This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones.
Saeed Jones has written a great memoir. Told with a poet’s skill at expression, the true strength of How We Fight for Our Lives
is the clarity with which Jones can view both his interior and exterior selves. Each of Jones’s intersectional identities is conveyed in the holistic manner that he experiences them, providing every reader with a broader understanding. — Keith M.
It’s a little preposterous to say that the most affecting section of this tremendously affecting memoir is Jones’s prelude, but the prose poem “Elegy With Grown Folks’ Music” is a remarkable précis of the book’s central themes: Saeed’s relationship with his mother; her early death; the volatile unknowable-ness of other people’s desires; the sweet-bitter tug of one’s own wants; and what it means to be a queer Black boy and man within one’s family and country. “Some songs take women places men cannot follow,” Jones writes; lucky for us, Jones’s skill as a memoirist brings the reader into cultural, emotional, and sexual territories that, though vital, would be unnavigable without such a sure-footed and generous guide.
Writing about Jones’s debut poetry collection, Prelude to Bruise
, critic Amal El-Mohtar noted,
When I've thoroughly enjoyed a collection, it isn't enough to praise the rhythm, the intensity, the clarity of the work I've just read; I find myself writing about how the book is "seamed in smoke" or observing "the supple twisting of its narrative spine." But I don't want to do that here — Saeed Jones' Prelude to Bruise is so visceral and affecting, I can't risk burying it in my own figurative language.
The same quandary applies to reviewing How We Fight for Our Lives
. Though the narrative and language are chronological and unadorned, Jones has a way of gathering the energy of intense emotional moments into simply constructed, meaning-rich descriptions that are tempting to try and mimic. When solicited by an older man in the library, the adolescent Saeed frantically free associates, thinking of James Byrd Jr., Matthew Shepard, old crushes: “This is a Saeed-shaped trap.” And in a harrowing sexual encounter: “I wondered how many black men had been in this bed surrounded by trees; I wondered if he had made this jungle just for us.” Jones’s gift for infusing accessible language with poetry’s almost limitless referentiality transforms his personal story into a disciplined, astute work about the ways the self is formed in relation, and opposition, to cultural forces.
In its review, Publishers Weekly
observed, “Jones is a remarkable, unflinching storyteller, and his book is a rewarding page-turner.” Poetry or memoir, essays or novel, we look forward to reading whatever this talented writer does next.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here