The Queer Baroque: On Saeed Jones’s Prelude to Bruise

Anna Journey

Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2014. 103 pages. $16.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

“In Birmingham, said the burly man—//,” writes Saeed Jones, “Boy, be / a bootblack. // Your back, blue-back. / Your body,          burning.” As these initial lines from the title poem of Jones’s debut collection suggest, Prelude to Bruise evokes a perilous, often mythic, eroticism within a brutalizing context of violence. Here, longing and rage vie for dominance; lyricism contains and confronts horror; and the grandeur of the baroque collides with the abasements of homophobic aggression and racial bigotry. The landscape inhabited by these dynamics is most often the entropic, noir spectacle of the American South: mythically wounded, perennially defiant, and populated with an eerie, Southern Gothic menagerie of phantoms—a phantasmagoria of plural selves and ancestral ghosts. Jones’s lavish sonic patterning (“Soil recoils / from my hooked kisses”) and gothic imagery (“Night presses the gunmetal O of its mouth / against my own”) often recall the incendiary mythos and immaculate craft of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel as well as the haunted, sensual longing of Thomas James’s Letters to a Stranger. Additionally, Jones’s sensibility invokes the baroque imaginations of Reginald Shepherd, Rigoberto González, and Lucie Brock-Broido. In Jones’s poems, we encounter the dangerous eros of a lover who “is the taste of smoke, mesquite-laced tip / of the tongue” and the vulnerable beauty of “a room of rare orchids / the color of a drinker’s liver.”

Throughout Prelude to Bruise, Jones repeats and interweaves a number of motifs: a mythic character, “Boy,” who often appears as a young, queer African American negotiating dangerous contexts (“Boy at Edge of Woods,” “Boy Found inside a Wolf,” “History, According to Boy”); acts of celebratory yet subversive cross-dressing (“Boy in a Stolen Evening Gown,” “Boy in a Whalebone Corset,” “Drag”); an anguished or taboo eroticism (“I turned the family portrait face down / when he was on me”); a threatening, homophobic father (“Father in my room / looking for more sissy clothes / to burn”); characters reimagined from Greek or biblical myth (Icarus, Ganymede, Isaac); and antique or ornately embellished objects (“a whalebone corset,” “a lion-clawed bathtub”).

Stephen Burt, in his recent essay “Nearly Baroque,” published in Boston Review, defines a current school of poetry he calls the “nearly Baroque.” “Nearly Baroque poems,” Burt writes:

exhibit elaborate syntax and sonic patterning, without adopting pre-modernist forms. . . . The poems have subjects—things and characters in a preexisting, historical world—and often include proper nouns. But they rarely focus on one subject; instead, they weave together several topics or scenes in sinuously complicated, multiply subordinated sentences. They may compare their own intricacies to other intricately made things: textiles, jewelry, household machines, braids, spiral staircases, DNA.

Like other writers of the contemporary baroque, Jones’s poems prioritize ornamentation, intricacy, and extravagance. Also, the speakers in Jones’s poems often compare the complexities of their bodies and desires to objects of labyrinthine intricacy. The speaker in “Boy in a Stolen Evening Gown,” for instance, who cross-dresses in a rural thistle field, imagines slipping from his sequined dress into a dazzling, kinetic nudity: “I could be the boy / wearing nothing, a negligee of gnats.” In “Eclipse of My Third Life,” a Daphne-like speaker awakens, after an erotic encounter, to “a garden / gated in April light, // my veins in every leaf.” In “Beheaded Kingdom,” a lover asks, “Do you understand the song you’ve sent walking through my catacombs / of marrow?” In “Kudzu,” a brassy, anthropomorphic climbing vine harbors a “tendrilled craving” and threatens to “set all my tongues / upon you.”

Provocatively, Burt further defines the nearly Baroque as a decidedly femme aesthetic:

All these poets defend traditionally feminine ideas of beauty and extravagance against the macho or butch insistence on practicality, on political utility, on philosophical novelty, or on efficiency that has characterized other trends and schools from modernism to conceptualism and beyond. At the same time, these poets tend to note—they may even sound guilty about—the serious effort and energy devoted to making such complicated, luxurious, or apparently useless things as contemporary literary poems.

