Introducing Patricia Spears Jones
by Cynthia Hogue, Poetry Editor
It is capacious. It faces the harsh ironies of life with compassion, humor, and wisdom. Patricia Spears Jones, a New Yorker since the 1970s, writes poetry that is at times attuned, as the poems in this feature illustrate, to the music and themes of her Southern roots – that is, to the blues:
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.
As in the haunting tribute to Benny Andrews, “Aretha Franklin Sings ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus,’” included here, Spears Jones builds on the sensibilities of the blues, syncopating its lines by expanding and contracting them like breath itself in times of loss. The title poem of her third major collection, Painkiller, chants – relax / relax/ relax – but as the speaker acknowledges that, in fact “Everything hurts”; “compassion” recognizes that “what is done . . . / may not be forgiven”; and the difference between us may “simply depend on how much pain / you need to kill.” In her poetry, Spears Jones seeks truth and doesn’t look away when she finds it.
That imaginative capacity is key to her characteristic empathy for others. She is the artist, “the intellectual,” as she dubs the speaker in “Fringe of Town,” on the edge of things, observing others closely, “seeing them” in all their humanity, their suffering (even crabby bitchiness), about which she writes sympathetically. Or, as in a major poem from her second collection, Femme du Monde (2006), “Shack with Vines,” the speaker imagines the possible inhabitants of a shack she glimpses off the road, asking more questions than she can answer. Are the inhabitants alone or lonely, hungry or hurt? Perhaps there’s an old “conjure” woman who’s “crazy”? “No,” the speaker corrects herself, “she’s poor.” What Spears Jones herself conjures in these spare, tensile lines addresses not only the consequences of neglect born of poverty, but also the importance of music, art, and daily routines wherein the weary find the wherewithal for “joy.”
The very last word of the last poem here, “Seraphim,” spells it out: the sheer joy of being alive, of being “flesh,” for however long (or short) the time may be, layers the tones of the complex blues Spears Jones sings. But the poems in this feature give some sense of the sheer range of their themes – from poems analyzing class struggle, the fraught history of race in the U.S., and the damage of hardship and poverty to poems celebrating the cosmic music of love, friends both living and passed on, and survival in the real world – and are drawn for the most from the poems collected in A Lucent Fire: New & Selected (White Pines, 2015). It is an honor to include the innovative elegy for Spears Jones’ friend, Akilah Oliver, an experimental poet who is tenderly memorialized in a tribute which includes a gnomic poem within the poem – “sorted out,” as Spears Jones writes, by a playful Oliver (very much alive) on a rainy day over margaritas – the moment preserved in the homage. And it’s a thrill to include the uncollected poems – “Mermaid and Surf,” “Dzud,” and “Seraphim.” I hope this tantalizing taste of the power and glory of Spears Jones’ work will send you out looking for more!
Spears Jones has been the recipient of numerous awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Goethe Institute. She is an emeritus fellow at the Black Earth Institute. In 2017, she was awarded the prestigious Jackson Poetry Prize, which commended her poetry as follows: “In language that is simultaneously sensuous, wise-cracking, explicit, and rollicking, Spears Jones describes a world rich in beauty and longing, with pain tempered always by joy.”
Nine Poems by Patricia Spears Jones
We are at the genesis of a bolero
eyes, lips, thick kinky dreads
beds, cars, stars
a singer’s words curve
through memory and shadow
rhythms stumble and stop,
come again, the night air a willing audience.
men huddle near a long, brass bar rail,
shoes gleaming, lips smiling, eyes lit
as women, young and old, stroll past them
on their way to the powder room
las mujeres motion a dream of sand and waves
a Cuba that only the restaurant owner
and his waiters may have truly seen, heard.
late winter, rains slicking the streets of lower Manhattan,
Son Cubano’s portals reveal a theater of nostalgia,
the scent of Havana scripts so well.
And we play along
mouths flavored with rum, lime, sugar, our tongues playing
the kisses stolen game as the song phrases
a fierce sadness promised
in the wake of lust’s mercurial ascent
We flee these orchestrated memories
our hands in each other’s, our mouths hungry for each other.
Our song is bluer, harsher, North American
the rhythms African, yes, as dearly measured in drama and depth.
Our exile is internal. There is little longing
for the good old days when Havana was a mean place
for dark people, but a real fascination
for these songs and their makers.
Your arms cascade a trumpet solo, the piano’s
harmonics thrill my back.
My lips are waiting for yours.
This is our bolero
lovemaking Friday night New York City
Everybody’s from the South.
Mermaid and Surf
Looking at the modest buildings on Mermaid Avenue
The signs chatter English/Spanish/sort of Chinese
As the bright sun’s cracked rays splash walls and windows.
You see that Mermaid is where locals go to pray at a Shrine
Offering solace & recovery, buy mangos & apples & chicken
Or get their hair done by African women all the way from Timbuktu.
Surf Avenue is the boundary between neighborhood
And fun seekers’ noise & trophies & candy, beaches, bikinis & beer.
