Book Review: Vessel by Parneshia Jones
In Parneshia Jones’s poem “Definition,” we learn that Parneshia is a lost-in-translation version of Parnassus, the mountain associated in classical Greece with poetry. Jones’s first name is the serendipitous product of her Creole father’s strongly Southern-inflected pronunciation of Mount Parnassus as heard by her Northern mother before Parneshia was born. In “Definition,” Jones, who grew up with this knottily prescient name to become a poet, plays with her suggestive personal history, lovingly and humorously probing her own patchwork provenance. In this way, Jones blends the rarified and classic with the disarmingly personal. And this is how much of Vessel reads—these are poems that feel intimate (we are invited in to get to know Jones and her treasured family members in poem after poem), yet at the same time this is verse that takes on much that is part of our collective history.
In “Legacy,” Jones meditates on the complex history of the black American diaspora:
A harvest of migrating hearts
tell our way back when.
We are porch stories, buttermilk aprons,
lovers of Sundays and sailboats.
We are the long grass and anxious wind,
the generations, speaking softly, between
the lines of history.
These are images both homey and cutting. “A harvest of migrating hearts” tells us in a visceral, vivid way about home and displacement and attachment. Jones stitches together such wrenching images with scenes of “porch stories, buttermilk aprons,” all without succumbing to sentiment. Her lines mix nostalgia with provocation. Jones easily shuttles between her own story and all our stories, and as we read we feel both invited in and called upon.
We read poems about Jones’s name, about her family’s cooking (“Lard sizzles a sermon from the stove,” from “Congregation”), about her mother’s voice, about bra shopping, about being an anxious girl growing up, about Chicago, about fathers and father figures, about her grandmother’s senility (“I still want to believe she is in there. / I want to take the last of her, / plant her in my heart and let her / bloom again, happy, saved.” from “Blink”), about Marvin Gaye (“Your three-octave croon / made women rethink their husbands / and fine rethink its definition.” from “Milk and Honey: Marvin Gaye”), about porches, about family gatherings, and about “Catfish, crab legs, and chitlins” (in “Girl”). We read lines that comfort us while reminding us of all that is hard about this life.
Jones has a knack for yoking the celebratory with the comic, for aligning pathos with bathos. Many of her poems reimagine her past with a partly acerbic, partly wistful overlay. In “Bra Shopping,” we witness a painfully awkward shopping trip to Marshall Field’s, where a mother and her tomboy daughter circle around what it means to care for and about each other. Throughout the poem, Jones leavens the difficult mother-daughter connection with an acknowledgment of the absurdity of it all:
Like they’re two midgets I keep strapped to my chest.
I stand there while these two women, one my own kin,
discuss the maintenance and storage of my two dependents.
Later in the collection, we read an arresting series of haikus titled “Haikus to a Younger Self.” Here Jones again considers both the high and the low, both the personal as well as the universal. Her retrospective, nostalgic haikus are spare and powerful:
Fear is a feeling
Don’t let it become a way
of life is too short
Jones, kiss your brother
As if it will be the last
One day it will be
In “Auto-Correcting History,” Jones again casually and powerfully extends her own personal experience into an exemplum that speaks to us all. She describes a time when autocorrect had not yet caught up with history:
Barack and Obama cause keystroke duels
between my auto-correct and me.
Not willing to give up,
it plugs in Brick and Abeam, trying to
hold on tight to its King’s English.
We are real and breathing.
We are hungry and rewriting dictionaries.
We are poets and presidents.
We have made it known that his name,
our names, every black letter birthed
from the blinking cursor is permanent
We’ve all experienced autocorrect-generated infelicities; indeed, these ersatz–Automatic-writing moments when you feel momentarily possessed and frequently pissed are so common as to have become fodder for online memes and late-night banter. In her poem, Jones moves from her own familiar battle with autocorrect to a larger, more urgent fight to be heard, to be seen, to be acknowledged. For Jones, these programmed codifications are more than just amusing renditions of what she actually meant to write. Rather, these peremptory changes reflect an official language that has historically excluded certain voices, certain stories. These autocorrections speak to a deeper, more pressing history of missteps that our country is only slowly learning to right. In “Auto-Correcting History,” Jones, just as she does when she parses the rich history of her name in “Definition,” uncovers layers of meaning in the everyday palimpsests of her life. In Vessel, Jones, working in distilled, layered language, mines the quotidian, the casual, the seemingly incidental to unearth resonant meaning that matters to us all.
Maggie Trapp teaches literature online for UC Berkeley, and she regularly writes book reviews for various publications.