Book Review: VESSEL by Parneshia Jones

 photo 8e6e90e0-1b35-41fd-8a1a-a373c328de59_zpstlqiaws1.jpg Vessel
Poems by Parneshia Jones
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

the keeper of ash and memory,
curtsies and curiosity,
Easter poems, skinned knees,
polyester, silk, and calamity
– “Girl”

Parneshia Jones’s debut poetry collection begins with a girl who grows before our eyes into a woman who serves as a singular vessel for family, racial, and cultural histories. In fact, women are the stars and influences across these poems; “Lesson Plan” serves as a sort of ars poetica for the collection when Jones writes:

You are meant to have a daughter.
You are meant to pass on all your women.
Speak all the women of you loudly—speak them with purpose.

Perhaps due to these intentions, the most successful poems of this collection are those where Jones tackles moments of historical importance. In one haunting poem, “Georgia on My Mind,” Jones memorializes the child victims of the 1979-1982 Atlanta murders. The children’s voices comprise a Greek chorus begging the reader, “Remember us” before the poem culminates in the explosive image of “the sounds of [their] fathers’ hearts on fire,/ and [their] mother’s wombs bursting.” Her ode to the Affrilachian Poets, “Legend of the Buffalo Poets” stampedes toward the startling visual of “a trail buffaloed black.” She writes to Marvin Gaye in the poem “Milk and Honey,” “some parts of you couldn’t be saved/ by your mama or the music,” attempting to heal the wounds of a grieving public in redeeming the tragedies he lived. Jones’s voice in these poems is clear and strong, ready to ensure Black lives and stories of Black culture are a vibrant, prominent part of American poetry.

At times, her more personal poems are bogged down in narrative or delivered in an obvious way. For instance, “Bra Shopping” sounds as though it was written out in prose and then simply had line breaks inserted. One wonders if some of these stories might come across more successfully and with more complexity as essays rather than poems – with more space to make connections and build on threads of image and metaphor. Even in these poems, though, Jones is plainspoken and sure. She lives by the call from Kwame Dawes and other poets that we should use only the most natural language to create our poems.

Sixteen: I am a jeans a T-shirt wearing tomboy
who could think a few million more places to be
instead of in the department store, with my mother,
bra shopping.

Due to its line breaks and use of commas, the poem comes across to us in the natural cadence of Jones’s voice – we can almost hear her speaking the words to us.

On the whole, though, this collection is built of poems that wholeheartedly inhabit their metaphors and music. “For the Basement Parties at the YMCA” seems the love child of Marie Howe’s “Practicing” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” – a nearly wistful recollection told over the rhythmic bump of Lenny Kravitz. Parneshia Jones has gifted us a new anthem, stories of Black lives that aren’t commonly given space in literature. Her “Litany: Chicago Summers” offers a detailed portrayal of growing up in Chicago.

We are hallways of crying babies,
simmering neck-bones, sirens
across the ceiling’s midnight…

We play in our shadows.
We are the televised, Technicolor,
inside-out dreams.

The refrain of “We” returns later in “Auto-Correcting History” when Jones offers – no, demands – a bright future for Black children everywhere. Speaking her stories loudly, she is ready to walk forward.

We are real and breathing.
We are hungry and rewriting dictionaries.
We are poets and presidents.
We have made it known that his name,
our names, every black letter birthed
from the blinking cursor is permanent
and correct.


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