Sometimes it seems like the world only cares about new things. Everywhere you look in Boulder there are new buildings, new businesses, new people replacing what was here before. Online there’s lots of talk about today’s headlines, while yesterday’s get lost in the feed. And in literature everyone’s focused on promoting their latest book with the assumption the old books had their chance and can/should now be safely ignored.
But I’ve always liked old things. I like old buildings, businesses, people, news, and books. The more forgotten the better. I just can’t help thinking they’re still good, and it wasn’t their fault they couldn’t stay new forever. Like the box I just dug out of storage labeled “long lost local poetry.” It was very dusty and made me sneeze, but it also made me think about all the time, energy, thought, care, and hope their authors had once put into the works found in there and how maybe they shouldn’t all just vanish into history. So I decided, while I had the motivation, I’d honor some of them with reviews.
Starting with Michael Jones’s Shadowlit, published by Boulder’s Baobob Tree Press back in 2009…
In Michael Jones’s own words the color of his skin is ‘milk chocolatey-redwood,’ but to most unpoetically-perceptioned people they’d think of him as ‘black.’ And this book is a lot about that.
Michael, originally from Los Angeles, is one of the handful of black people in Boulder, and tho he can find support in this progressive town to an extent, his poetry makes it clear he still cannot escape the feeling of being an other here even amongst his allies. In pieces like “i m i b” he challenges the idea that white people here can truly understand what he’s going thru…
“seas of milky faces/ who might have empathy/ but can’t really feel me”
Other pieces, such as “Jan Scott Sez,” are about more obvious racism that he encounters, such as this community access TV show that…
“sez the only blacks in Boulder/ are CU crackhead, rapist football players”
Unfortunately things have probably gotten even worse here since this was written. You’ll run into Michael these days, and he’ll always give you the rundown on his latest incidents with the local cops. Usually initiated by some pearl-clutching white residents who made a snap judgment about the bohemian-looking minority passing by.
But I’ve know Michael for years, we earned our MFA’s at Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School at the same time, and altho race almost always seems to be on the forefront of his mind, he’s a true intellectual who’d resent the idea of looking at anything too simply.
In Shadowlit I get the feeling Michael would rather be trying to transcend identity and division and focus on universals that connect us all. In “when gods talk” he writes…
“b cuz we are/ all simply the/ same thing as they/ said in the beginning…”
A significant theme of the chapbook is grief. Many of the pieces are about trying to process the recently deceased, whether close family or nationally known figures like Matthew Shepard or Michael Jackson. The first poem “elegy for (Janice Jones)” is a simple, imagery-based account of his mother’s funeral. It’s an idealistic poem which yearns to convey the reality of loss without any other concepts interfering.
But unfortunately for Michael he doesn’t (like I do) have the privilege of ignoring race for long. Reality sets in with the second piece in which you can not reckon with the death of Michael Jackson without considering the hand race played in his life – the musical superstar’s struggle to accept his god-given appearance. In fact, death is not able to exist independently of social injustice for the near entirety of this book, climaxing with a raw and gripping poem of self-awareness, “Prescription for Grief/Mourning,” in which the writer’s only relief from his sister’s death seems to be substance abuse.
In his near hopeless frustration, and this is the most moving part of the work for me, Michael seems to find a true healthy salvation in literature (Pound, Hughes, Whitman) and especially music. Nearly every piece contains some musical reference such as Marvin Gaye, Wu Tang Clan, Ornette Coleman, KRS One, or Madonna. The book’s finale “MjBee” documents a transcendent experience with singer Mary J Blige which boldly suggests some optimism in this painful and confusing world…
“brilliant day/ forged/ through a soul’s/ dark night/ inarticulate/ gratitude/ for all the/ things/ of/ this life/ this life/ this life”
Michael is a man brave enough to cry in public, and I can imagine him movingly tearing up while reading this emotionally powerful piece at the mic.
While so many have come and gone in the 15+ years since Michael first came on this scene, he’s miraculously still in town and performing. He did an incredible one man show during last year’s Boulder Fringe Festival, and if you’re lucky he’ll drop in on an open mic from time to time. He’s a master in front of an audience, with unrivaled time and space awareness, musical rhythmic cadences, and a soulfully deep voice.
Strangely, tho this book came out nearly 10 years ago now, Shadowlit is Michael’s only published work and likely difficult to find a copy of any more. I guess it’s just how things go in a system that often doesn’t fairly reward people, and it has clearly has nothing to do with the poet’s immense talent and highly relevant content. Which gives even more credence to the idea that it’s worth dusting off these old books and sharing them with you in this series.
Jonathan Bluebird Montgomery is editor-in-chief of Boulder Poetry Tribe. He’s a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. The author of Pizzas and Mermaid, Taxis & Shit, and brand new novel The Reality Traveler, he lives in Boulder and teaches English at Front Range Community College. You can read more of his creative work at jonathanbluebirdmontgomery.com