In his debut chapbook of poetry, Saeed Jones walks on the periphery of the South, those places on the outskirts of town, in bars after midnight, and on dangerous backroads where most people keep their heads down or look the other way. Through Texas and Tennessee, Alabama and the riverbeds of the Mississippi, these poems wrap themselves in cloaks of masks and comfort; garments we learn are flammable if we stand too close to flames.
Saeed Jones’ debut chapbook of poetry, WHEN THE ONLY LIGHT IS FIRE, is not just a riot of the black man — but of the gay black boy caged inside him. I found sanctum in so many of these poems, among them: “Kudzu,” a hankering verse about how nothing breaks the heart like what it cannot have; “Nocturne,” in which death flexes its ubiquitous pull on the living; “Daedalus, After Icarus,” a fable of a grief-stricken father whose son dies of his own invention; and “Boy at Edge of Woods,” where boys discover fellatio as houses go up in flames. I bought this book a few days ago, and finally sat down and drank these poems whole this afternoon. I was so nourished by the poetic calm by which Jones sang the psalms of his people whilst bridging the gulf between blackness and gayness.
In “Terrible Boy,” the speaker says: “I turned the family portrait face down/ when he was on me … broke a mirror to slim/ my reflection’s waist.” It dawned on me then that I was re-reading a passage from my own youth, one I thought I’d discarded in memory. But once a boy turns for his first taste of that sweet sting, he forgets none of what transpires next: the shame permeating freshly laundered sheets; the panicked bang of a locked door; bodies knuckling under the warmth of rapture. It is a hot flash that brands us for the rest of our lives, a reminder of how far we’ve strayed, how doomed we are.
Perhaps, had I read these poems earlier in life, I would not have felt so alone, so graceless and unwanted on this anxious planet. But how fortunate am I to have survived long enough to stumble upon this body of work. I can’t wait to get my next ration of Jones’ writing with his debut memoir, HOW WE FIGHT FOR OUR LIVES, out this fall, as I know it’ll be nothing short of life-saving.
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3.5 stars. This was a lovely debut chapbook, melding themes of queerness and Blackness to beautiful effect. I loved about half of these poems and found the rest so-so, and it was very short. I look forward to reading more from Jones. Wish I'd realized that these poems are about half of his collection Prelude to Bruise, as I'd have just read that.
I'd first come across the collection in search of a purchase to better understand a press, and the description really stood out for me. Although I was born in Germany and live in Berlin now, many of my formulative years were spend in the southern U.S. in the states of Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and Louisana, and these are some of the places the poet grew up.
"Saeed Jones walks on the periphery of the South, those places on the outskirts of town, in bars after midnight, and on dangerous backroads where most people keep their heads down or look the other way...." How well I understood that description and recall many such places, such dangers!
I wanted to read the author's impressions of those places and compare them to my own, my collection CORE is forthcoming. Sometimes they were agonizingly similar based on being from a minority population and with a sexuality publicly reviled yet privately practiced so that abuse can be common of those who are not allowed to have voices.
Visceral, vivid, yet often using a minimum of words, this was difficult collection of poetry for me to read, as often the images created through the poet's words triggered my own memories of darkness, abuse, aloneness and pain. I found it to be outstanding, courageous and to be admired for the ability to share personal emotions and experiences.
Saeed Jones' mythology is of ruined small towns and their biblical ghosts, the humming bush and men at the edge of it, and a beautiful boy dancing through grief and lust in a dress of smoke. The lyricism and sex of these poems and their hot song, will prick your page turning fingers bloody.
I read the entire thing through on my lunch hour, accidentally. It was just that urgent and visceral, goes directly into the vein without having to filter through the brain. I'll have to read through again for a more cerebral impression.
Absolutely should be at the top of any list of must-read contemporary southern poets. The "Jasper" poems, my god...
After reading Saeed Jones’ memoir, “How We Fight For Our Lives,” I found it just wasn’t enough. His talent with self expression somehow embeds beautiful treasures into monotony and emotional turmoil. Lots of authors are capable of as much, but something about the way his light hits the heart is different. Jones writes unseen images into minds, while persuading them to reimagine forms of each one later on.
“Last night, the ceiling above me ached with dance. Music dropped down the walls like rain in an old house. My eyes followed the couple’s steps from one corner to another......In my empty bed, I dreamed the record’s needle pointed into my back, spinning me into no one’s song.”
