by Rodney Jones
Rodney Jones has used abrupt and sometimes jarring turns in his poems from early on, setting the challenge to himself of integrating them into the movements of the poems as wholes, so that they maintain cracked veneers but also a deeper, usually thematic unity. Maybe the most violent example comes in “First Coca-Cola,” with the shift from a scene of drinking the soda to an electric chair death, and the most transcendental at the end of “Song of Affirmation,” with the shift from existential to “Almighty is the god.” “Dangers” is the poem that seems the most composed of them. It could be argued that there are lots of turns within the poem, but I’ll focus on four that do the most to bring us to a place of greater and also more contingent faith in language, which seems so often to be his goal.
The poem’s first section is kind of a condensed autobiography, a little reminiscent of “In the Waiting Room” in that omniscience toward the character of the speaker before it changes. Bishop gives us “I was too shy to stop,” and Jones offers a litany of tendencies that show a basic hesitation, a failure to achieve the superlative. He also uses “shy,” describing the speaker’s behavior “[a]mong the crew-cut Cupids bristling at the armory’s weekend dances,” but suggests another quality lingering behind that one with “shifty,” setting us up for the first turn, from that catalogue to the accident. There, the poem changes tone and maybe even genre, from the list form that began it to a story that has a hint of James Wright, with its doomed youth, and maybe more of James Dean:
. . .we leapt forward that night out of control
And pinned to the seats of Tyler Wilson’s outlandishly unstock Ford
While, from the opposite side of the valley, scalding in each curve, came the black din
And brunt of Sonny Walker’s highjacker Chevrolet, everyone screaming
And bearing down to be first across the bridge at Hurricane Creek.
We get the cinematic sort of cutting from one car to the other, so that we can see them approaching at the same time, and anticipate the crash before the characters in the poem do. The irony there is that the whole thing is being offered as the speaker’s memory, with that sense of distance, so that we get the sense of him replaying it for himself, trying not to relive it but to sift through the rubble for ephemera that might characterize an era: the cars, the nicknames, the epic game of chicken. There is no answer for what in those circumstances made him a person who pushed the envelope, who embraced danger, just the impact.
But the impact of the crash itself gets buried in the poem’s turn toward another sort of meditation, that first looks back at the scene, then more at the mindset of the people in it, who are now bound to place more than a moment in American culture. His shift is nicely troped by the windshield’s “splintering lens,” into a sort of uncertainty that draws from the failure of the South to give any satisfactory answers in relation to the crash. His perspective here may best resemble Frost’s “Out, Out,” to which this poem probably owes the most overall, in its linking of a manmade disaster with the culture that surrounds it, plus an ironic sense of detachment in the narrator’s tone (and the fact that they both use the word “turn” to signal key turns). Frost, before narrating the bloody accident that costs the boy’s death in his poem, offers a line of (I think false) remorse, or equivocation, with “Call it a day, I wish they might have said,” echoed by Jones with “even now I think we might have turned.” Where Frost is presenting a failure of his own characters, Jones shows a failure of the whole system of faith that the South runs on. His “savior who blusters through the South” is a human-made one, and that characterization contains within it the reason for their lack of salvation, and, maybe, the South’s.
However, instead of staying in that deconstructive mode, or amping it up to polemic, he makes another turn into the section of the poem that makes it both absolutely moving and wonderfully, unsettlingly resistant to any sort of abstraction. Here, the voice is both personal and focused on the moment, on observations that ultimately center around the scene of a woman presumably injured in the accident, with “a sort of Teflon hip” that gives her “more of a gait, really, / Than a walk.” She is the poem’s counterpoint to the invincible and fictional Savior, both of them figures in motion, but only one both present and hurt enough to mean something to the speaker. There is a sort of transferred transcendence that can’t be equated with salvation, but, the poem suggests, is the closest that can be hoped for, when she comes toward him:
. . .so when she moves toward me, across any room,
I think too much of my own will
implicated in that dragging brace.
Each step is obviously trained, and the whole earned motion full
Of muscle, plastic, and bone . . .
That moment of self-accusation, “I think too much of my own will,” always moves me unexpectedly and deeply, partly because it slips into the monosyllabic, faintly iambic simplicity that undercuts the voice, or voices, of the poem up to that point. Also, it makes the violence of the poem up to that point seem earned—Jones is showing us a sort of epiphany rising out of the disaster, and hiding it in the shadow of the injured woman. Her gait is earned, but so is his speaker’s simple, broken moment of self-reflection. He can see himself, and so past himself, without false guilt, and therefore the room to move toward love.
There may someday be an anthology of poems that prominently feature violence somehow, with “Herbert White,” Iliad excerpts, and other notable examples, but it will hopefully include the poems that feature violent events together with jarring turns, that make the poem trope the violence that it figures forth. “Dangers” is a poem that “thrusts at risk,” as Jones says of it, partly in this way, and at least a couple of others could be included—the scene from “The Winter’s Tale” where Antigonus is mauled by a bear completely out of the blue, then however many examples from “The Metamorphosis,” where Ovid offers one after another peaceful scene in which the gods do violence to humans, and transformation happens that way. Their common characteristic is that the poem seems to come loose from the poet’s grasp, shaken free by the turns, whether into the influence of a muse or overlapping discourses. We could call that sort of turn Ovidian, maybe, but here it is definitely Jones’s—away from expectation, and toward the reader.
Chad Parmenter’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, and Black Warrior Review, where one won the 2008 poetry contest. His chapbook, Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti, won Tupelo’s 2013 Snowbound Chapbook Contest. His essay, “Rereading the Yeatsian in ‘Four Quartets,'” was published in the Yeats-Eliot Review, and a paper drawn from it won the T.S. Eliot Society’s Fathman Award. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri.