Rodney Jones’ ‘Village Prodigies’
by Rodney Jones
Mariner Books, $16.99 paperback, 192 pp.
For nearly forty years, Rodney Jones has been providing the poetry world with some of the best fractured southern narrative, refusing the linear plodding plotline of the clock for a tangled subconscious hierarchy that marches memories out with its own delicate logic. If you’re unfamiliar with Jones’ work, take a minute to enjoy a poem like “Remembering Fire” from his seminal collection Salvation Blues wherein his speaker remembers a childhood fire in reverse, the flames rebuild the house, “life each plank into place” before his father places him back in his untouched feather bed, leaving him to his sleep “holding all of this back, drifting toward the unborn.” It’s a stunning poem about memory’s ease-of-access to what is most present, and the disorientation and tranquility of undoing a housefire’s devastation highlight the dreamlike quality of being yanked from one’s slumber and idea of life just to watch it erase itself, fire lighting up the night.
The point is this: Rodney Jones is a poet who understands stories, the efficacy of a carefully handled memory, and when approaching something personal, his settings can emerge with such vibrancy that they are arresting on their own. You should trust him when we wants to get a little weird; he’ll make sure you are right alongside him for the journey. With, this, his tenth book, Jones has taken his narrative abilities to what seems a natural evolutionary point, but after fully encountering the work, because the innovation and ambition with regards to the scope this novel in verse should not be understated. Village Prodigies should be considered a double-album of top-notch poetry that, in its imagination and prosody, also allows this work to exist as a highly experimental novel with 110 “chapters.” These poems/chapters are held together by thematic sections that provide access and insight into American culture and history while showcasing the exploits and anecdotes of a remarkable cohort of boys brought up in Cold Springs, Alabama.
As a hybrid of genres, we’ve got to talk about structures and see if the two styles (novel and verse) can mesh; otherwise, we’re not going to get anywhere. Like many people, the word “experimental” when paired with either “novel” or “collection of poetry” leaves me a little cockeyed, looking for the gimmick rather than trying to appreciate the work. There is no gimmick here, or if there is, it’s a very well-selected one. Jones has framed his novel as a treatise on memory. He does this brilliantly in his prologue. Even before we see Cold Springs or meet any characters, we’re taken to the “The Portal of the Years” which serves as the framing device that figuratively lays out the ethos of the novel ahead.
This prose poem prologue opens up in a bustle. As the reader, we’re also cueing up for the ride, so it’s easy to recognize the scene as “Whole days try to crowd into the portal. It is a portal or it is a switchboard. A big party line, each must wait his turn.” This subtly pushes us toward the specific details, however fragmented, or memory, things like “Rain barrels full after the storm empties.” And this is a technique that allows the entire novel to function as both interconnected poems and a novel with larger narrative ambitions. The short encapsulations of time or interactions from each poem will represent one of the figurative moments or anecdotes that can function as either scene or summary while also leaving ample space for the reader’s imagination to connect chapters and incidents. Once Book One (of two) formally opens, the reader gets presented with a huge fluency of free-verse structures that pair themselves strikingly with the occasional usage of common formal (Abecedarian, list, prose) or found form (Facebook post, postcard) poems. Where the chapter-like separation of the poems allows each entry to find its own structures rather than following a template that might become tiresome, the decision to mostly use blank, Roman-numeral chapter titles implies a unity of vision, even though a section of the novel may range anywhere from a single year (1973) to something much more complex, for example a fifteen year stretch with a flash forward (1974-1989, 2015). This sense of unity is important, since the chronological range for each section do not appear explicitly until the final page of each section.