There we spy the Secret Psychic’s Shack. She’s not there to offer
Solace in the name of a soul mate desired, but she does not need
To tell us about death, which is everywhere. Hear it in the shouts of
Riders from the top of looping rides, in the Atlantic’s dark waves
And the cut flesh of burned hands of the fry cooks come for
“The American Dream,” but lately riding the night’s angry mares.
I can taste the metal
lose my desire for red meat
relax, every muscle
the time of day
I can give you
the time of day
What I talk about is how
love eludes me
No, what I talk about is
what’s wrong with me
No, what I talk about is
what will happen to me
is the secret.
What you get from me is
the edge of a trace of shadows
and that’s all you’ll get
I can’t give anymore
I don’t want to
This hurtle into living space
and that swift slide out of it.
You want secrets
I say every reckless act
results from a moment of fear.
While compassion is the simple recognition
that what is done cannot be undone,
may not be forgiven.
And a recognition that the murderer and the martyr
the adulterer and the healer can at any moment
change positions, become the other.
It simply depends on how much pain
you need to kill.
Shack With Vines
Who lives in this motley house?
Some old woman left back of
the bottom of the county.
She’s crazy. No, she’s poor.
She makes her taste of something
as bitter as the broad leaves
choking the last of life from her house.
Did she go to church each Sunday?
Pull the yellow streamers during the Maypole dance?
Learn the first four chapters of Genesis
by the age of nine?
Where is her family?
Or was there not a family?
Did she nurse the folk of the county?
Is this the conjure woman, so talked about?
Or is the resident of this dying house male?
Shotgun at his bedside, ready
to blast aside the wicked.
This is his sanctuary, this little house.
Away from the highway,
far outside of town.
Far from the many temptations of the flesh,
about which he reads repeatedly in weak daylight.
Or are there orphaned children sleeping beneath blankets,
coats, whatever warmth was left behind?
They remember electricity, hot showers, macaroni and cheese.
Scavengers in the town, their T-shirts, old jeans,
and itchy, unwashed sweaters contour skinny backs.
There they are outside the local fast food drive-in
sifting through the cast off bread and meat,
laughter tossed over the bin like an acidulent anecdote.
(from the Mongolian for extreme weather events causing massive livestock die-offs)
We are long past those pluvials – that mildness
Has left us belonging to winter. Summer grasses
Once high enough to hide the tallest child, eaten up.
The flowers that softened harsh life, no longer seed.
Storms of water. Storms of dust. Storms from the ocean.
Storms in our eyes, our mouths, our throats.
The Mongolians believe the miners are killing the land
The sky and bringing these storms – “Winter is no longer winter”
The widowed herdswoman laments. It is longer and harsher
And for profit the Chinese miners take gold that should remain
In the veins of mountains as old as first sky songs.
The people who live at the top of the world,
This close to the sun’s bright breath
First hear earth’s sorrows.
The dust on their garments has traveled
And their harsh-voiced lamentations
Are the last to be heard in the raucous valley.
Occasioned by Akilah Oliver
My Facebook Updates: February 24-25, 2010
Conversations, condolences, laughter and remembrances – loss and community come together – and rain, much rain.
2 margaritas, ice cream, tears
My mother turned 92 and she’s mad at the rain. I hope to be mad at the rain if I live that long
Look for the shimmer.
And then she sorted up a poem
Rain mad at
Shimmer look for
Margaritas, too many, not enough of
Ice cream, wrong flavor
Condolences fucking why?
Conversations rupture routine
Laughter brings her spirit through
Circumference of mortality (crying)
Laughter frames the circle (anecdotes)
Shimmer radiates frame (silver)
Rain falls rain rain rain
An Arkansas Poet (Dumas, Henry)
Play long play soft
Play long play soft
Shangguan Wan’er aka Shangguan Zhaorong: Twenty-Five Poems
upon Traveling to the Changning Princess’s Floating Wine Cup Pond
Translator (Larsen, Jeanne)
up in the mountain looking
far in a single
glance I’m struck
by the long spring’s
start teams of horses
clog the boulevards the fringe
An Arkansas Poet (Jones, Patricia Spears)
Sometimes it is good to be at the fringe of town
Just this side of the hubbub, gossip, the need to demand
Across centuries, galaxies, the rains of words
Feather the floating wine cup pond
Awaiting a poet’s lithe body ready for the
Cool drunken swim
Play ebony play soft
Play ivory play hard
Rain the words into floating wine cups’
Swim with horses on the boulevards
Up the mountain’s shaky roads
What is the color of Paradise? How would we know?
All travelers who go there stay
What need they of this world’s glory
But there may be
A possible desire to welcome those who will follow
Play play play ebony
Play soft play long
March 2, 2011
The Fringe of Town
(après Jeanne Larsen)
At the corner Laundromat, a tall light-complected woman complains
about the heat – it’s not even 70
She tells the Pakistani man to turn on the big fan.
But it blows in dust, he says.
“I don’t care,” says she
It’s not that hot. And I sit somewhere in 7th Century China
with a woman of the court writing a poem about her travels
to the Changning Princess’s Floating Wine Cup Pond.
For some reason, I read this as Changing Princess. But, why not?
