waiting around for the gods to transform them; instead, they are engaging in their own assertive acts of transformation and “self-othering.” In “Kudzu,” we see only one of the many symbolic acts of self-transformation in When the Only Light Is Fire, and these many myth-inflected transformations echo the poetry of both Sylvia Plath and Louise Glück.
The poems of When the Only Light Is Fire strike me as being remarkably original in their shape-shifting poetic transformations as well as in their cultural and social transgressions. Here are the lush and luminous poems of Saeed Jones. Get used to this name. He’s the real deal.
This essay originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2013 issue of American Poets, published by the Academy of American Poets.