Patricia Spears Jones grew up in Arkansas, but moved to New York City in the 1970s. Painkiller is her third collection, and the book’s elegant, empathetic poems show her flair for capturing urban life, particularly New York’s metamorphosis over the past three decades.
As poet Scott Hightower writes, “[Spears] Jones takes on the persona of a flaneuse [a stroller,] in that she grapples with understanding, participating in, and portraying the city. And the city is a living metaphor for everything the flaneuse can tell us about pain, murder, political calamity, erasure, voluptuousness, and passion…There are poems seeking justice and reciprocity.”
Spears Jones’s vision is intensely personal, as well as political. Here she is writing about Brooklyn on the website Revolutionesque:
So art often finds it way in the commonplace. Like gardens. I am grateful for the gardens of Brooklyn’s Bed Stuy—the stoops, side yards, front yards and sidewalks in my community. My neighbors like getting their nails dirty; painting planters and tires and rocks. There’s a guy that paints faux boulders in gold and silver. I think he must be West Indian. When I first came to New York, window boxes were everywhere. And throughout the East Village and the Bronx, home for decades to the city’s poorest and pluckiest citizens, community gardens thrived. But in Brooklyn, it’s-have patch of dirt, get some grass; get some flowers, get a tree. My neighbors’ connection to earth; to sun; to rain or the need for moisture makes this harsh city, livable.
That New Yorkers now sit outside bars, restaurants, and office towers is a new phenomenon of the past 3 decades. I remember when the first Scott Burton “chairs” were included in the architecture of the plazas on Sixth Avenue. This was the early 80s and mostly no one wanted “street people” sitting in the plazas. So the plazas, those chairs were as welcoming as beds of nails. Crime or the possibility of crime was part of the issue. But mostly, the corporations did not want to see/hear/smell the poor, the homeless who struck across the city in search of momentary comfort, food, some cash. Now that the city is wealthier, the homeless have gone further into the shadows, away from the plazas. They are policed in a different way. But I hear them on my street, early mornings searching for bottles and cans. At least they will see the flowers and dwarf trees and pinwheels that my neighbors set out for all to see; to share. Somewhere in this culture, there has to be some generosity. There has to be something that aspires to joy.
I love this short piece because it’s captures the author’s sensibility as a writer. Yes. She has the ability to elegantly express a single moment in time, but she isn’t content to stop there. Spears Jones will also zoom out and show us how that singular moment ripples out into the large culture. She wants to understand the why behind what she has witnessed.
Spears Jones is a bold poet, one who believes in poetry’s “capacity to pack a BIG WALLOP in so small a space.”
“There has been a lot of discussion about where poetry is in the marketplace, but I think that’s not what should worry poets,” Jones writes on the Poetry Foundation website:
I agree with much of the argument from Tim Seibles in “An Open Letter” from his collection Hammerlock:
I hear about what poets and poetry can do: Poetry will never reach the general public. Poetry will not succeed if it’s excessively imaginative. Poetry can’t change anything. . . . I used to believe these notions were born of thoughtful consideration and humility, but now I see them as a kind of preemptive apology, a small-hearted justification for the writing of a hobbled poetry. He goes on to ask Why not a sublimely reckless poetry—when the ascendant social order permits nearly every type of corruption and related hypocrisy? Why not risk more and more?
Why not risk more and more? Like every art, poets have to learn craft; have to know something of what went before; have to have respect speech. And we need to take cues from the courage, and brilliance of our literary progenitors, no matter what their genre. Just think of Frederick Douglass’—not a poet, but truly one of our great writers—in his Narrative describing how he learned to read and write and how important literacy is to liberation, to humanity fulfilled.
Why are we not risking more in our art?
I’ve chosen five poems from Painkiller to share with you today.
Serendipitously, this post is appearing the day before Patricia Spears Jones’s birthday. Happy birthday, Patricia!
All Saints Day, 2001
The floating lights ofthe emergency vehicles circle wind .
We walk immune to Sirens shrieking.
What if the circling lights were pink or yellow, not blue and white?
Who is the Saint of fog?
Who is the Saint of
our city decelerated in thick humidity, intemperate heat?
Who is the Saint of
smiling eyed pretty girls wearing tiny heeled shoes and short skirts
prowling loud pubs on 2nd avenue or the gray hooded Black guys
smoking weed, talking trash in the shadows of Grand Central?
Who is the Saint of
the Black woman in the pizza parlor who, after too many noise complaints
unheeded, declares I own a 9 millimeter, legal,
if I shoot your dog what are you going to do about it?
Who is the Saint of
the boys in my “hood”
who call each other “son”
peer to peer father to father.
Where’s the good old days?
Is this the new catechism
and where is the handsome priest to answer?
By rote : do we sing a possible peace?
Shall we venture into this destroyed world thinking
charm, glee, proverbial opportunity
Shall we gather the names of the lost
then watch them float like feathers on the dirty wind
Shall we gather at the altars of old gods
and whine about our lives
Shall we watch the shadows watch us back
Now that clocks pulse instead of tick
are the streets safer for the wretched, the damned?
In what cinema are the dreams of mass destruction
so dear as ours?
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.
What I Have Not Done for Love
I have not torn my hair in a public place
Or worn a dress the size of a dime
Once I spoke in a French accent, but it sounded
I have not denounced my family
or let the back of my hand slap a cousin’s cheek
I have not found the perfect strand of pearls
Or made a gift of sudden beauty
I have yet to consult
the Fortune Telling Chicken
I admit a fondness Jack Daniels and Cosmopolitans
And the ease with which Arkansas wrecks my
my quick New York speech
On nights when stars brightly pattern the Brooklyn sky
I search for your hand and find a drift of wind.
