A READING BY RODNEY JONES
Thank you much. I’m going to find the water first. A couple of years ago I learned to drink out of bottles. I’d never really learned and I didn’t know you were supposed to leave room for air. And I’m serious. I mean I was 53 years old when I learned, so we’re all capable of intellectual advances.
I don’t know why I wanted to start with this poem. It’s a private poem, but one of the things that I loved as a child, and there weren’t all that many, was my grandparents’ mattress; they had a feather mattress. And it seemed very magical to me and I always loved to run and just leap as high as I could and fall on the mattress.
And when they died, the mattress came to me, and it’s not that it had lost its magic, but it just lay around for a long time, and at some point, I had all of these jigs I was fishing for croppie with, and they wore their feathers off and they seemed magical to me. And so I cut it open—I cut open the mattress—and got the feathers to put back on the jigs—glued them on. And it worked very well, but I always felt a great guilt for that. It’s like they turned over in their graves; I was thinking, you know, there were great erotic experiences on the bed. So this is called “Family Mattress.”
[“Family Mattress,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]
And this is a related kind of thing that I saw today. I’ve always been afraid of heights and it’s been fortunate that I was as short as I am, I guess. You know, you search and you find ways to go on, but for a long time I had repetitive dreams that involved my flying. They would begin often with my dunking a basketball, which just feels wonderful, even if it is a dream. As they evolved, I began to, for some reason, steal airplanes. Though I didn’t know how to fly and I was afraid of heights, I always felt such joy and I thought, “How will I land it?” Because I feel like I could take off; landing is another thing. And it’s just the sense of weightlessness that I’ve always liked. It’s called "Common-Law Kundalini."
[“Common-Law Kundalini,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]
My grandparents had two workhorses, great workhorses, that they used. They both lived to be over 30. The gelding was named Charlie and the mare was named Nell. And they meant something; for some reason, I always looked at horses as kind of gender examples. It was strange because, in general, mares are more temperamental than stallions unless mares are in heat around at which point they become very temperamental, but I hope this is not about my own marriage. It’s called "Nell."
[“Nell,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]
Early on when I moved to the place where I’ve lived for the last 10,000 years, for some reason I began meditating on, thinking about mules. This is sort of a symbolic mule. I can’t determine if it’s a self-portrait, or it’s the winged beast of poesy, Pegasus or whatever, but it was called “Mule.” I’m trying to think of something to tell you about mules that you don’t know, but then, why would you care, you know?
[“Mule,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]
This is called “The United States.” I think it’s an interesting country we live in. Borges said that Americans thought of themselves as soldiers, but that others in the world thought of them as traveling salesmen. And we think of ourselves as a great innovative country full of, I guess, who knows what kind of people are in this country. But I do know that corn is here and for some reason in this poem, I’ve tried to focus on things that this country represented to me.
[“The United States,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]
This is not a very uplifting poem, but I think it’s honest. And I’m not sure if honesty can be uplifting, but at least it’s something I’ve sworn not to be when I’m drinking. And I’m sober tonight, so perhaps this is mostly honest.
I held a number of interesting jobs as a maintenance person, a dump truck driver, and a farm worker and a factory worker, and then I went into a university. And over time it appears to me that the universities aren't quite the foreign countries that I once believed them to be. I think many of us came into a university in which there was not a mall in the student center, but soon there will be shoe stores. In my son’s school, it’s very hard to go a step without buying something, and for some reason I want to drive the moneylenders out of the temples of education. Having said that, this is called, “My Monastery.”
[“My Monastery,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]
One of the things that people enjoyed doing when I was a child was making fun of people with mental disabilities. And it's a hobby that never seems to cease. Occasionally we do something for which we feel guilty the rest of our lives. What I did here was—the person in this poem is called Winton Bird is not named Winton Bird, because it occurred to me that he might have relatives, and so I changed the names. You know, probably I'll be sued anyway, right?
But this kid was a fifteen year old fifth grader and kids were held back then; furthermore, in the spring operetta, they gave him the part of the cave man, a sensitive thing, you know? And he was dressed in a leopard skin suit. After the play, everybody was returning to their classrooms. I, too, was returning to the classroom and I found a piece of angle iron that I was just looking at,
Just out of the blue I began hitting the stairs of the school with the piece of angle iron and it made this really great jangling noise, the kind of thing that irritates my wife, but I've always enjoyed those sounds—musical instruments—and it just made this wonderful jangling noise. Jaang. It just went on and on. And this kid, that I call Winton Bird, came by, heard what I was doing and he said, "That sounds good. Can I try that?" And I said, "Sure." And I gave him the angle iron and he began to merrily hit the step too. And I went into the classroom and nobody was there. And I said, "Where is everybody?" And the teacher said, "Well, the fire drill."
I never mentioned it, what happened, you know, I mean I went out on the playground and I came back and I saw the principal leading this kid down the hall to the office. It’s a sad story. What are you going to do? It's just to prove that these poems are deep; that there's deep meaning behind them.
"Winton and Mildred."
