Pleiades Press. 2019. 80 pages.
Reviewed by Megan J. Arlett
In selecting Ashley M. Jones’ book for the 2018 Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize in Poetry, Marcus Wicker said, “dark // thing explores the operating costs incurred when blackness—black hair, black bottom, black diction and excellence—are perceived, but not uniquely seen. […] It is imperative that you read these poems, teach these poems, breathe deep this gift of a book.” Jones’ second book of poetry takes no breaks. Formed without sections, the book is tightly woven. With little room to pause, the reader must take these poems as a continual argument as to the “operating costs” Wicker identifies. The black experience in America cannot take a break and so neither does the book.
The vast majority of poems in dark//thing are in response to, or in conversation with, other texts. Jones takes on the voice of Harriet Tubman, writes in response to poems by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Maurice Manning, Amiri Baraka, and even nods at Jordan Peele’s film Get Out. Jones forms poems from slurs, titles them after songs, constructs poems in the form of a bar graph of lynchings by state and race. What manifests from this is a constellation of voices that demonstrate how the black experience in America transcends mediums, historical eras, and bodies. Jones creates an endless restatement of what it is to be black in America and builds her own work on others’ to strengthen this call to awareness.
dark // thing opens with the poem “Slurret,” a sonnet built on slurs used against black people. “Slurret” takes from two forms of sonnet: the ABBAABBA octave rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet and then, at the Petrarchan turn, becomes Shakespearean in its CDCDEE scheme.
You a spade, a spook, an open-mouthed
black pickaninny. Ashy Aunt Jemima,
Americoon, you blue-gummed Beluga,
you cotton-picking jigaboo […]
As first poems go, to open with language that is, in a way, “found” is a bold move that risks over-shadowing the poet’s voice. But, since so much of Jones’ work is about building her own poetic strength off of other foundations, “Slurret” works as a declaration of where her drive as a writer stems from. The sonnet prepares us for form, conversations about race, metaphorical transformations, and disruption. “It’s also sort of a retaliation against the literary canon, and the traditional sonnet form,” she said in a recent interview with NPR. “It’s a sonnet in every way, except it’s not talking about the fair maiden, or a rose, or any of the other non-political white subjects that sonnets were written about in the past. Instead, it’s attacking racism and elevating the black experience to this level of art.”
As in Magic City Gospel, Jones’ first book of poetry, free verse and received forms sit side-by-side. She includes two(!) sestinas in dark // thing, most deftly in “Sunken Place Sestina” in which she comments on the gentrifying space of downtown Birmingham, Alabama, the poet’s beloved hometown. Elsewhere, in “Kindergarten Villanelle,” the refrain “I’m brown, he’s not. The blocks and blue and red” echoes its way through a reflection on a childhood friend being called away to play with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed child instead of the speaker. Jones understands how form interacts with meaning, and when she uses form, when she toys with it to serve her own poetics, she does so as a subtle act of resistance against notions of how traditional poetic forms should or shouldn’t be written.
The act of looking at something closely, turning it over with the eyes, wondering how it came to be, and what that says about the world, runs throughout dark//thing. Jones is deeply interested in the human condition and the ways humans are reflected within their environments.
She enacts these ideas in “Broken Sonnet for the Decorative Cotton for Sale at Whole Foods,” a poem even more powerful for the technically perfect sonnet that we began with in “Slurret.” Jones breaks the form of the poem across the page:
all you had to do
was wrap three stems
of dirty cotton in cellophane,
call it a bouquet
and sell it on the white side of town
to make a decent living?
Jones asks, “Why are you not looking at things as closely as I am? How can I make you see?” The upsetting of the traditional form, the breakage on the page is an enactment of resistance against larger systems. By turning the form against itself, Jones also turns it back on the reader asking, why are you not interrogating your own complicity in this? If, in “Slurret,” the change in form was subtle, here it cannot be ignored. She could easily not call this poem a sonnet, but she does because the act of naming a thing, calling attention to an act of violence (the cotton at Whole Foods) or disruption (the form’s breaking) is crucial to our full understanding. Jones demonstrates how an insensitivity to history damages everything around it. She wants us to see it as it is, even if it is wrapped in cellophane and called a bouquet.
Like its opening poem, dark//thing ends with beauty and light. While “Slurret” turns us from the ugliness of the slurs themselves into a final image of beauty “a brocade” that survives despite the aggression it has been through, the last poem in the book is titled: “Think of a Marvelous Thing / It’s the Same as Having Wings.” The list poem, structured on a spine of “You fly.” statements follows a man on his bike cycling through Birmingham, the speaker watching from their car at the freedom and joy they are witnessing in a person who seems truly content with themselves. “You a man, no three fifths about you,” “your edge up is fresh,” “you don’t need pixie dust,” the poet writes in euphoric anaphora. And though the poem ends with the subject swallowed up into the night’s darkness, a reversal of “Slurret”’s final image of beauty, the poem still makes the argument—so central to the whole collection—that there is beauty, pride, and joy in the black experience that must be reclaimed and celebrated in art.
Megan J. Arlett was born in the UK, grew up in Spain, and now lives in Texas where she is pursuing her PhD. She is an editor at the Plath Poetry Project. The recipient of two Academy of American Poets Prizes, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets 2019, Best New British and Irish Poets, The Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Third Coast, and elsewhere.