Saeed Jones’ debut book of poetry “Prelude to Bruise” reads like a complete narrative, but one which is constructed of intense glimmers of experience told in a lyrical way. The six sections of this book carry the reader through a journey of self-discovery. Most of the poems follow the story of “Boy” who in many instances is literally an adolescent/teenager. Even when the poems aren’t specifically about “Boy” much of the feeling is singed by the fire of his personality. By the end of the book, the label of “Boy” has taken on so many meanings and connotations – of naivety, of a wayward son, of social inferiority, of a racial expletive, of gay slang, of the submissive partner in sadomasochistic role play – that when, in the final poem, the boy emphatically denies this label it strikes an optimistic note. His real name remains private and unknown to the reader giving him a dignity and sense of selfhood which has thus far been denied him. This distinct personality finally steps out of the circumscribed role set by those around him.
It’s admirable the way Jones’ writing orchestrates an interplay between the imagination and reality. By blending images, a poem about friends play fighting while out for a swim suddenly takes on a serious tone of eroticism and violence. In ‘Drag’ the personality created through costume assumes a life of its own: “the dress begins to move without me.” This gradually yields to a deeper confusion of self and also revelation: “I don’t even know what I am in this dress.” In one of the final and longest poems in the book the boy is taken to shooting practice by his father and later this pretending might turn into real danger as the boy invades his parents’ bedroom while they are sleeping. There is the sense that we are both in the boy’s mind and in his spatial reality at the same time.
Jones writes forcefully about the power of desire and the dynamics of sexual discovery. Not only does he capture the all-consuming feeling of the act itself, but the emotions which fuel the before and after of it all. He describes how irrepressible sexual urges can physically take over the body: “I’ve got more hunger than my body can hold.” The boy learns the danger of his gaze when his focus on another boy’s muscular thighs and the gap in his shorts is rebuffed with verbal homophobic abuse. In ‘Kingdom of Trick, Kingdom of Drug’ the object of desire takes on the characteristics of a tree and the passion shared decorates it with weighty symbols in a way which is incredibly sensuous and moving. The title poem ‘Prelude to Bruise’ takes the reader into complex corners of desire with the representation of a kink-edged encounter. Through effective use of alliteration invoking words such as boy, black, boot, body, broke, bruise the author portrays the variegated emotions involved in hard play. He shows how sexual aggression can be shaded by racial politics and how sexual punishment can be simultaneously seductive and repulsive. Another poem effectively represents the post-coital tristesse which follows cruising: “I relearn my legs, mud-stained knees, and walk back to my burning house.” But in other poems there is also romantic hope as expressed in this beautiful line: “you are the first hour in a life without clocks.”
One of the most compelling and forceful poems for me is ‘Boy Found Inside a Wolf’ which is a sort of summation of Jones’ themes about fathers, violence and sex. Eroticism is implied by his use of line breakage and the double meaning of his verbs. But it is also heavily mixed with danger, threat and destruction. At the same time the poem radically imagines a father giving birth to his son. Paired with the other poems' commentary about the alternating tenderness and antagonism between father and son, this poem movingly represents a complicated layered familial relationship.
“Prelude to Bruise” confronts issues to do with race and sexuality in a way that challenges and changes the reader. More than this book’s engagement with identity politics, some of the poems it contains deal directly with instances of key political and historical significance. Creating a ghostly sense of unease, Jones describes the aftermath and repercussions of the tragic storms and flooding of New Orleans. In another poem dedicated to James Byrd Jr who was kidnapped and violently murdered by white supremacists in 1998, Jones vividly re-images the event with the imploring words “go back” reverberating significantly throughout the scene. Jones' invocation of these events shows how their meaning has both personal and broader long-term implications.
Each section of the book shows a different stage in the Boy’s development and evolution towards a more assertively individual sense of selfhood. Although some times this comes in the form of regression: “Run hard, look back, go back, owned.” But there is an awareness that one must always carry forth as is demonstrated by the warning line “If she retraces her steps, the footprints will eat her.” The final more distinctly prose-like poems take him mentally backward to deal with his relationship with his parents. This takes the book full circle. Some of the poetry shows direct influence from other writers such as Lucie Brock-Broido or Alexander Chee (one poem borrows a phrase from his daring novel Edinburgh). But Jones’ style is arrestingly fresh. His distinct voice is the thing which hooks you in this poetry which varies between different forms and methods of arrangement. (To borrow a phrase from a divine songstress) it’s a voice that plays tough as nails with his heart on his sleeve. Saeed Jones has created a radically different coming of age narrative distinctly his own through forceful, original poetry.