…With time, the white boys
with guns will become wounds we won’t
quite remember enduring. “How did you
get that scar on your shoulder?” “Oh.
a boy I barely knew was sad once.”
From “Alive at the End of the World”
Award-winning poet and memoirist Saeed Jones returns with his second full-length collection, Alive at the End of the World. Jones reaffirms his place as one of the most talented living poets writing in English with this collection, demonstrating an ever-evolving mastery of language and a distinct eye for structural balance. He separates this manuscript into four sections, each one carefully framed by a poem carrying “Alive at the End of the World” and a section of Jones’ short fiction piece, “Saeed, or The Other One.” Building out the collection in this way continually grounds the poems in each section, reasserting two threads that echo throughout: the pervasive threat of death in a white supremacist state, and the relationship Jones has with his pain.
“Saeed, or The Other One” is visually out of place in the collection, yet the prose is imbued with Jones’ poetic voice and the narrative provides vital context for the collection as a whole. In the first entry, an audience member asks Jones why there is so much pain in his work, raising the question of whether or not Jones needs his pain in order to write. Jones responds, “‘you’ve got it all wrong. My pain needs me.” Though he is sure the comment is initially a joke, the incident lingers. Over the course of the next three sections of the story, Jones considers and then directly confronts his pain, which eventually manifests as a second Saeed.
What makes this story both powerful and necessary to the collection is that we see Jones candidly and earnestly grappling with something he voices in his memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, namely the fear that he has, or will, commodify his pain through his writing. Jones resists the pressure to neatly end the narrative, admitting instead, “I didn’t know why he needed me, just that he did. And the feeling was mutual. A white man in the audience with a white balloon of a blank stare had asked me about my pain and there it was, an urgent tug in the ether. A call and response inside the church of us.”
The repetition of the title “Alive at the End of the World” urges readers to consider what Jones characterizes as the end of the world in each section. The first poem, which precedes the collection proper, centers mass shooting at the prevalence of White male shooters who participate in massacre. The next entry offers Jones preparing a dress to house versions of himself, ending with a stark image of “a man in pain/naked in the middle of the street.” The final entry presents the end of the world as a nightclub guarded by “Drag queens with machetes and rhinestoned/machine guns.” Together, this series of poems offers a window into self-preservation, each entry bringing the speaker closer to a version of himself that persists in spite of the myriad threats to his existence.
Alive at the End of the World is filled with poems that will stop readers in their tracks. Jones puts his signature wit and humor on full display, as well as his brilliant economy of language. In “That’s Not Snow, It’s Ash,” the speaker dreams that he witnesses his lover being burned alive. Jones ends the poem with a subtle yet searingly ominous admission, “You drink your coffee, pat his thigh/and watch the snow fall outside,/pretending you don’t smell smoke./He’s fine, you think. We are fine.” Another poem, “If You Had an Off Button, I’d Name You ‘Off’,” offers a spin on the Pinnochio tale, culminating in the realization that “The end of the world/is a boy who doesn’t need to be a real boy to grieve like one.”
Jones also includes a number of poems which center his mother and her lingering influence on his writing. As with Prelude to a Bruise and How We Fight for Our Lives, Jones is achingly vulnerable in these poems, offering a window into the grief he continues to carry and the unparalleled loss caused by his mother’s death. “I’ve made a home out of how much I miss you/and there’s no one here to tell me I should leave,” he laments in “Saeed, How Dare You Make Your Mother Into a Prelude.” Even the act of moving on becomes painful, evidenced in the closing lines to “Okay, One More Story,” as Jones directly addresses his mother: “forgive me—but I’m no longer the son I was/when I lost you, and I’d rather have you dead/than have you in that bed, dying forever.”
Alive at the End of the World is, pardon the cliche, a tour de force. Jones includes poems that invoke Black performers, indict white supremacist America and the so-called justice system, invoke and resurrect his mother, and unpack the challenges of self-actualization. Readers will encounter endless turns of phrase and entire poems that echo for days, sometimes for weeks. This is precisely the type of work we have come to expect from Jones, and yet his unique skill with language continues to surprise. It’s a book that will undoubtedly garner massive critical attention, but also one that the individual reader will feel compelled to carry with them, to share with friends and loved ones, to sit with alone at the end of the world.