Rodney Jones’s career in poetry has rooted itself in the South, the region that bore and educated him, but, like all the South’s best writers, he has ignored the stereotypes and instead draws on what he knows to be true. Place is important in the South, as are race and religion and family and the past, and, as Jones has noted in his poetry, language is most important of all. The poems of Salvation Blues, drawn from Jones’s work over the past twenty years, demonstrate his ability to fuse all these verities to make his own truths about the world and to make them in his own unmistakable voice.
Voice is what readers mark first in Jones’s work. Poet Kate Daniels has called it the voice of the southern human being. It is vivid and direct; its diction is that of the everyday world. Its occasional flights into loftier territories are made with care, as are its plunges into lower realms. In the six volumes and selected new poems represented in Salvation Blues, Jones always controls his effects. In “Moment of Whitman,” for example (from 1993’s Apocalyptic Narrative), the speaker begins “Coming down Sand Mountain . . .” and then cites the various influences on his mood: “cosmic aphasia after a spat” along with “a staticky Jonathan Winters tape.” At that moment he sees a group of worshippers leaving a church, a population that becomes Whitmanesque as Jones describes them, their coats and ties, their “matching purses and shoes,” their assorted work: “Ex-coaches of insurance salesmen and guidance counselors,/ Architects plotting the aesthetics of Alabama savings & loans, great flocculent femme fatales/ Trailing the mountainous sexual wonder of sixteen-year-old boys.”
The assortment makes the speaker think of poet Walt Whitman’s expansive vision of Americans even while he is also wondering if some of these churchgoers were not part of a Klan rally he had observed two weeks before. Perhaps, he thinks, that close observation inevitably shatters the great vision, an idea that remains with him as he stops to look at a waterfall (perhaps the often-advertised Ruby Falls near Chattanooga, Tennessee) painted on a barn and meditates on the water, which is pictured both as a “transfiguring stalk” and as fragmented into a tangle of little streams. From exaggerated “flocculent femme fatales” to the ordinary “piedmont of fescue, Anguses, and machines,” Jones’s voice is at the same time approachable, marked with an ironic humor, and colored by his awareness of the poisons that can lie beneath the picture’s surface.
Perhaps the singular awareness of place is the quality that marks southern writers most insistently. “Where you from?” is after all the basic question of introduction in the South (it is an opening item in Jones’s “Elegy for the Southern Drawl”), suggesting that one’s home place defines who one is. The poems of this collection are packed with place. In “Sweep,” for example, the reader is at the Shell station with the speaker as one of the two Garnett brothers works on the speaker’s Volvo, leading the speaker into a reverie on what his life might have been like had he stayed here. Instead, because “I don’t get home much anymore,” he is drawn to notice each tiny change in the place and in his people as they age toward death: An aunt has cancer; a local man will shoot himself on a country road.
As with the Garnett brothers, much of Jones’s sense of place is rooted in the South’s people. In “Risks,” he sketches the history of a local boy who enters adolescence as a hellion and ends in prison. When he describes a pair of country girls who teeter on the edge of maturity, he locates them specifically: “Two Girls at the Hartselle, Alabama, Municipal Swimming Pool.”
Despite its burgeoning cities like Atlanta, Georgia, or Charlotte, North Carolina, the South is still essentially rural in the poet’s imagination, and many of his poems reflect his rural past. “Mule” describes that icon of the rural South, “this horse from a bad family, hating his burden and snaffle. . . .” “Nell” records how his father broke a horse to harness, a slow process that ends when the animal becomes inured to the narrow routines that will make up all of her future life. In “The First Birth,” the speaker recalls himself as an adolescent helping a heifer give birth, the first he has ever seen; meanwhile, his imagination lingers on the momentous events described in Giants of Science, the book he has been reading.
“TV” offers the history of television’s arrival in the valley, ending an older age of sociability as the new viewers retreat into their houses. Although it may be tempting to think of...
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