Saeed Jones, Alive at the End of the World (Coffee House), 104pp. Paperback, $16.95.

The endnotes to Saeed Jones’s second collection of poems, Alive at the End of the World, are appropriately titled “Notes at the End of the World.” The first note explains that the poem “That’s Not Snow, It’s Ash” is “the quiet, bewildered heart of the book.”

It’s true. “That’s Not Snow, It’s Ash” is emblematic of Jones’s new work. A second-person sonnet missing its final line, the poem features a devastating volta without ever reaching for catastrophic spectacle. Something has happened, and things will never be the same. A break-up, a dissolution, is imminent, maybe immanent. The last couplet hangs fire: you sit at the breakfast table with your partner, drinking coffee and watching the snow fall, “pretending you don’t smell smoke. He’s fine, you think. We are fine,”

That final comma is no error in punctuation. The sonnet’s fourteenth line is missing, unspoken, white space covered by the snow/ash. This is the way the world ends, as they say. The relationship is doomed; it may as well be nuclear winter. In a breakdown of this poem, Jones describes the dominant feeling here as “a quiet sense of peril.” There’s also a touch of humor. The last line gestures to the “This Is Fine” meme, K. C. Green’s viral comic of a dog with a coffee mug in a room on fire.

The keywords in Alive at the End of the World are bruise, grief, and ghost. They reappear again and again throughout the 46 short poems in the book. (“There’ll be a ghost and a man in a dress in everything I write at some point,” Jones remarked in an interview.) Perhaps this will come as no surprise to readers of Jones’s first collection, Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House, 2014), itself full of blood and broken bones. But this new volume marks a major development from that debut title. Grief is part of its warp and woof, and the ghosts are more present than past. Written ten years after the death of Jones’s mother, a major presence, several poems here channel the personal apocalypse of perpetual mourning.

And Jones is in notable company here. The late Queen of Soul lost her mother when she was a child, a loss that deeply affected her for the rest of her life. In the poem “Aretha Franklin Hears an Echo While Singing ‘Save Me,’” Jones listens to that soulful cry of “a dead girl / inside me” who is “back at her grand piano, / bruising the white keys black.” What pain could be more beautiful?

Other recently deceased celebrities make cameo appearances in the book as well. Standing out are Little Richard, Paul Mooney, and Luther Vandross, queer men compelled to put on a straight face for their careers. What did Little Richard think when he heard Pat Boone sing “Tutti Frutti”? Luther Vandross “leaves out pronouns when asked about his love” and prefers singing you rather than she. “Luther knows we request his love songs at our weddings,” writes Jones. “Luther knows we love to hear him sing about you.”

To live your life today, in the United States, as a queer person of color, Jones suggests, is to live in the Apocalypse. “The end of the world,” the book begins, “was mistaken / for just another midday massacre, / in America. Brain matter and broken / glass, blurred boot prints in pools / of blood.” Lethal violence can appear at any time, morning, noon, or night. As another poem puts it, “‘America’ is American for ‘wreck & repeat.’” Many poets have been prophesying catastrophe lately, but the apocalyptic theme here is much different than, say, the chiliastic quality of Ed Roberson’s To See the Earth before the End of the World (2010).

Unlike some poetry collections, this one benefits from being read cover to cover.

One recurring element is from a prose poem with several iterations, “Saeed, or The Other One.” In the Q&A at a poetry reading, a man drew attention to all the bruises and asked, “Do you think you need your pain in order to write?” Jones responded with a joke: “My pain needs me.” But maybe it wasn’t a joke, he reflects. Maybe there is another Saeed, an embodied personal pain, who needs the poet to stay alive. As he declares in one poem, “My ghost is my plus-one tonight.”

Unlike some poetry collections, this one benefits from being read cover to cover. There’s a coherence here, with build-ups and callbacks. One of the later poems, “All I Gotta Do Is Stay Black and Die (Apocalyptic Remix),” rearranges lines from other verses in the book and finds a new, reverberant expression. And the last entry, “Notes at the End of the World,” offers amusing revelations of its own. Here we learn that several of the book’s pieces are “nonfiction poems.” And for at least one, “the white space in the poem is ghost text as opposed to blank space.” (Perhaps that missing final line in “That’s Not Snow, It’s Ash” is also “ghost text.”)

Jones’s earlier poem “Postapocalyptic Heartbeat,” from Prelude to Bruise, softly suggests that there may be good things to come to those who live through the end of the world and experience “that first hour in a life without clocks.” And, despite their bruises and griefs, the poems in Alive at the End of the World nearly always evoke a smile. David Woo writes that “the beauty of Jones’s poems lies in the way they approach death through the pleasures of being alive, deploying a redemptive levity or an acerbic conviviality to lend shape to catastrophe.” Saeed, after all, means happy in Arabic.

And fans of Jones’s poems are probably following him on Twitter. He has an impressive and often entertaining social media presence, and his tweets sometimes complement his poetry. “The frequency with which refined art made by black people is described as ‘raw’ is not lost on me,” he posted on October 18, 2022. Those who would be tempted to describe the poetry of pain in Alive at the End of the World as “raw” should take note. These verses have been refined in the crucible of art.

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