In a traditional novel, this treatment of time would be a challenge at best, but using his associative poetic abilities, Jones imposes the section structure to reinforce thematic elements that put the human elements of the poems back in the forefront. For example, after our prologue poem, the first section “Requiem for Reba Portis” takes us near the end of our chronology to look at the Portis family matriarch as she experiences the onset and hold of dementia. Across this section, we see family and friends of the Portis’ weigh in on the situation while the narrator and son Seth Portis weave in passages from Gerald Edelman’s work on consciousness Wider than the Sky to expand the possibilities of memory and consciousness while showing us the toll that is taken when these abilities fail us or our loved ones as Reba Portis “becomes / ‘I’ll have what my husband’s having’” and the games of “Name That Ancestor” using family photos as flashcards may not have the same enlightening results.
Later sections serve to establish the boys who will become our intrepid, passionate, and sometimes reckless protagonists who lead us from 1950 all the way until 2015 making their way through Cold Springs and across the Americas. In the section “Secret Order of the Eagle” we get to see a group of elementary school schemers who “Arrive at a Fateful Decision to Form a Club, Decide to Refer to Each Other by Last Names Only, and Swear a Blood Oath” (from the title of XVI). It is in this section that we meet boys like Thelonious “Lonely” Luck, George Brown, Jawaharlal Mills, and Dudley “Big” Mann or Cedric Mack who quickly becomes simply “Mack Mack.” We get to see little Seth Portis (who is as close as the novel gets to a central character) overcome his stutter and take power in his school only to see himself and his friends embroiled in scandal. Even from the early days, these boys have ambition beyond the scale of their seemingly small town, so that later when we see them suffer and prosper, make it through and around Vietnam and into their adulthoods, the oddness and the closeness of these men becomes all the more apparent.
And while this work is a strong piece of character-driven fiction, it would be really remiss if I didn’t note how well Jones considers Cold Springs, Alabama and its transformation over time in geographical, biological, and cultural climate. Seeing that Jones is from Alabama himself, and the major characters in this book are roughly his contemporaries, it would make sense that the landscapes and ways of life in this book come from a very personal and knowledgeable place.
In Book 2, the section “Did You See Any of the Others While You Were There?” opens with Chapter LXXIV (Elegy for the Crooked and out of the Way) that laments the modernization of the countryside that people once knew and revered into something simply practical and accessible:
They paved the Corn Road, straightened curves
around shade trees, constructed bridges over fords—
paved smokehouse mimosas, burial mounds, and words—
a coarseness and rigidity, a tightness along fence lines.
Some was dead set against it. Others kept their own counsel.
Paved hill where mares shied and panthers crossed,
blue stones wheelrowing to the verges, shape notes
flung sideways in the rearview of the rented tour bus
of the Preservation Music Club of St. Louis. Stop.
Not only do the images of times lost, sometimes even sacred things paved over, stings with a regret of those powerless to stop progress. It leaves one feeling almost complicit and conflicted:
“An advantage for everybody, a travesty they voted to pave it.”
That retention of curves for shade trees. Paved.
Like a pear tree in cotton. Paved the aggravation
a woman took to dig up the plow, and walk
the mule around it: worth cider and preserves
preserved in the rockers outside the Cracker Barrel.
It is the nuance the curves, the careful sharing of the land with the land itself that has gone away, and even the syntax here slams into the reader’s side, an axe landing against the shade tree each time the word “Paved” creates a disjuncture in the phrasing or furthers the destruction. The place itself seems to have a certain magic buried deep within it, something that carries on into “Only the Animals are Real.”
I dare-say that some of the most exhilarating moments in this novel come from where the anecdote transcends the mundane and evokes the mythological. We see this in the fateful story of George Brown’s beloved horse causing unspecified injury to a lady in Chapter XXX. The italicized narration that begins “A horse is not a human. A boy is not a woman. / And still one day a fox sits down with a farm girl; / a female magpie looks at a man and starts their nest” feels pregnant with implications and intrigue. In Chapter LXXXII (The Beauty of Young Women in Small Towns), an aging Lonely Luck observes these young woman as “Governesses on mythical commonwealth islands, / Unapproachable in the actual world, / Suitable only for literature.” I delight when something as small as a green jelly bean kept from a one-time meeting with Ronald Reagan can become a talisman to hold onto for one’s life in this novel. That’s where we as Americans still have personal myths and superstitions.
