The Poems

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cornelius Eady’s The Autobiography of a Jukebox consists of four parts: “Home Front,” “Rodney King Blues,” “The Bruise of the Lyric,” and “Small Moments.” While the poems could easily be read as autobiographical scenes, they may also be somewhat fictionalized. The poems are written in free verse and produce strongly focused images. They describe women coping with the tensions of economic concerns and emotionally unstable relationships; a cousin who is a “crackhead”; a woman who begs in a dangerous part of town for shopping money; and a father who loves the poet’s sister so much that he must beat her with a belt. This paternal ambivalence echoes when the father also fells a large tree that, the mother says, may have invaded the foundations of their house. The poems offer no answers and no analyses; they draw readers into reflection upon such ambivalence.

The rest of the poetry in “Home Front” deals with relationships. The father threatens to leave. The mother and sister leave indeed, and the narrator speculates about feelings that his father does not show when he sees the empty house. Two poems focus on men standing up for themselves. The speaker’s father responds to a racially charged incident, and his grandfather calmly stands on his own land with shotgun in hand while resisting the badgering of officials. Such actions also explain the hardness of the characters.

Several poems in “Rodney King Blues” reveal the narrator’s feelings of anger about the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991 and about the riots that broke out in 1992 after the officers were tried and found not guilty. The poems also deal with people who lost property to the riots, a truck driver who was assaulted by a mob during the riots, double-talk that sought to justify the officer’s actions, and the helpless feeling of being a victim in the inner city. Eady isolates from these events several sharply focused scenes whose verisimilitude pulls readers into the genuine turmoil of life without engaging in tedious moralizing.

“The Bruise of the Lyric” introduces pictures of musical artists, each one drawn in words. John Coltrane and Kenny Burrell’s jazz piece “Why Was I Born?” is redrawn in Eady’s words. Percussionist Max Roach is pictured in words. “Miles Davis at Lennies-on-the-Turnpike” contains the memorable words “Death is one hell/ Of a pickpocket.” Eady commemorates Dexter Gordon’s saxophone, Milt Jackson’s vibraphone, Eric Dolphy’s saxophone, and Chuck Berry’s “frenzy of the word go”—in the singer’s “Johnny B. Goode”—as well as his jukebox point of view in “Roll Over Beethoven.”

“Small Moments” builds details taken from everyday life into...

(The entire section is 1136 words.)

The Autobiography of a Jukebox Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Eady, Cornelius. “Cornelius Eady.” Interview by Patricia Spears Jones. BOMB 79 (Spring, 2002): 48-54. Discusses the relationship between Eady’s poetry and classical Greek theater.

Eady, Cornelius. “Cornelius Eady: Lyric and Dramatic Imagination.” Interview by Reamy Jansen. The Bloomsbury Review 22, no. 1 (January/February, 2002): 3-11. Includes a useful discussion of Eady’s purpose in the “Small Moments” section of The Autobiography of a Jukebox.

Peters, Erskine. “Cornelius Eady’s You Don’t Miss Your Water: Its Womanist/Feminist Perspective.” Journal of African American Men 2, no. 1 (Summer, 1996): 15-31. Discusses Eady through the lens of African American feminism (a branch of feminism for which Alice Walker coined the phrase “womanist”).

Trethewey, Natasha. “A Profile of Cornelius Eady.” Ploughshares 28, no. 1 (Spring, 2002): 193-197. Includes a brief biography of Cornelius Eady, as well as a general discussion of his work by Trethewey, a fellow poet.