Beloved of God
Dixie cups and bullet marks—a man’s body gone to the morgue,
tiny bombs exploding limbs, organs. Bullet marks and Dixie cups.
A winter scene suddenly hot with summertime choler.
A young man’s gone to Paradise.
His body is bomb site.
His assassins out of breath, out of control, out of depth.
What was there, what scent? One night
one light going out, one noise that did not sound right.
41 bullets across the plane of his body. 41 bullets scattered dust and the smell of snow.
Alive, thinking about what–the rent,
a party, the pretty girls that did or did not smile his way.
Then the fusillade.
Amadou, Amadeus, Beloved of God. Gone to Africa, back to glory.
The fusillade . Beloved of God. Young men, young women shout your name.
Justice plucks off her dirty blindfold, joins the hue and cry.
Beloved of God. Prince of the city. Scion of Africa.
Sweet face. Hardworking. Laughing. Friendly. Biding his time.
Dixie cups cloak the breathe of damage, the depth of duty
four white men walking away. Alive. Bullets spent
What rent their good sense from finger on the trigger?
The easy gift of gun and badge?
Light bulb shatters. Someone falls as if shot. Another shoots
and this young man whispers I am free here. I am free here.
His mother will bring her sweet voice, her steely spine and her beautiful angry eyes
to bear on the city he had grown to call home. Beloved of God. Bombed body.
His father will shelter his final journey back to Africa in a shroud of pride and rage.
Beloved of God.
Gone to glory. Gone to Paradise.
Away from this most predictable of American stories-e.
41 times across the hardscrabble of a Bronx street, bullets patter
like marbles, four killers walk away, tears in their eyes, perhaps.
Justice , re-knots her dirty blindfold across dull eyes,
giving them room to breathe—
A Black man dead,
Four white men walking home
Last day of Passover, April 2006
It is one of those soft days, girls are snapping gum
And flinging their scent-
Boys look their way defiant interested and if you see them at a certain angle terrified.
Oh New York City, eternal dramas of teenagers in love lust mad
Money in this whirl
And their Mamas and Papis tired. Long days at the MTA the office the factory
That will close sometime next year globalization builds up one set of poor people
Tears down another.
And why am I listening to Milton Nascimento unfolding a silk curtain
of sounds Brazil, the late 1970s the world dreams a freedom
for Africans in the New World,
north and south and Milton is one
to sing those dreams to me. Oh Saxophone. Oh Trumpets.
Oh rhythms Southern African Indian the New World honored.
Oh first kisses and last goodbyes.
I pray for friends in grief their Mamas and Papis sick and dying.
I pray for my own heart stunned too often by love’s promise, then
Left to heal somehow.
I pray for you now gone, more than a year.
Many days and nights long ago, we parted
Our New Orleans washed away
Someone some where bum some sage for me
Drums liberate senses remember
Spring is the season that demands an abandonment of innocence;
Demands we tease out sadness from our petty hormonal clowning
Demand we walk among the ghosts our hopes
Calling fierce names, soft names, loved names, lost names
In language as liquid as Portuguese or as supple as English.
In memory of Ahmos Zu-Bolton
About Patricia Spears Jones
Patricia Spears Jones is a poet, playwright, and cultural commentator. She is author of Painkiller and Femme du Monde (Tia Chucha Press) and The Weather That Kills (Coffee House Press) and three chapbooks, most recently Swimming to America (Red Glass Books) and two plays commissioned and produced by Mabou Mines, the internationally acclaimed experimental theater group.
Her poems are anthologized in Angles of Ascent; Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry; Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days; Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn; Best American Poetry, 2000 and Blood and Tears: Poems for Matthew Shepard. Recent online and print publications include Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, EOAGH, African Voices, The Southampton Review, The Same, The Oxford American, Barrow Street, The Black Scholar; PMS #8, TriQuarterly, Black Renaissance Noire, Bomb, and Court Green.
She is editor and contributor to Thirty Days Hath September, a blog project for Black Earth Institute, Think: Poems for Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Day Hat; and Ordinary Women: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women (Ordinary Women Press). She is a contributing editor to Bomb Magazine. Art, theater, poetry and music essays, reviews and interviews can be found at tribes.org; Bomb, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Black Issues Book Review, The Boston Globe, and Essence and Essence.com. Her “Cosmopolitan in Brooklyn” columns (2006-2009) are archived at calabarmagazine.com. She has been guest blogger for The Poetry Foundation, The Tidal Basin Review and for cultureID.com.
She has received awards from The Foundation of Contemporary Art and The New York Community Trust, the Goethe Institute for travel and research in Germany and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is a senior fellow with the Black Earth Institute, a progressive think tank and has been a fellow at Yaddo, Bread Loaf, the Millay Colony, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Her lectures, poetry workshops, and panel presentations include AWP; Poets House; University of Maine, Orono; University of New Hampshire; Simmons College; Chicago State University, LaGuardia Community College and Medgar Evers College (CUNY); Woodland Pattern, The New School; University of Rhode Island; Pine Manor College; St, Mark’s Poetry Project (where she was a Program Coordinator); Naropa University, Manhattanville College and for Cave Canem in New York City. She has taught at Parsons, New School University; Queens College, and The College of New Rochelle.
A native of Arkansas, Patricia Spears Jones lives in New York City. For more information about Patricia and her work, please visit her website.
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All poems © Patricia Spears Jones. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in Painkiller (Tia Chucha Press, 2010) and were reprinted with permission from the author.