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At the Service Entrance: Stephen Jonas

Stephen Jonas, Selected Poems, cover

I’m of the opinion that every poet should be in possession of a “go to” book in their toolbox, a book that keeps on giving long after the initial read. A puzzling, perplexing, difficult to discern type of book, a book resisting definition; and yet, in the resistance, some thing within the working of the language keeps calling you back to the words, calling you back like addiction did to Pookie, played by Chris Rock, in New Jack City, as evident with the infamous line, “that shit be calling me, man.” But you keep returning until you feel the euphoria of the thing the poet was trying to convey, both aesthetically and content-wise. This book with that thing, for me, features a man on the front cover, and it’s very challenging to distinguish whether this person is Black, Latino, Irish, Italian or biracial; in other words, the person is resisting definition. Slightly hunched over, the left hand gripping the right, which clutches a cigarette between fore and middle finger, he drags hard on the nicotine. Stephan Jonas Selected Poems Including Exercises for the Ear is the book. I first became aware of this book while in a PhD program at SUNY Albany. The poet and translator Pierre Joris, my dissertation chair, recommended I read Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism by Aldon Neilson, which explores “the farthest reaches of black creative experimentation in words and music.” The book pays attention to known and overlooked writers that operate in avant garde and experimental modes, helping to develop and inform the Black radical tradition.

Jonas doesn’t just write poetry. His work tightropes the fringes of narration while resisting a singular mode or aesthetic that he can be grouped in. The poems are more in the vein of musical compositions, where the reader becomes the instrument through which sound and language are critical in conveying meaning and thought. Jonas makes the poem much more than telling you what you know, or saying it plain and clear—he resists simplicity, giving the reader an experience rather than immediate feel-good moments. In the reading of this poet, I am always forced to focus on every word-utterance, every line break, every end-word, and when I do—the poem becomes a living thing. It was through these poetic compositions that I came to coin the term “ghost enjambment,” based off of Jonas’s work. For me, ghost enjambment is the relationship end-words have to the poem. What I am getting at is, the line can act as a stand-alone entity, yet also be an apparition with a meaning that evaporates into what comes before and after the illusion. For example, consider this excerpt from Exercises CXVII:

once i saw Bird so high
       that he came winging’
            over from the apple
            w/ a busted foot & a gig
      to make a roll-a-way
he came in a chorus
     from a wheelchair &
      just made the bridge
on one wheel
            oh. Man the hippies…..

Because of my life experiences, of growing up in a segregated Birmingham, Alabama, my personal engagement with racism and race, being separated from my mother at birth because I was a premature baby and had to stay in the white ward after my birth while my mother was prevented from seeing or visiting or holding her child for 11 freakin days, or sleeping in a crib in the Smithfield section of Birmingham as a bomb went off at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killing four little girls and rocked my cradle—understanding the proletariat nature of my existences and having been incarcerated—I’ve always entered human discourse through the service entrance, that place relegated to the domestics, the ones being erased, slowly, methodically.

With my entrance came an ideology intent on destroying that which tried to mold and shape me into some “thing” I did not want to be, and was not. This manifested itself in many ways from choosing, or better yet, rejecting a narrative where I had to work a nine-to-five, wear argyle socks and button-down shirts and become a euro-clone to participate in the grand experiment that is America. I discovered the art of smuggling kilos of cocaine from Eleuthera, Bahamas, the midway point between South America and Miami. In my mind, at the time, I justified my smuggling activities as a resistance to what society said I had to be, what society had conditioned me to accept. I now know this behavior was wrong, a setup like most “things” born through a capitalistic and colonial mindset. But you can’t put the rabbit back in the hat after you’ve made it disappear and reappear, you can’t un-fire the gun or recoil the lash of the whip, even the jack-in-the-box that gets returned to the box has a propensity to pop back out, anytime, unannounced. What I mean is, I decided to focus this renegade energy through language and creative sketches of writing that would make me feel like I am deconstructing and breaking down the barriers and shackles that once chained me to a way of thinking. When I read the section CVIII from Jonas, I knew this was the book that would change my life:

         i have come to
chew up yr language
to make more palatable
the L’s & collaterals
            (at the service

I was recently on of a panel at the Gwendolyn Brooks Conference for Black Literature & Writing with the poet/artist/performer avery r. young, who put into perspective what Jonas’s book meant/means to me. Toni Asante Lighfoot, the moderator of the panel, asked the question: where do we see Black poetics headed in the twenty-first century? While most answers centered on the various opportunities available to poets of color, avery spoke of changing a mindset, a way of rethinking the validation of one’s particular place in this literary tradition. He said, “the masterpiece is a ‘massa’ piece in massa’s head, understood by massa’s people.” What better way to destroy this concept than walking back through the service entrance and creating an existence where the collective (we) can be everything and then nothing at all, at the same time, without recourse or risk of categorization. I am reminded through Jonas’s works, always, that to be a poet, by its mere definition means not only to resist definition but to do it unapologetically through a thing that changes the reader’s life. Dear Reader & Poets, I will leave you this excerpt from section IV by Jonas:

Poets barred
from Plato’s utopia
take pleasure in yr
Originally Published: October 23rd, 2018

Randall Horton is the author of the poetry collections Pitch Dark Anarchy (Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press, 2013), The Definition of Place (Main Street Rag, 2010), and The Lingua France of Ninth Street (Main Street Rag, 2009). His honors include the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in...