Was the court woman’s journey a swift escape
from the palace heat; her tiresome duties of charm and submission?
Or merely the annual pilgrimage up a mountain
so that her descent would carry the same urgency?
Would that pond please these women bitching about the heat, that
isn’t really here?
They enjoy ordering around the skinny man who runs the
Laundromat. He’s a foil
for their husbands, supervisors, bad news boyfriends, sons-in-law, sons
who roil their lives in small ways and large.
If given the chance, would they dive into the Changing Princess’s
Floating Wine Cup Pond?
Not likely – Scary items to city dwellers:
A lack of chlorine.
The possibility of bugs.
That chaos of parties – those floating wine cups.
Sometimes it is good to be at the fringe of town
Just this side of the hubbub, gossip, the need to demand
Obeisance from a little man who is making maybe $10 an hour.
Sometimes, the search for the floating wine cup is as much fun
as drinking from it the first time – wine heavy and tart somewhat
To be the Princess who named this pond, well we can make up her
The pond’s name and festive frame that surrounds the Princess’s
Was she pretty? Was she smart? Did she catch the Emperor’s eye?
Or feel the Emperor’s hand brush her neck?
Did she piss off a scholar who could have helped her escape to a
before the cups took over her mind?
As for me, childless, husbandless, book reading- happy to observe
How these women shout a weary pride in their daily lives
Mothering so many or burying the poor men who used to hang
the corner of or organizing the fête for Friday after next
As huge washers rinse and spin and dryers remove yet another layer
I am the woman barely visible, the intellectual, the possible slut.
Not one of us will jump into the floating wine cup pond, but it is
to know that one existed centuries before at a town’s fringe.
Those centuries old breezes from China brush my neck
as we stand here folding clean underwear
& worrying about what to make for dinner.
Aretha Franklin Sings “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”
Oh glory Beneficence
Drawn many times and with such grace – self-
The way artists draw themselves – portrait.
Rules are to be broken, bent notes of a blues man’s scale
Her voice torques inconceivable tales.
His brother gone by his own hand
so many years before.
Benny’s lines brother’s portrait smudged edges where truth howls
Oh Louisiana. Oh Georgia Clay. Oh Days of Iron
Oh Nights of Smoke and Beer.
Comfort comes with yearning for a friend’s
Good talk/ easy walk around the block
Across a boulevard, into church where spirits surround
Stories rung by rung a ladder of terrors and triumphs – Black Peoples’
Lives. Into the South; out of the South, snakes on the road,
fire in their yards. Gunmen loose like small change.
Oh Lord. Oh Yes. Oh songs sung loudly.
Oh Choir, clap hand, keep time.
Succor in the revered one’s Benediction
Then out the door they go
Into bright candescence
Or dark indifference.
In memory of Benny Andrews
Once a beauty, full figured, beloved
And then a fever, sweats, water vomited
Until the body gave out. And then,
Wings and lyres and legion of other
Angels. Singing, dancing, flying about
But once a beauty remembers
Physical love and then its loss
Eternal life seems mundane
No conflict or need or desire
Thus, this Seraphim held melancholy
Gentle as a lull in a long conversation
But heaven allows only jubilance
Possibly the angel needed to return
Human: with feelings, tears and laughter
Or find a way to shape the sadness into
A moment of beauty when the angel’s wings
Spread and flight moves to breathing
Full of vision. There the angel’s tears bond
with the visitor’s fear, awe. It could be
a filmmaker’s perambulating Berlin,
in search of a reason to consider
the spirit, those angels set
on top of monuments
across the handsome city
And they love the lovers.
And one remains lovingly disinterested.
How dreams and death and a dearth
Of joy is visible. And wings spread
And wings fall. And the beloved becomes
A man who understands a woman’s
Full figure. A man who fears fever.
A man who takes his lover in all
Her melancholy and lifts her up
And unto joy.
“Mermaid and Surf” was published in “wordswelivein,” Unterberg Center 92nd Street Y, July 2016.
“Occasioned by Akilah Oliver” references and quotes Play Ebony, Play Ivory by Henry Dumas; “The Fringe of Town” by Patricia Spears Jones (also included in this selection); and Poem #9 from Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon: Women’s Poems from Tang China, translated by Jeanne Larsen.
“The Fringe of Town” riffs off Shangguan Wan‘er aka Shangguan Zhaorong’s “Twenty-Five Poems upon Traveling to the Changning Princess’s Floating Wine Cup Pond” in Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon: Women’s Poems from Tang China (Boa Editions), translated by Jeanne Larsen.
“The Seraphim” was published in The New Yorker, July 23, 2018.
Patricia Spears Jones holding the exhibition catalog from the Jacob Lawrence Migrations Series Exhibition at MOMA in 2015, for which her poem, “Lave” (© Patricia Spears Jones 2015), was commissioned. The Migration Series, a group of paintings by the African American cubist painter Jacob Lawrence depicting the migration of African Americans to the northern United States from the South, was first published in 1941 and funded by the WPA. “Lave” can be found (by permission of Patricia Spears Jones), online by clicking here.