Review: Grousing at the End of the World
By Hugh Blanton
"Poetry needs an innovator to come along!" a few pundits and many critics complain. Civilization has endured over 2000 years of dull and drab verse and it's time someone shook things up. There have been a few instances where supposed innovators came along—modernism, Black Mountain School, Meat Poetry etc., but nothing was really innovated, no discernible changes were made. Expectations for poetry are similar to expectations for designing integrated circuits: we want to see stunning results that put a tombstone on what came before it. However, poetry is not engineering. When a poet sits down to innovate, he more than likely is just going to come up with gimmickry. And in this new release from Saeed Jones, that's exactly what we get.
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Alive at the End of the World is the latest collection of poetry from Saeed Jones. If this is your first time reading Jones, you may be perplexed or baffled at how often you come across the word bruise and it's variants. Of the 46 poems in this collection, 9 of them have bruising. (His first collection of poetry was titled Prelude to Bruise.) It's part of the gimmickry that he uses along with the way he titles his poems. There are five poems here all titled "Alive at the End of the World," four poems titled "Grief" with seemingly random numbers along with the title, and two poems called "Okay, One More Story." Additional gimmickry can be found in his poem "The Essential American Worker" that consists mostly of white space on the page which Jones insists is ghost text, not blank space.
One could almost be excused for thinking that poets are the only people in the world who have had a parent die. The way some of them seem to wail nonstop over the death of a parent (see Nick Flynn and Ocean Vuong) it's as if they've set out to build a career and a life out of it. "I think Americans, American culture, we're not good at acknowledging grief and loss," Jones said in an interview with Jeevika Verma on NPR's Morning Edition. This is of course absurd; poetry is larded with grief and loss and there are memorials from coast to coast in America acknowledging grief and loss. For poets like Jones, however, who seem bound and determined to make the world fall in love with their sadness, it's never enough.
Jones moves easily from sadness to rage and makes his case a little better here, even if he has to get a little vulgar to do it. "...white as the kind of test questions you answer// so white college boys with little white dicks can look at you/ and whine "you're only here because you're Black."" Then in his poem "Grief 213": "I grieve forced laughter, shrieks sharp as broken/ champagne flutes and the bright white necks I wanted/ to press the shards against." As you can see he is current with the new trend of capitalizing black when referring to race. Jones is active on social media (he has over 224K followers on Twitter and the coveted Blue Check) and also expresses his rage there. He seems to get equal doses from both real life and from doom scrolling.
Jones is a poet bristling for affronts, casting a wide net for anything that might outrage him whether at a college campus, on social media, or even a poetry reading audience. He's particularly angry about white musicians covering music by black musicians—one example he cites is Pat Boone's cover of Little Richard's Tutti Frutti. Jones seems to think it's theft and cultural appropriation. He's miffed that Boone was paid more in royalties that the original creator was, and he says of Boone's version that it "watered down and added bleach to Tutti Frutti..." (He's certainly right about that, maybe Jones' true calling is music criticism).
Poets love to speak for the working class—how their bosses, corporations, and indeed capitalism itself breaks them down and crushes them into the dirt, used up and discarded. In the above mentioned ghost text gimmick poem Saeed states, "America kills me, then says "now get back to work."" Saeed is from an academic background, he has an MFA in creative writing from no less than the likes of Rutgers. He was also an LGBT editor at BuzzFeed and even wrote an advice column for them. The distance from his perch where he views the plight of the working class prevents him from seeing that far from our companies killing us, they provide the weekly paychecks that buy our liquor and pay the rent for our tiny rooms and allow us to buy good books of poetry—if we can ever find them.
Publishers are quick and eager to publish identity poets regardless of the quality of writing or the merits of their statements. Jones, however, is too talented to be dismissed as just another race based admission. There are a few lines of poignancy to be found here ("I've made a home out of how much I miss you/ and there's no one here to tell me I should leave.") and the reader never stumbles over any of his lines. If he can drop the grief porn, the gimmickry, and focus his rage, it's easy to see him delivering poetry that compels not just the trendy editors at publishing houses, but readers as well.