(Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2015)
Parneshia Jones’s poetry collection Vessel celebrates life with story and with lyric. Jones grew up an African-American girl in Chicago, and these reflective poems carve out for the reader a portrait of a life and a portrait of a community. One of the early poems in the volume, “Naiad,” depicts a little girl’s love of and identification with water: “I spoke indigo in my prayers, / praying for family and fins, / hoping my knobby brown knees / would morph into sienna scales / with fins of fuschia.” The adult poet wishes for the language of the sea that the little girl was able to learn from the water, “the taste of a saltwater speech.” Other moments of girlhood also punctuate the poetry. “Girl,” the autobiographical first poem of the volume, sets the stage for the personal poems that are to follow. Here, the popular music of the ’70s and ‘80s forms the atmosphere of sound and make-believe that creates a world for a young girl to inhabit: “Singing off-key, flowing T-shirt hair, / microphone brush and missing front teeth. / Jackson 5, Culture Club, Whitney Houston, / Deniece Williams back up the deep- / voiced, juke joint, Midwestern-raised / Girl.”
As endearing as the poems of her childhood are, what hit with the lightning-stroke of authenticity are the poems illustrating a world of people known and sometimes loved, the tales of others, often family members. Memories of a grandmother in “Blink” give us an unforgettable rendering of this grandmother who lost her memory and found refuge in a church that may have paradoxically silenced her in her need to cry out at her loss:
She wakes up beautiful but scared,
forgetting names and misplacing thoughts.
Uncontrollable tempers and public tantrums,
I beg her to think back to yesterday,
back two seconds ago. She turns away from me.
I am a stranger.
[. . .]
Has the Baptist Sunday séance
smothered my grandmother
like a muzzle, keeping her from yelling
for help, yelling her awful truth, screaming
for her sanity?
The last lines of the poem ring with the heart-felt wish of the poet to offer the grandmother her own gift of salvation: “I still want to believe she is in there. / I want to take the last of her, / plant her in my heart and let her / bloom again, happy, saved.” It is in these poems of others that Jones gives us her best, when the pages fill with stories of lives often troubled and always sharp in the remembrance of the writer.
In “O. W. Starling” Jones also gives us a grandfather. Here, we are presented the era of big bands, bars, whiskey, and cigars. Time and place are rendered with enough detail to make us feel the milieu and the man. Fired at us staccato, and with the swinging movements of jazz, are the images: “Long gone are days of hurry, / big band, / double shots, / back alley, / breakfast at midnight, / round the clock, / round the bar, / indigo, / shotgun, / shimmy, / shake down.” Memories of a grandmother appear again in “Dream Catcher,” this time in the reminiscences of a woman caressing the poet as if she were a child under the comfort of a family-made quilt. Elsewhere, a patient stepfather—described as an actor in a play he was not originally cast in—steps up to take a role in the family: “You showed up, without rehearsal, / no direction given on how to make / two children from another father your own. / You came prepared to love what you didn’t start.” But also in the volume Jones does not neglect the darker side of families, the inevitable person who brings misery to those around him. “Bitter Smell of Ashes” is addressed to a great uncle whose family at his funeral refuses to mourn the angry and abusive man that he was: “Your wife knew the tyrant / striking your life lines across her face- / fingers roped around her throat, / the noose of your marriage / loosens, setting her free.” True to life, bitterness can envelope the members of a family, and the poem balances the volume with human reality.
Nonetheless, sometimes there is also pure joy. A family gathering in the Mississippi Delta is the subject of “Congregation,” and appetizing descriptions of the food and the people at the gathering draw us in: “Lard sizzles a sermon from the stove, / frying uncle’s morning catch into gold-plated, / cornmeal catfish. Biscuits bigger than a grown / man’s fist center the Chantilly-laced table / of yams, black-eyed peas over rice and / pineapple, pointing-upside down, cake.” The participants “eat, pray, fuss, and laugh” at this family party. Furthering the celebration of food in the volume, “Chicago-Style Italian Beef” revels in the culinary delights of visiting an Italian café. The sensual pleasures of the food and the near-spiritual experience of taking part in the flavors of another continent are given liberally: “Razor the beef into whispers, / cascading into a baptism of its own broth. / Get the Italian roll drunk in au jus, pile it with beef / until the wet seams start to give way.”
The volume also contains poems on love and other artists, among others. There are poems inhabited by poets Mitchell L. H. Douglas, Frank X. Walker, and Sylvia Plath, dancer Josephine Baker, and blues and jazz musician Donny Hathaway. Overall, Vessel compels us because it is genuine. The poetry of people makes this collection come alive, and the people she has known personally and placed here make it all the more compelling. Vessel is a real slice of the poet’s life. And its powers of music and of narrative invite us into its pages.
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Jane Frazier is an Associate Professor of English at Lincoln University of Missouri. She has published critical articles as well as a book on the poetry of W.S. Merwin, From Origin to Ecology: Nature and the Poetry of W. S. Merwin, 1999, Associated University Presses. She is on the editorial advisory board for Merwin Studies, an online journal dedicated to the study of the work of W. S. Merwin. Dr. Frazier has also published poetry in over twenty journals including Orbis and Prism International.