[“Winton and Mildred,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]
We didn't have a television when I was a kid so I learned to read. It was great, you know? The truth is, given a choice, most of us will watch Boston Legal, you know? I mean, it's true. We're tired; we're tired people. You all look tired. You came to a poetry reading. What's wrong? I mean, what's on tonight? Let me see. Is the OC on tonight? No.
In my community, because everyone else I had television, I think, and it was very slow to arrive, we remember the first people who got television and the way it was talked about. And I think the change it made, profound change in community, because before that it was kind of like the fetus of the cell phone. You went to socials. We had socials every week. And people sat on the porches and talked and hollered at people who passed. The worst part about all of that, nobody will admit it, but every community in America except for three, were packed with horrible musicians. And every social event was an attempt to batter your ears into musical surrender. And that was the truth, for the most part, but still I liked the fact that people were interacting, so this is simple: "TV."
[“TV,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]
I always thought of this as a happy elegy, but one thinks abstractly about death. It can be a comforting thought. My most comforting thought was always of being sucked up into a tree and blossoming. But still it would be terrible to be tickled by a bee then, wouldn't it? I mean. . . still, it was a good thought. So this was my thought of the after life and I guess I wrote it after realizing that a friend of mine, who is now involved in, as he calls it, Priest Craft—he's a Priest—his wife died, and it occurred to me that my thought about the after life is, perhaps, inadequate. So this is called "Ground Sense."
[“Ground Sense,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]
It seems to me, often, that people attack, love to attack, poetry and it seems so vulnerable. And yet, who cares, you know? You're free. You can write what you want. Nobody's going to read it anyway. So it's great in that way.
And then there are the efforts to talk about poems in groups. I actually like reading alone. I mean it's a wonderful thing. Poetry's a great friend, I think. But if you're talking in class, there's another way to talk about it. And I try not to pay attention to that. But the other thought that you have if you've devoted your life to poetry is that poetry isn't terribly important to most people. And that journalists just hate poets. I don't know why. But almost all journalists hate poets, you know? It’s what have we done? As do professors of literature.
But I was like a local kid in Alabama. I was from out in the country, and I knew there was another world. I was always reading, so I was kind of living in that world of reading. My only connection to the ground was like sex and football. But reading, I thought there was another world. And for some reason I formed the illusion that outside the South, all the people were writers. I know that's stupid but I—there's a line in here where I go outside the South and actually I remember this stopping in a truck stop and I thought, "Is that Anne Sexton?" I just thought, "Well, of course, that's where they're at."
"A Defense of Poetry."
[“A Defense of Poetry,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]
I'd like to read a poem about a bad attitude, I guess. It's kind of about being a democrat, but it's not about being a democrat either. I think anybody who grows up working close to a tennis court, if you've got a job close to a tennis court, it's kind of like the social situation. You're sitting there with like a drill, you know, beating on it and there are these people—whoooo, whoooo. And your going, “Man, that Marx guy he had something going on, you know? I mean this is . . .”
And I don't mean it in a good way. I mean, you ought to be able to get over those things, you know? I mean, it's important to love rich people, I think. You know, I mean, because they have good dentistry and it's important, but . . . . This is called "The Attitude."
[“The Attitude,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]
I'd like to read a poem that I spent a lot of time thinking about which probably isn't much of a poem, but we seem to be in a new era of psychological terror. This poem ended up being called, "Fears." To begin with, it was about flat characters, I mean the characters that have to remain flat for the novel to go on. And sometimes we are those characters and sometimes we're the flat characters in other people's novels and sometimes offended, but it occurs to me that many of the people we have vilified at this point in time have been those flat characters. So it's sort of a personification of fear and it's sort of about terrorism and I don't know how you'll read it.
[“Fears,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]
Early in my life I was raised by very good Christians. I don't know what happened to me, but I was really taught, sort of turn the other cheek, and raised by very pacifist people. And pretty much taught not to fight. And taught that the central message of Christianity, for instance, was peace. And yet, at the same time, I—you know it's just so hard to love some people when you think about it, you know, I mean . . .? And, you know, you extend that Christian thought to some kind of cosmic plane and you think, "Good virus. I love you, virus." No, you don't love the virus. But at some point I was sitting with a mosquito on my arm, as a grown man and still indulging this thought, “It's probably a little unit of consciousness there, you know?” You know, you just can't be that good.
[“The Mosquito,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]
This will be the last poem and I wanted to say one of my earliest feelings of power was just my absolute adoration for rain and rainstorms. And grandmother had an open front porch and as a little kid she always had like an old blanket that dogs had been sleeping on. But anything may be used when a rain is coming and the cold air starts coming. There's a point to where you can actually, sort of train the goose bumps on your body, with a blanket. You know, when the cold comes you feel the goose bumps going up and you just get a little blanket and you let them go down a little ways and then take it away and they go back up. And you feel you're in utter control of some great central pleasure. So that's where this poem is coming from. "Rain on Tin."
[“Rain on Tin,” by Rodney Jones, from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.]