In the weeks leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Rigoberto González offers an appreciation of Saeed Jones' poetry finalist, 'Prelude to Bruise' (Coffee House Press, 2014).
In the poem “Boy in a Stolen Evening Gown,” a young man escapes into the fields to prance in a chiffon dress in the privacy of his fantasy. He projects onto the dress his desire for masculine attention and a hunger for the feminine glamour he doesn’t feel entitled to in his male body, perhaps even his black body—both parts of his identity make him susceptible to different kinds of pains and dangers in the American South, inside and outside his African American community. But in this moment of agency, he becomes consumed by the hopeful knowledge that he will persevere, that there’s a future to behold—a reality beyond the fantasy—in which he will certainly be loved, but most importantly, in which he will continue to define and celebrate his sexuality, his true self:
Call me and I’m at your side,
one wildflower behind my ear. Ask me
and I’ll slip out of this softness, the dress
a black cloud at my feet. I could be the boy
wearing nothing, a negligee of gnats.
But before this youth finds his way to happiness, he must journey through the troubling encounters, heartaches and dilemmas of a gay and black adolescence. He must learn to navigate those sacred spaces—church, neighborhood streets, home—that demand certain expressions of masculinity in order to earn membership but also safety. Any misstep, any wrong turn, can become the prelude to a bruise:
Each time, strangers find me
drawing my own chalk outline on the sidewalk, cursing
with a mouth full of iron,
furious at my own pulse.
Jones’ haunting lyricism creates a portrait of hard-won self-realization, of a young man’s determined struggle, pushing through doubt and distress with the strength of his imagination and verve. The oppressive climate of community and society are likened to the invasive vine kudzu, anthropomorphized in these lines: “How you mistake/ my affection./ If I ever strangled sparrows,/ it was only because I dreamed/ of better songs.” From this the young man understands that his own landscape will overwhelm or even kill him if he doesn’t fight back.
Prelude to Bruise, with its stunning imagery and courage, is one of those rare debut collections of poetry that has earned widespread popularity and critical praise. The book’s poignant exploration of that intersection between sexuality and race, its heartbreaking perspective, have earned Saeed Jones, a first-book author, a place among the more seasoned finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry.
New York Times Essay.
Tin House Interview with Maud Newton.
PEN America Interview.
Publishers Weekly Starred Review.
Brooklyn Magazine Review.
Lambda Literary Review.
Post No Ills Review.