This scintillating debut collection is filled with finely faceted gems precisely cut and carefully arranged on the black velvet of a poetic consciousness so sublime that it renders even the most heinous brutality a thing of beauty to behold (“Mississippi Drowning,” “Eclipse of My Third Life”) the intricate work of a fabulist and the finest jeweler. Bravo!
Favorite Poems: “Kudzu” “Boy in Stolen Evening Gown” “Nocturne” “Boy at Threshold” “After the First Shot” “Jasper, 1998: I” “Jasper, 1998: II” “Jasper, 1998: III” “Body & Kentucky Bourbon” “Sleeping Arrangement” “Mississippi Drowning” “Room 31” “Cruel Body” “He Thinks He Can Leave Me” “Eclipse of My Third Life”
A less painful read in context of the author's current life, but still hits pretty hard. A surprise as I thought I was reading a sci-fi short story collection and instead it's about being Black and gay in Texas. Some of the events referenced were big in my childhood and it was ... good.. to see them again.
There are snippets this book trained me to search for in the words. The moments where the narrator's sense of self connect and grow. Though a little short, this is what a collected work of poems looks like, for me.
"Hunger is who we are / under a black lacquered moon," asserts Saeed Jones at the beginning of the very last entry in this pitch-perfect collection of darkly radiant poems. And, indeed, it is the transmutation of the past into the hungers that run through it, like rivers or hunters, by the mis-eclipsed light of a moon turned to night, that we can see unites the divergent identities plotted out in these poems - whether they be outlaw, intimate, world-making; or empty, enslaved and just plain evil - in the wolf's bane of their becoming, which will not leave them or others be. These are poems of serious social and sexual and political intensity but made better, more brilliant, by being combined with a burning ambiguity that turns back on itself and a noctographic aesthetic honesty that brings fire into focus as the only light these questions of libido and lethality can truly be seen by. In the charismatic burn that Jones provocatively unleashes, in equal parts, upon scenes of ardent sexuality ("king of my beheaded kingdom"), upon look-ins at the lopped love of kin ("Never an easy / dream"), upon treacherous reckonings with racist atrocity ("but I accept these men, / their sense of direction...") and upon dark inner nights of self-loathing ("he needs to tell me the story again"), the relations between needlessness and necessity, between the raw exertion of power over bodies and the desire to be free, gone or to self-erase, are carved out in "the language of sharp turns", a language the poems do not fully entrust themselves to, but, in their own sharp turn upon it, will place under the scanner of their lyrical distance, to softly probe for its limits and wants, in search of new connections. More than anything, Jones seems compelled to find through these missives something urgent and more honest than yet another reason to live: that is, he is after a reason to require, a grounds to demand a new horizon for actions, a basis to be "a backseat driver" and refuse the direction things seem always to be going, especially for blacks and queers. "Get up. Find your legs, / leave," Jones bids. The consequence of following his own advice, while looking backward passionately, is a debut that feels years ahead of itself, electric, sensual nerve at its keenest, a night pyre of thoughts at their finest.
Full of emotion and vivid storytelling, this is by far one of my favorite collections of poetry. I experienced everything from lust with Kudzu to painful grief with Jasper, 1998, I, II, and III. In fact, I tried to read these three poems to my partner and became too choked up to do so. The second actually brought me to tears. I'm not easily drawn to showing emotional responses in life, and for these poems to do this is a strong testament to their strength.
Very sensual, frequently ... sad(?), and sometimes horrifying -- thinking about his Jasper sequence, about the murder of James Boyd, Jr. It gave me chills.
I'm only an occasional reader of poetry and sometimes unsure how the cadence should go, so was happy to find a few clips of the author reading his work online. Here's The Blue Dress in Mother's Closet.
"We're dry tinder. Water won't answer our questions anymore..."
When the Only Light Is Fire is Saeed Jones' debut chapter book collection of poems. Much like his memoir, his writing style in his poems is honest, intense and filled with imagery that captures the readers attention from the start.
This is a very deep and profound chapbook of poetry. Jones taps into the erotic as well as the political in this collection, exploring sexuality, race, southern politics, and more in these dense, lyrical poems. A very excellent collection.