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