Burt, too, observes that almost all of the poets of the nearly Baroque are women (he mentions, among others, Angie Estes, Robyn Schiff, and Lucie Brock-Broido); and, we infer from his examples, mostly white women. Although Burt acknowledges—yet doesn’t specifically address—issues of queer identity in relation to the femme, I’d like to propose that in addition to operating as a femme aesthetic, the nearly Baroque is sister to a distinctive aesthetic impulse we might call the queer Baroque. Moreover, practitioners of the latter are often LGBTQ Millennial writers of color, such as Saeed Jones, Phillip B. Williams, and Roger Reeves. Like poets of the nearly Baroque, those of the queer Baroque challenge masculinist notions of stylistic efficiency through a poetics of extravagance, often simultaneously indicting their own impulses toward artifice. In the queer Baroque, however, the beauty of ornate imagery, metaphor, syntax, and sound distorts within the savage context of a retributive violence that seeks to marginalize or oppress queer desire.

One of the central tensions, then, in the queer Baroque, lies between utility and artifice, between provoking opportunities for social change and celebrating the defiant art-for-art’s-sake stance of the baroque. Of course, queer culture has always had its baroque aspects (the performative artifice of drag culture, for example). What’s significant among Jones’s generation of poets, though, is that they frequently hybridize conflicting—even opposing—aesthetic impulses, further queering the realm of the baroque. These poets foreground elaborate and mythically transgressive evocations of eros in which stylistic excesses counter the violent excesses of homophobia and racial marginalization. The queer Baroque is, fundamentally, a poetry of radical ambivalence.

Look, for example, to the initial lines of Jones’s poem, “Boy in a Whalebone Corset”:

The acre of grass is a sleeping
swarm of locusts, and in the house
beside it, tears too are mistaken.
Thin streams of kerosene
when night throws itself against
the wall, when Nina Simone sings
in the next room without her body

The character “Boy”—Jones’s recurring speaker in the above poem and in others—often appears as an adolescent made acutely vulnerable by his awakening desires, a young boy in opposition to the grown man of the house, his domineering father. Significantly, however, when understood in the context of the title poem, “Prelude to Bruise” (which echoes “Blue Prelude,” a song performed by Nina Simone: “what is love? but a prelude to sorrow”), Jones’s noun takes on connotations of grave historical violence. (The setting of the title poem, the repetitions of “Boy” as a racial taunt, and the allusions to burning and bruised flesh conjure the manifold atrocities of civil rights-era Birmingham, including the brutalization of protestors with dogs and fire hoses and the murderous church bombing in 1963 that killed four girls.) Jones reclaims the signifier “Boy”—which bigots have used pejoratively to infantilize and demean black men—expanding the scope and complexity of his sign so that it contains the singular fraught childhood of the speaker as well as centuries of widespread violence (physical, psychological, semiotic).

Fittingly, then, the landscape in “Boy in a Whalebone Corset” seethes in a mythic malaise like an ancient vista out of Exodus. Jones’s layered “acre of grass” holds a dormant biblical plague, a “sleeping / swarm of locusts,” that threatens to break loose, just as the kerosene has burst forth in streams, like “mistaken” tears, down a wall. The threat of violent disembodiment permeates the speaker’s pursuit of a taboo, tenuous eroticism: night takes on the combustible ferocity of a poltergeist shattering a kerosene lamp against the wall, while Nina Simone’s expressive contralto hovers (a queer voice, in its striking, androgynous-sounding lower ranges), proximate yet eerily “without her body.”

The poem continues, as the fractured speaker mirrors all that’s shattered or displaced around him—the night, the whalebone, Simone’s floating voice:

and I’m against the wall, bruised
but out of mine: dream-headed
with my corset still on, stays
slightly less tight, bones against
bones, broken glass on the floor,
dance steps for a waltz
with no partner.

