Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones


Saeed Jones. Prelude to Bruise. Coffee House Press.

Saeed Jones’s first full-length book, Prelude to Bruise, is a necessary piece of contemporary poetry that bravely tackles issues such as abuse, promiscuity, homosexuality, and racism. Though the title hints at an agonizing inevitability, the collection implies that a bruise may, in fact, denote healthy progress. Jones’s poems are mostly narrative free verse and artfully employ empty space and varying line lengths to ferry conflict. As I dug into Prelude to Bruise, I found myself regularly flipping to his photo on the last page, his face in half shadow, his eyes glaring sideways. Though I always try to separate the poet from the work, Jones’s poems are written in a voice so brutally honest that differentiating between him and the poetic “I” is nearly impossible.

Similar to the coal-like mineral in the opening poem, “Anthracite,” the speaker in Jones’s poems must endure extreme heat before igniting and changing form. But this fortitude is deflated by the poem’s final lines, “in this town everything born black also burns.” The obvious paradox sets the tone for the six sections to follow.

The collection begins with “Insomniac” and depicts a mother unable to help her son. “Terrible Boy” continues this struggle, weaving opposing allusions of light and dark: “In the field, one paw of the lion-clawed bathtub / glints in the light. Lukewarm buckets of water / carried for miles.” The landscape seems comfortable, but the situation turns bleak: “Unclean under / a back-turned sun, I sing the sins / that brought me here.” The young boy’s consciousness is sparked aware of his horrific circumstances: “I wake / in my unlit room. // Father standing at the door.” The silhouette in the jamb is a haunting final image and presents an allusion to events to come.

Jones delivers varied perspectives of violence by paying homage to other abused individuals and places. And though this deflection to external suffering shifts the lens away from the book’s speaker, it increases the stress of content. “Jasper” remembers a Texas hate crime, and “Lower Ninth” pays tribute to a ward devastated by Hurricane Katrina. In the title poem, the alliteration of the letter “b” echoes the repeating sound of a punching fist, a thrusting pelvis, or a whip:

Your back, blue-black.

Your body,                  burning.

I like my black boys broke, or broken.
I like to break my black boys in.

Tension increases because it is unclear whether the speaker in the poem is experiencing the action or witnessing it. In “Drag,” this disassociation occurs again: “the dress begins / to move without me,” then, “I don’t even know what I am / in this dress.” The lifeless word “what” disembodies, but a glimmer of hope comes from the speaker’s ability to recognize this unknowing. The dysfunction, however, has a terrible endurance. In “Secondhand (Smoke),” an inferior substitute for reality is highlighted: “Even held down, even pinned, ersatz: the idea of his body.” For self-preservation, the speaker deludes himself with a necessary fantasy that protects him as he serves as a scapegoat for society’s violence, racism and homosexuality. “Body & Kentucky Bourbon,” a poem about a white farmhand lover, layers these three issues in one scene:

                        To realize you drank

so you could face me the morning after,
the only way to choke down rage at the body

sleeping beside you.

The poem’s final line reads, “And now, alone, I see your face // at the bottom of my shot glass / before my own comes through.” The conflict with the self is evident: a white face appears before the speaker’s own does. The upside—he does not buckle. In “Eclipse of My Third Life” there is a “Red Chinese Kite in the night of my throat, / no one can see.” In Chinese mythology, a red kite symbolizes future success. It is evident that the speaker is trapped yet remains hopeful. But in the love poem, “Guilt,” his efforts topple. The poem terminates with a vehicle crashing into dogs. As the passenger inspects the damage he finds nothing but, “A rustle // in the trees at the edge of the road, / but no eyes looking out at us.” This line might be interpreted as the awakening of a long-sequestered voice.

            “Highway 407” circles back to the mother:

I wait.

            The high grass calls you
out of silence.

A vixen,

already trotting back:

The action of “trotting” is a reminder of the previous section’s dogs. Like them, the poem’s speaker vanished after enduring trauma. This association reconnects him to his only protector, his mother, and empowers him to accept himself: “Your grief will be useful some day, says no one.” Italics are a reminder that these words are spoken by the mother, but they have become the speaker’s too. A shift comes in “Dominion,” when the speaker understands that his pursuit of lovers has always been a failed quest for his father: “You shut your eyelids to keep him / from slipping into your father’s // rumpled body.” “Room without a Ghost” procures a crystallizing moment of clarity, “No one is watching you but you.” Hereafter, the speaker severs ties with personal myths, which is reiterated in “Postapocalyptic Heartbeat’s” final line, “how was I to know every word was your name?” The past no longer defines the present.

The twelve pages of “History, According to Boy” implies headway, but still there is a problem—the speaker refers to himself as “Boy,” a loaded invective: “Boy lives in a house made of guns,” and “Boy’s father’s fist comes down like into war itself.” Some of the poem’s most striking lines are free of metaphor: “Boy walks in the living room and walks right up to his father,” and “Notes on names Boy gets called at school: fairy, pansy, fudge packer, pillow biter, cock gobbler.” These statements serve a cathartic purpose and funnel toward a humanizing finale:

Boy has a name.

Boy whispers it once in the almost-dark,
smiles briefly, then takes a step back.

The book concludes with a solitary poem, “Last Portrait as Boy,” and alludes to self acceptance. The speaker has become, “A grown man called boy / gone inside himself.” The collection’s crowning lines reveal a propitious declaration, “I am not a boy. I am not / your boy. I am not.” With fists clenched, this grown man moves on, his dark past now a healing bruise.