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All Told Hardcover – January 1, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Best known for How I Became Hettie Jones, her memoir about beat writers and her marriage to Amiri Baraka, Jones's poetic debut Drive (1998) combined prosaic diction with a knowing, urban wit that could turn serious on a dime. This new collection of several dozen short, unsentimental works primarily located in New York City, Jones's longtime home, extend her territory: "When Jason my neighbor suggested I water the street tree/ I claimed to be unready to extend my sphere of influence/ Jason died in his homemade rope and tire sandals/ fell off a cliff in Australia." Jones uses neighborhoods and streets as personal markers in many of the poems, particularly in a string of poems detailing family history in Brooklyn: "Blue-eyed men eating her kasha and kugel/ salt red hands on the table/ Sarah dies in Bay Ridge, 1926, before/ her baby becomes my mother/ who says I have her mother's/ hands." A New York School sensibility infuses some of these poems, as Jones is fond of using direct address and naming, but Jones's unflinching recognition of death as subject matter is singularly unaffected: "Death, you bastard/ give me back Dennis Charles/ Don't make me leave him on St. Mark's Place/ in his overcoat and his happiness/ exactly where I left Albert Ayler!/ Is that a stop on the way to/ music heaven?" Jones's anecdotal style and propensity for brevity at times works against her weightier material, but acute compassion and humor ultimately carry the work: "What if uniworld demanded uniword?/ How to choose when they're all so tasty/ in the mouth's wet machinery."
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Jones has such elan and poise, not to mention the "good humor" she expresses frank if mischievous gratitude for in the title poem of her second, seemingly blithe but actually rock-solid and womanly wise collection. As in her award-winning Drive (1998), Jones evinces an ebullient love of life even as she acknowledges its dark side. A New Yorker through and through, Jones loves the city, and its high-voltage current feeds her own dancing energy as she conjures busy street scenes. But Jones is a homebody, too, and writes sexily about the pleasures of food and such stalwart companions as her kitchen sink. Wryly self-reliant and philosophically pragmatic, Jones meets change head-on, laughing at the tracks time so rudely stamps on the body, bidding departed loved ones tender good-byes, and finding something new and significant in whatever life brings. A thank-you note to Marvin Gaye, bits of family history, several powerful reflections on the immediate aftermath of September 11, and pithy observations and warnings such as "don't ever take my sweet / for weak" add up to an unusually warm and generous volume. Donna Seaman
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