Jones’s image of the whalebone corset exemplifies the queer Baroque: erotic, intricate, ambivalent. The corset’s erotic potential, in holding and shaping the body for aesthetic beauty, is evident, as is the intricate quality of the garment’s fine boning. The image’s ambivalence, however, operates subtly, managing to anachronize and contemporize, constrict and liberate. Corsets, especially those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were often heavily boned with baleen, in order to support the corset’s shape and to prevent the fabric from wrinkling. Thus, the whalebone corset conjures the elaborate, decorative conventions of feminine beauty from the dusty boudoirs of French antiquity. Simultaneously, however, the corset also resonates as a contemporary fetish object occasionally used in BDSM activities, in which a dominant partner controls the submissive participant’s body and ability to breathe through deliberately constricting the garment.

The speaker’s notion of waltzing “with no partner,” is true on a literal level (he wears an antique corset while dancing, alone, to Nina Simone), though Jones suggests that the speaker is, indeed, partnered. The partner, here, is a phantom one: a composite that arises, multivalent, from fractured glass, bones, and selves. Similar, in some respects, to the yearning, existential creature conjured by Victor Frankenstein’s Promethean ingenuity, Jones’s figure is a mosaicked corpus of unusual features: the transformative torso of a whalebone corset, Nina Simone’s mercurial voice, and the vivid imagination of a cross-dressing boy. More sinister, though, is the possibility of another partner, the one who’s left the speaker bruised and “against the wall”:

                        Father in my room
looking for more sissy clothes
to burn. Something pink in his fist,
negligee, lace, fishnet, whore.
His son’s a whore this last night
of Sodom. And the record skips
and skips and skips. Corset still on,
nothing else, I’m at the window;
he’s in the field, gasoline jug,
hand full of matches, night made
of locusts, column of smoke
mistaken for Old Testament God.

The father’s homophobic wrath takes on an Old Testament-level, vengeful-god destructiveness: he breaks the muscular blues voice of Simone as “the record skips / and skips and skips”; awakens the plague-like mass of locusts; bruises the speaker’s body until the boy feels dissociated from or “out of” his own person; and burns the ornate, lacy fodder for his son’s imaginative transformations of self and expressions of queer identity. Surprisingly, after all this aggression, the speaker remains in drag (“Corset still on, / nothing else”), a half-nude, defiant witness to his father’s furious attempts at suppressing his queerness. And slyly, Jones invokes the ancient city of Sodom, which, in Genesis, wholly incinerates amid the fire and brimstone courtesy of that merciless, Old Testament God. In the final line of “Boy in a Whalebone Corset,” Jones repeats a verb he employs earlier in the poem (“mistaken”), which serves to reject the retributive premise of paternal bigotry, both of the ethereal and corporeal sort. The father, we learn, delivers not divine judgment through his actions, only a “column of smoke / mistaken for Old Testament God.” In the myth of Genesis, God may have successfully burned Sodom, but in the grassy field outside the speaker’s house, the father produces, with his “gasoline jug” and “hand full of matches,” only an isolate line of smoke. Both judgments, however—biblical and domestic—share a similar motivation: a merciless, retributive violence. The speaker’s expressions of queerness, though, won’t be easily subdued. Like Jonah, famously swallowed by the whale before he’s restored, intact, after three days in the beast’s belly, Jones’s mythic boy within the bones of a whale is, above all, a survivor. Paradoxically, the whalebone corset—that baroque emblem of constriction and convention—liberates the speaker in its flamboyant assertion and resolute shaping of a queer self. Throughout Prelude to Bruise, Jones’s vision of the queer Baroque combines stylistic extravagance with violent extremity, lush beauty with stark horror, localized desires with mythic vistas of oppression, and ambivalent patterns of submission and defiance. As Jones’s kudzu vine—that brassy, baroquely complicated optimist—insists: “If I ever strangled sparrows, / it was only because I dreamed / of better songs.”

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