Hub City Press, 72 pages, paperback, $14.95
The first few poems of a book are like the opening paragraph of a novel: they have to hook the reader and set the tone for what’s to come. Ashley Jones’ first three poems in Magic City Gospel, manage to encompass chunks of the author’s, give a glimpse of the sacred territory the book will traverse, and let readers know that the writing they are about to experience belongs to the real of Things that Matter. In fact, the titles of these three poems can be taken by themselves and their strength is enough to make a statement: Sam Cooke Sings to Me when I Am Afraid, (I’m Blue) Te Gong Gong Song, or, America the Beautiful, and Eating Red Dirt in Greensboro, Alabama.
“Earthy” is an adjective reviewers like to throw around, but which applies very well in this case. The poems found in Magic City Gospel are plucked from the earth, from the soil of Alabama, from the bloodstained ground in which history took place. Jones, using a wide array of voices and styles, tells her story and share her views of this nation, past and present, through the lens of a young African American woman, but in doing so, the history of her family, the history of all African Americans, and the history of this country end up being exposed. The result is an unapologetic and powerful collection of writings that serve, as the title indicates, as modern gospel, a song meant to be shared by those who know and share because they know and share it and by those who don’t understand because all the explanations ever needed are hanging from its rhythms like ripe fruit.
All of the above would make it seems like this is a book full of pain and historical memory, but that’s not the case. Sure, there is that, but there is also love and fun and memories and familial drama and celebrations of life and prayers and notes of appreciation sent to those who’ve moved on. Jones knows that what she is doing with her writing is important, but she’s not afraid to simultaneously deal with her biography, pain, and humor.
In the Beginning, There was Sound is a perfect example of this:
“After I was born,
I cried for three months straight.
My mouth, a great brown crack
in the Alabama soil,
sprouted wondrous wails.
a cotton candy spade,
licked the air,
and it tasted of ticking
and the salt
of baby formula.
I was a siren.
Five o’ clock, exactly,
and I’d scream until nightfall.
Alive, I said.
Pain, I said.
Maybe I stopped
because it is hard
to keep roaring.
I felt the warm burn
of my mother’s
because I grew hoarse,
and at some point,
more to do
with a voice
than to hum drum
as you can.”
Museums, text books and what they fail to teach, collective experiences, religion, historical figures, racism, Alabama, food, and family are the cohesive elements that make Magic City Gospel a collection of poems that doubles as a biography. This the narrative of a life offered to the reader in vignettes. However, that narrative doesn’t come from the void, and Jones isn’t afraid to reach back and talk about things like learning about slavery and encountering a KKK uniform in a museum as a young girl. These things would usually be very important, but the current sociopolitical landscape and the way it has facilitated the shameless flaunting of the racism that has always been part of this nation make Magic City Gospel a crucial text, a necessary collection that stands as a voice against all of it and establishes Jones as a strong, essential voice in contemporary poetry.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this collection is that it manages to stick to the reader with serious themes and its unique rhythm, but also because the writer has a unique perspective and engaging sense of humor. If I had to pick one poem out of the book to offer those on the fence about reading it, it’d be the funny, truthful, self-aware, and defiant Ingredient List: Black Girl:
“big ass, big ass hair, natural and artiﬁcial ﬂavors (oil sheen, blue
magic hair grease, cocoa butter, shea butter, just plain butter, styling
gel, bacon grease), all forms of supple (lips like pillows, ﬁnger-sinkable
thighs, even the toes are voluptuous), murderous hips, intelligence
(book learning, street learning, lyrics and poetry), a little
extra joint in the neck (suitable for rolling).
Not from concentrate. Do not refrigerate.”
There’s nothing I can add to that, so go read this already.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Zero Saints, Gutmouth, Hungry Darkness, and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.