Reprise: Mercy walks down a different block
A pandemic poem by Patricia Spears Jones
Patricia Spears Jones was sitting on a secret when we spoke about her poem, “Saturnine.” It was a few days later that I (and everyone else) would learn that she was about to be installed as the 2023-2025 New York State Poet, a lofty honor that puts her squarely in the company of a score of contemporary poetry’s most elite. Her predecessors in the post include everyone from Robert Creeley to Yusef Komunyakaa, Audre Lorde to Alicia Ostriker, Billy Collins to John Ashbery, Marie Howe, and Willie Perdomo, to just skim the list.
And it happened at the same time that her fifth poetry collection, The Beloved Community, was being released by the prestigious Copper Canyon Press.
Spears Jones, who lives in Brooklyn, has been a central figure in New York City’s poetry community since the 1970s, including a stint as program coordinator at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in the 1980s. She is a Pushcart Prize-winner, an NEA Poetry Fellowship recipient, and was awarded one of poetry’s highest honors in 2017, the Jackson Poetry Prize.
Arguably, she can be counted among the most consequential poets working in the U.S. today. That’s my take anyway, and I’m sticking to it.
One reason for that is that a Spears Jones poem is likely to engage the reader on any number of levels--from the personal to the political to the complexities of human interactions--while trusting that reader to explore what connections or divergences there may be.
“Saturnine” is such a poem. While literally about the pandemic, the relatively short poem sprawls in several surprising directions--”cadaver slaves” and cabbage stews, Tin Pan Alley and cheap guns shooting--along the way,
But start with the title. Your 21st century dictionary will probably tell you that the word means something like stern or serious, unfriendly or perhaps gloomy. However, it also hearkens back to the Roman Titan whose name the word comes from, and that’s where Spears Jones turned to make a point, even before delving into the body of the poem.
“Saturn,” she points out, “ate his young,” recalling one myth that tells us that, in response to a prophecy that the Roman god would be overthrown by one of his sons, he decided that the better course would be to eat his infant boys before they could interfere with his reign.
There is not so big a difference between that and the indifference and ruthlessness of our nation’s political leadership as more than one million Americans died from disease, she said.
“What does it mean to be in a huge crisis where, day after day, [the president] does not care?” she asks.
Spears Jones said she wrote only “four or five poems” during the pandemic, “but when I did write, I wanted to speak to a couple of things: information overload and artistic response.”
Information overload, that is, as embodied in “This talk of science & biologicals & viral crowns” and the onrush of often obscure facts and theories that became all-important (and often overwhelming) in the midst of the pandemic.
And artistic response as exemplified by the daily “quarantine drawings” of the noted contemporary artist Ken Tisa, among the many artists in all mediums who turned the solitary days of lockdown into a time to reflect, respond, and create.
“If ever we could color the subatomic particles and smash them up/would they look like a Ken Tisa Quarantine Drawing—how that/could brighten the feet step by step in August air,” she wrote.
“Saturnine” was begun in 2020, and she put the finishing touches on it in 2022, Spears Jones said. Those finishing touches included largely minor tweaks in matters like word order (the phrase “what’s a pandemic” was originally at the end of the line, for example), and she toyed a bit with “cabbage stews” before deciding that “you can’t beat cabbage. I like the sound.”
That last is significant, she said, “because part of our arsenal as poets is to explore the sonic.”
The poem begins straightforwardly enough, with “microbes in the palms of our hands,” but it takes some unexpected turns as well, as in the line about “cadaver slaves humming Tin Pan Alley tunes.”
The reference to cadaver slaves can be read broadly as a comment on the continuing inequality of the American medical system, as clearly displayed during the COVID crisis. But it’s grounded in a long history of inequality and abuse, as well. The original cadaver slaves were enslaved people tasked with securing and delivering the bodies of other slaves to medical schools for training and research, and the phrase can also allude to the related fact of a Central Park monument (now removed) to J. Marion Sims, the nineteenth century “Father of Gynecology” who perfected his craft through gruesome experiments performed on enslaved women.
“What are we celebrating in the public square?” Spears Jones asks. (She is herself from a small Arkansas town named after a founder of the Ku Klux Klan.)
It’s questions like that she wants to share with her readers, if only obliquely.
“Into everything I write there goes a great deal of thinking,” she said. “And I want readers to think things through, to question . . . this is a poem that pushes us to think.”
Besides, she laughed, “I like to make people look shit up.”
Here, then, is “Saturnine” by Patricia Spears Jones.
Saturnine We cannot feel microbes in the palms of our hands or hear nanoseconds---we can see the laser slice wind. but how it shaves beards remains mysterious. This talk of science & biologicals & viral crowns makes old mean men crawl into bowls of cotton waiting to be plucked at some point by cadaver slaves humming Tin Pan Alley tunes. What’s a pandemic but one more mortality wake up call. Tongue dulled by wine salted and cabbage stews happily forgotten. Buffed shoes shining, not worn. No more the perfect Windsor Knot because the definition for knot has swerved from necks to bandages. If ever we could color the subatomic particles and smash them up would they look like a Ken Tisa Quarantine Drawing—how that could brighten the feet step by step in August air. The summer feels like a heavy cough that starts in the chest, lingers until it exhausts patience and runs up through the throat out into the embracing air carrying all manner of microbes, some of which or what could possibly infect a city or laugh pyrotechnic 4 a.m. along with feral snarls and cheap guns shooting, poor man Falls— Mercy walks down a different block. For Karen Taylor --Patricia Spears Jones "Saturnine" was originally published as a Poem-a-Day by The Academy of American Poets at poets.org, where you can hear the author read the poem.
Patricia Spears Jones, recently named the 2023-2025 New York State Poet, is a poet, playwright, anthologist, educator, and cultural activist. She is the winner of the 2017 Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers and the author of A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems. Her work is anthologized in African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song; Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin; and BAX 2016: Best American Experimental Writing. Her poems have been published in The New Yorker, The Brooklyn Rail, The Ocean State Review, Ms., and Cutthroat, A Journal of the Arts. Patricia Spears Jones edited THINK: Poems for Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Day Hat and Ordinary Women: An Anthology of New York City Women. Mabou Mines commissioned and produced her plays Mother and Song for New York: What Women Do While Men Sit Knitting. Patricia Spears Jones co-curated the Wednesday Night Series for St. Mark’s Church Poetry Project. She has taught graduate and undergraduate creative writing at Hollins University, Adelphi University, Hunter College, and Barnard College. She leads poetry workshops for the 92nd Street Y, The Workroom, Hugo House, Community of Writers, Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill, Gemini Ink, and Brooklyn Poets. She organizes the American Poets Congress and is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Black Earth Institute.
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