Friday, April 21, 2017

Patricia Spears Jones—Blues and the Temporariness of Life

Patricia Spears Jones.

Thank God for serendipity.  I had reached an inevitable point in all National Poetry Months when I was at a total loss for today’s post.  Oh I have some future entries plotted out tied to upcoming events  and I have notes to myself on some poets I want to get too before the calendar runs out.  But I had a run of male voices and I wanted to restore the testosterone/estrogen balance and I wanted a new—to me at least—poets.  I was just about to aimlessly launch into random poetry sites, when I noticed a small item in my local paper, the Northwest Herald, a publication not normally noted for the depth of their literary coverage.
A Brooklyn-based poet has won a $50,000prize given for “exceptional talent” that merits greater recognition.
Patricia Spears Jones is this year’s recipient of the Jackson Poetry Prize, Poets and Writers said Tuesday.  Judges praised Jones, whose previous honors included Pushcart Prize, for her “sophisticated and moving” work.
Hmmm…I should check this out, I said to my computer. And I am glad I did.  I found a wonderful, supple, and insightful poet to share today.
Almost always identified as a Brooklyn poet for her forty year residency there and deep community connections, Jones was born in Forrest City, Arkansas and earned her BA at Rhodes College in 1973 and her MFA from Vermont College in 1994.  She has always traveled widely, which her poetry reflects as she incorporates her observations as springboards for deeper contemplation.  
Spears Jones as a young poet in heady company.
But New York has been a spiritual home and she has been a cultural force of nature there from her earliest days there.  Spears Jones is active in many arts and literary organizations, has been a mentor to individual artists, led programs in schools, and been a keen observer whose essays are widely read and who has been repeatedly chosen to write the catalog text for friends’ art exhibitions. 
She has also moved comfortably in feminist and activist circles.  Unlike many radical poets, her verse is seldom over or didactic instead she works from personal insight and experience to draw larger conclusions.  This makes her work exceptionally available to the reader but subtle and multi-layered.

Patricia Spears Jones and Jason Kao Hwang at The Local 269, March 1, 2010.
Spears Jones described her work aptly in a 2014 interview in Rochelle Spencer’s  Mosaic: Literary Arts of the Diaspora:
I always think of myself as evoking the blues in my poetry, and the blues are never “happy” even when they’re ecstatic… There’s a sense of temporality of life. We’re only here for a brief time. There is only so much we can do. People have enemies and there are difficulties. And sometimes there’s great music and great sex to lighten the load.

Spears Jones is the author of four collections of poetry: The Weather That Kills (Coffee House Press, 1995), Femme du Monde (Tia Chucha Press, 2006), Painkiller (Tia Chucha Press, 2010), and A Lucent Fire: New & Selected Poems (White Pine Press, 2015) in addition to several chap books.  She has also been widely anthologized and is a contributing editor to BOMB magazine.
In addition to her brand new Jackson Prize and Pushcart award, her multiple honors include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts; awards from the Foundation for Contemporary Art and the New York Community Trust; and residencies at Yaddo, Bread Loaf, the Millay Colony, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  She has also been  program coordinator for the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church and led the New Works Program for the Massachusetts Council of Arts and Humanities.
The busy Spears Jones has taught at  LaGuardia Community College and Queens College CCNY, Parsons, The New School, and the College of New Rochelle.
Spear Jones' most recent collection.
Femme du Mode
Fat, face the color of blanc on blanc,
smelling of cheap tobacco and many unwashed garments,
from the other end of the car,
the unmistakable melody of La vi en rose
scratched against tender ears of Parisian commuters.
“Not La vi en rose again”, said the young Frenchman facing me.
I understood every word he said.

The old woman singing was no tiny sparrow,
no waif.
Her corpulent canine companion was equally uncouth.
She sang Piaf's signature song with a hostile gusto,
each syllable enunciated loudly.

We sniggered as the singing voice came closer.
So close we began to sing along, conspirators, smiling.
And we welcomed the doleful silence at the song’s inevitable end.

I gave her a centime or was it two?
She deserved it.
Was she blind?
Did it matter?

As for me, I am weary of speaking shattered Spanish with
               Argentinean intellectuals
and outmoded American slang with the Moroccan grocer and his
on the Boulevard Saint-Michel near rue du Val-de-Grâce
And I cannot seem to count past the number, sept!
Gloved hands push apart the Metro’s doors. It is journey’s end.

I try singing Piaf’s mysterious refrain, grateful for my own
soulful silly version on the walk towards the rue Henri-Barbusse,
a short slice of street named for a revolutionary
or was he a pirate philosopher?

Tired and cheered outside my American language, I am
puzzled with the battered glamour of this city
built for electric illuminations, swift flirtations,
as I follow the paths to dead poets shaped in solemn statuary
harboring the austere lawns of the Jardin du Luxembourg.

—Patricia Spears Jones

Autumn, New York, 1999

And I am full of worry I wrote to a friend
Worry, she replied about what—love, money, health?
All of them, I wrote back. It’s autumn, the air is clear
and you hear death music—the rattle of leaves swirling
the midnight cat howling, a newborn baby’s 3 am
call for food or help or heart’s love
At the market, the green, red and yellow apples are piled high,
sweet perfume—once, I went apple picking in Massachusetts
a day of thralling beauty, my companions and I
had no desire to leave the valley—the plump trees,
the fierce pride of small town New England where a gift shop
exploded gingham, calico, silly stuffed toys
we stood within this shrine to cloying femininity of entwined hearts
and ribbons and bows like invading aliens, fascinated and appalled
and here too, people throng around the dahlias—
the last of the bright fat flowers. Open. Scentless.
It is going to be a very hard winter and we all know it in our bones
an almost atavistic memory with instruction—wear heavy clothes
horde food, drink water, stand against the wind

—Patricia Spears Jones

Beulah peel me a grape
First, Beulah has no idea where the damn grape is.
She just got her manicure and frankly could care less.
She does find the cocky Cockney cute.
But, so does that glittery Lil and well—
It’s Lil’s Big Show.

Lil has blood on her hands, and rubs in the almond
scented lotion, while she waits for that peeled grape.

Beulah pours a large portion of gin
and recalls the Minstrel shows, Bessie Smith,
chicken dinners in a picnic basket,
and a guy named Roy. He was no prince,
but a king of the bedroom rambles.

Elsewhere, boots are beating the ground, leaving
bloodied feet and untended harvests
as glass breaks across the faces of Polish Jews
and the Spanish Republicans fight black clad insurgents.
More boots, pretty, shiny, well-made boots.
“until the war” says Tom in  The Glass Menagerie.
When America  sits  in a “dark room” and watches
“until the war”.  Death’s stench rolls across
the Atlantic, a powerful fog.  Meanwhile,

The dapper heroes roam landscapes as fake
as their stage names and the heroines roll
up their stockings or sweat the chorus line  
But not
Miss Lil and the disobedient Beulah, both swaying
large hips and rolling brown eyes, generously
Awaiting a man’s tongue sucking

For Gertrude Howard (1892-1934)

—Patricia Spears Jones


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