Summer time is reading time! And of course I’ve been reading poetry. Let’s talk about Cornelius Eady’s Autobiography of a Jukebox. Why? Because it’s a great book.
Whether you frequently read poetry or much rather read fiction, this is an accessible book: The poems tell stories as well as telling an overarching story. They are down-to-earth in language and content. The book is divided into four sections, roughly arranged by theme. Themes that show in all sections are ‘the blues’, poverty and abuse.
In the first section, the poem “Money Won’t Change It (but time will take you on)” stood out to me with its succinct, memorable illustration of poverty and jealousy: “You’re rich, lady, hissed the young woman at / My mother as she bent in her garden. / Look at what you’ve got, and it was / Too much, the collards and tomatoes, / A man, however lousy, taking care / of the bills.”
What does she have? She’s got a place to live, a garden to grow her own food (which gets stolen or vandalized), a man to pay the bills (who abuses her), and jealous neighborhood women.
Women feature prominently in this collection of poems: as mother, sister, wife, and cousin. In “Who Wrote the Book of Love?” the mother writes “her book to and about Jesus / Who blows love in her poor ear. / Jesus, the man my daddy once saw / Lying next to her / In her old army cot.”
Eady’s poems bear witness of women who are abused, cheated out of their money, disappointed, lied to. They have moments of strength and determination, as in “The Yankee Dollar,” where we learn that “25 thousand dollars cash money / Is what my mother is waiting for / Before she’ll move out of / The calamity we call my dead father’s house. […] Nothing less will salve the wound / She called living with my father.” Echoing Virginia Woolf’s call, she explains “I want my own […] / A key and a lock, / A deed with her ink on the line / And the men she carries in her head, Sometimes my father, now sometimes me, / To bow our heads and step aside.” All of Eady’s poems are this elegantly simple, and this is what I mean when I say the book is accessible.
“I Want to Fly Like Superman” is a heart-wrenching poem about abandonment and emotional abuse. Marie, left behind by her mother, is bullied by her cousins who remind her over and over that she’s unwanted. What bullied child hasn’t dreamed of flying, of having just one superpower suddenly emerge and then the teasing and the abuse will stop? Marie’s superpower doesn’t emerge. When she jumps off the roof, she falls like a rock as her cousins watch and laugh. The lesson the girl learns that day is “that the main rule of this family is: there is no obligation to save a fool.”
If I were to teach a class on contemporary American poetry, this book would be on the reading list, along with francine j. harris’s allegiance. Eady talks about race and racism in intelligent and interesting ways, showing different ways to respond to it.
“It would be difficult to stuff my anger into an envelope, harder still, even dangerous, to send it through the US Postal System,” explains Eady in “Anger.” He observes how black and white people treat each other, how black people treat other black people, and how sometimes he’s not quite black enough — “I catch the rapid once-over from The Brother With The Dreads as he walks up to us, beginning with my red hightops, and ending with the partial fade in my hair, which causes my writer friend to jump to my defense with, The Brother teaches college” (from “What Is Hip?”).
Rodney King is referenced more than once. “I love the world, / But my heart’s / Been cheated” we hear in “Rodney King Blues,” and then“Nobody’s Fault But Mine” picks apart the dumbfounding implications of the claim that King’s injuries were all his own fault: “His main point being, Rodney didn’t seem to understand the drill.” Yes, but “Rodney King’s body has informed his lizard brain that he’s in big trouble, mortal danger, that it’s night, that he’s alone, surrounded and being beaten by cops screaming proof that his ass is theirs, is grass, that there will be no other witnesses besides the police.”
Eady is a music lover, that much is obvious from the titles and references in his poems. The whole third section is brimming with musicians: Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Eric Dolphy, etc. The title of this post (What will ring from these spotlit bones?) is taken from this section, from the poem “Photo of Milt Jackson, 1964.”
The collection ends on a set of lighter poems such as “Tramp” (“The barber’s friendly and game, but he’s up against my home-boy hair, urban steel wool, industrial-strength kink. / / We both act as if we’re on a bad blind date”) and the hilarious “Charlie Chaplin Impersonates a Poet”: “He opens his mouth: Tra-la! / Out comes doves, incandescent light bulbs, / Plastic roses.” Over all, an enjoyable, round collection.