Image by Capri Huffman
It’s hard to find the words to describe Alive at the End of the World, Saeed Jones’ 2022 sophomore poetry collection. Part elegy for his mother, part homage to the Black artists who came before, part dissection of history and its interactions with the modern world, it’s gorgeous and morbid; exquisite and painful. Indeed, the pain is directly interrogated in a series of prose poems entitled ‘Saeed, or The Other One: I-IV.’ In the first of the four, Jones describes being asked at a reading whether he thinks he needs his pain to write.
“Oh, honey,” I answered in a voice that was mine as much as it wasn’t, “you’ve got it all wrong. My pain needs me.” And then I did that thing I do with my eyebrows and the muscles around my mouth and the angle of my neck that says “trust me, whatever you think just happened, that was a joke.” And the audience laughed.
He plays off the moment for humor, but when he gets home in (II), his pain has a body and wants to have a conversation. Throughout the subsequent ‘Other One’ poems, each of which closes one of the book’s four sections, the two Saeed’s talk, wondering: Who needs who? Which is real? Where does one end and the other begin?
Meanwhile, each section of the collection opens with a poem titled ‘Alive at the End of the World,’ taking various angles on the title: one is inspired by the Pulse nightclub shooting, while another casts the End of the World as an abusive father. This dialogue frames the rest of the poems in the collection, as Jones attempts to reconcile modern existence with all kinds of pain — historical, political, and personal. Several poems imagine the perspectives of trail-blazing Black musicians and artists such as Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, and Toni Morrison, many of whose works have been co-opted, minimized, or crucified in mainstream popular culture. Other poems explore ongoing encounters with racism, as well as the ghosts of slavery and colonialism. Across the collection, these subjects intersect with Jones’ struggles with trauma and grief at the loss of his mother, yet somehow never succumb to nihilism or hopelessness.
It is, I think, a perfect collection for the cultural moment. When the future looms like a threat, when the world keeps chugging along like a runaway train down an uncertain track, and everything seems to have devolved into stark black or white, digital or real, drag shows or guns, Alive at the End of the World blurs the lines. It asks, What do we do, how do we keep living, when every step feels like the end of the road?
The answer? I don’t have one, but hey, here’s a quote from ‘Everything is Dying, Nothing is Dead’:
I rise to open a window
only to realize
he’s opened one for me already:
the autumn air has always been here,
lacing our every breath
and I love the man who knows I love
the sweet-smoke smell of approaching death.
Maybe we find some way to fall in love, a little bit, with the end. Or maybe we find other people to love, and who will love us, through it.
My name is Capri Huffman and I run a book-themed Instagram (@sobstorybooks) with my friend Gabby, reviewing and promoting books by LGBTQ and BIPOC authors. My goal with my new book review series here at Mixed Mag is the same: to help great books by marginalized authors find the audiences they deserve! I follow new releases from all genres, from YA to literary fiction to poetry, so I’m sure together we’ll find some great titles to suit any taste.