Perhaps my favorite mythological moment in the novel comes from Chapter LXVII (Mrs. Lionel Spence at Fifteen) within the section “Puberty in Cold Springs” that is a poem that reads as a direct female companion to James Dickey’s spinning of farm mythology in “The Sheep Child.” In Dickey’s “The Sheep Child,” farm boys overcome with puberty tell legends to keep each other from abusing the livestock. The conversation of sex is open and direct, if muddled by legends and fears of a mutant baby in a museum of medical oddities. Jones’ feminine companion to this reads a much more secretive and personal:
There are girls who must speak to trees
after dreams they don’t cleanly remember.
Sometimes they remember water.
That is why she woke wet and thought
there had been a wave, then a man, and nothing
like this had ever happened, [...]
Just once she thought to say this wave,
this never she had touched and now
must touch again, was good, but kept
this to herself. Even a tree might get ideas.
In this poem, a teenage girl (with the title reminding the reader of who she would grow up to become) shares her secret sexual awakening with the trees who might not only keep her secret safe, but also understand the odd longing for the waves that exist inside of her. In their figure and form, they almost present themselves as potential lovers, since even the tree may form some impure or untoward thoughts. Even the tree has latent magic to perhaps even come alive.
And these are just a few qualities that I would laud in this novel. It’s so adept as narrative and verse, that just how diverse the appeal of this book is. We have a section that takes us and our young lovers through Vietnam (“Wayward Swains in a Time of War”) followed by a wild LSD-trek across the U.S. with “The Righteous Trip.” There’s a post-modern descent into commercial factory slaughter of chickens set against a backdrop of Latin America, a minor descent into madness, and the idea “That modern love might be conceived as a video game” all wrapped up in “Buenas Noches.” This is a book that shows a broad scope of America: the rural and urban, the technological and mythological. Heck, it even casually drops some of the best baseball verse I’ve read period.
And that’s maybe why I’m finally so vocal about a book I missed by almost a year (published March 2017). It takes me through 65 years and lands me right where I am today. In fact, I took my copy of Village Prodigies to a local minor-league game the other day in the hopes that the good mojo from these pages might rub off on the home team. It did not. The very first pitch was a solo homer for the visitors and by the first inning we were in a hole that we did not climb out of, not on that chilly evening. However, I still had something to look savor, even when the home team was down and then out, even when, between innings, kids dressed up in stuffed sumo outfits or sausages raced each other around the bases, I still had this other game, far away:
Fathers on the hood hoot and laugh. Bleacher mothers
blossom in the colors of their affiliations. The youngest
hold infants. The oldest puff menthol cigarettes and carry
smut books in straw bags. Every boy on the field is an all-star
and pitched for his local team, but here likeness ends.
Except for brothers and cousins, no two players
from Cold Springs resemble each other. The batboy
was a blue baby. The second baseman throws
with two good fingers and a nub. Tarrant City players
appear older and drawn from a larger pool [...]
[...] If you said later, this was the year
of the Bay of Pigs, three months after the Freedom
Riders, someone would add, Mack Mack pitched four
no-hitters. Dudley Mann set a record with eleven
home runs. Chalmers hit .721. The prime distinction
between the people of the world—talent— matters here
more than any other distinction. And still some rumor[...]
[...]Before the chants start, as always, “Mack Mack.
Mack Mack. Mack Mack.” Before the umpire dusts
off the plate, rolls his wheelchair behind the catcher,
clicks the counter in his fist, and calls “Play Ball.”
If you’re game, this spring or summer is the perfect time to take Village Prodigies somewhere with you. Or let it take you to many places and times. Either way, it’ll be warm soon. The country is beautiful. You deserve a vacation.