February 24, 2017
Magic City Gospel
by Ashley M. Jones
Hub City Press, 2017
by José Angel Araguz
About José Angel Araguz
JOSÉ ANGEL ARAGUZ is a CantoMundo fellow and the author of six chapbooks as well as the collection Everything We Think We Hear (Floricanto Press). His poems, prose, and reviews have appeared in RHINO Poetry, New South, and The Volta Blog. A current PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence. A second collection, Small Fires, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press. https://thefridayinfluence.wordpress.com/.
In a foreword to a selection of her work, Adrienne Rich offers the following reflection on her early writing life: “The learning of poetic craft was much easier than knowing what to do with it—with the powers, temptations, privileges, potential deceptions, and two-edged weapons of language” (emphasis mine). These words come to mind reading Ashley M. Jones’s Magic City Gospel, a debut collection whose poems repeatedly answer the call of “what to do with it” by placing poetic craft in the service of empathy.
In “Viewing a KKK Uniform at the Civil Rights Institute,” for example, Jones meditates on a physical manifestation of history. The poem begins:
All you can really tell at first
is that it was starched.
Some Betty Sue, Marge, Jane,
some proper girl
with a great black iron
made those corners sharp.
The tone here is intimate: the use of the second person places evokes the feeling of the speaker addressing the reader as if they stood side by side. This atmosphere of closeness is mirrored in the poem’s attempt to try to see into the humanity behind a uniform tied to so much inhumanity. In gauging what the eyes “can really tell at first,” the speaker begins the difficult task of facing not just history but what history represents, the people and acts behind dates and names. The speaker’s act of literal viewing takes a turn by the end:
In front of it, you are dwarfed—
you imagine a pair of pupils
behind the empty holes
of the mask.
Behind the stiff cotton,
would the eyes squint
to see through small white slits,
or would they open wide
as a burning house
to hunt you down
until you pooled
like old rope
This move from viewing to being viewed, which at the core is empathetic, is a troubled one; it as if the more history is viewed straight-on, the more one can feel something look back. Poetic craft here is used to push against this “viewing,” and the result is a speaker pushed back upon themselves, falling into a question rendered in clipped, urgent lines. That this poem ends on a question feels inevitable; history offers no answers, only presence, which in this case takes the shape of the speaker and the uniform being viewed. The image of a “pooled / old rope” mirrors the tension released by the end of the poem, and affirms, in both tone and voice, how this poem’s reckoning with history occurs on a personal level. Yet, while the imagery of these last lines releases the reader, its questioning lingers for both speaker and reader.
This ambition to have poetic craft serve as a medium for personal connection while respecting the complexity of a given moment is at the heart of the collection. In “Salat Behind Al’s Mediterranean and American Food,” this ambition plays out in a scene of cultural confluence:
This evening, in Birmingham,
when I’m meeting a friend
for fried chicken
you prostrate before God
on a piece of cardboard box
in the back alley.
Beside you, there is a dumpster
and onion skins.
The shells of dead cockroaches
bend and crackle
under your knees. Even they pray.
The speaker here is acting as lyric witness, describing a scene in order to understand it. Within the elasticity of the short lyric, Birmingham is presented in all its details: friendship, poetry, God, prayers in a back alley. Where the details commune, however, is in sounds: the varying s-sounds, from hard to soft, in “whispering styrofoam,” “skins,” and “shells,” mix with the hard c-sounds of “cockroaches” and “crackle,” only to give over to the open-ended vowel of “pray.” In this way, a poem about prayer becomes a pseudo-prayer itself, one honoring a moment of understanding and people seeing one another, and of a city existing as a living entity.
In “Teaching J to Read,” a similar gesture of empathy occurs over a reading lesson, only instead of meeting, the poem focuses on missed connections:
I don’t know how to begin,
how to explain that A means A,
that B isn’t Beaver
but simply B,
the second drawing
in a series of twenty-six.
I am useless, like an after-school special—
here, there is no purple dinosaur,
no sparkle in our smiles,
no bell-toned music to montage this away.
The humility of admitting not knowing “how to begin” in teaching literacy is amplified in a poem, an art made up of language and meaning. The impulse for metaphor inherent in poetry is present a few lines down in the speaker’s description of the letter B as being “simply B, / the second drawing / in a series of twenty-six.” The word “drawing” brings us back to art, which then brings us back to the speaker’s struggle to connect. When the speaker describes themselves as “useless, like an after-school special,” they are placing themselves in the list of ultimately unhelpful attempts to connect their student with language. The struggle of not connecting, of having language fall flat, has implications beyond the lesson. The poem ends by describing how:
He loses his name
in the sprawling alphabet—
the surest letter is the first: J.
This is the dark curve
that marks him,
and, even now,
I can’t remember the letters
The loss of self here on the part of the student mirrors the experience of the speaker; in reaching out to this student, the speaker risks over-reaching and losing their sense of self as a teacher. Yet, this risk and surrender are the marks of a committed teacher as much as a committed student. When the speaker admits to not being able to “remember the letters / that follow” the J of the title, it is bittersweet; the loss of the student’s name in the speaker’s memory echoes the student’s struggle to write it in the first place. This loss also implies what is at stake: what matters in this lesson are the personal (mis)connections engaged in the learning of the language itself. Assessing the price paid, in the form of a poem, puts poetic craft in the service of empathizing with the self.
As has been noted, this collection is strongest when it brings together its elements and honors their complexity. From the weaving of a Sam Cooke song into a childhood memory (“Sam Cooke Sings to Me When I am Afraid”) to the reimagining of American history via the relationship between Ike and Tina Turner (“(I’m Blue) The Gong Song, or, America the Beautiful”), these poems have a great capacity for doing the work of connecting the personal and political. In this latter poem, Jones gives us a prose poem in the voice of Ike Tuner, who asks:
“The conquering is never really done, is it? Natives, America, Anna Mae—all that voyaging fruit needs taming. What good is an explorer if he doesn’t keep his discoveries down?”
Magic City Gospel stands as a testament of the good a poet-as-explorer can do when they share their discoveries and let them rise and be.