By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, June 24, 2007

In his poetry Rodney Jones achieves a central goal of American culture: bringing freedom of imagination to a pragmatic sense of life, an intellectual perspective to observation. How do the general demands of survival or gain accord with each soul's spiritual hungers? How is each related to the mass? The novels of writers as different as Willa Cather and Herman Melville, the movies of filmmakers as different as John Ford and Preston Sturges, engage those questions.

Jones approaches such large-scale material as if from a small side entrance. His poems have the mild, slyly confident, occasionally outrageous manner of a good talker. Sometimes, he keeps his musing, vernacular voice so moderate in tone that the writing reminds me of a baseball term for certain pitchers, "sneaky fast" -- the delivery finishes with more heat than the lulling windup suggests:


The front seats filled last. Laggards, buffoons,

and kiss-ups falling in beside local politicos,

the about to be honored, and the hard of hearing.

No help from the middle, blenders and criminals.

And the back rows: restless, intelligent, unable to commit.

My place was always left-center, a little to the rear.

The shy sat with me, fearful of discovery.

Behind me the dead man's illegitimate children

and the bride's and groom's former lovers.

There, when lights were lowered, hands

plunged under skirts or deftly unzipped flies,

and, lights up again, rose and pattered in applause.

Ahead, the bored practiced impeccable signatures.

But was it a movie or a singing? I remember

the whole crowd uplifted, but not the event

or the word that brought us together as one--

One, I say now, when I had felt myself many,

speaking and listening: that was the contradiction.

This poem gets its first propulsion from a variety of juicy, notable nouns: "laggards," "buffoons," "kiss-ups," "politicos." But after that initial burst, the energy comes less from vocabulary than from the shimmery, speculative nature of the event: Was this an awards dinner or a picture show, a funeral or a recital, a wedding or an AA meeting? How do those unzippings fit with "the whole crowd uplifted" or the dead man?

Jones was born in Alabama, and some readers might relate his gifts to Southern gab, eloquence or tall tales. The matter-of-fact, nearly prosy narration of this impossible composite heightens its fantastic quality. The disorienting yet familiar narrative details of back rows, skirts, gossip can shift rapidly into the twinkling political terminology of "left-center, a little to the rear." Walt Whitman proclaims, near the end of his "Song of Myself," "I contain multitudes." In an opposite or complementary way, Rodney Jones wonders aloud about what it means to be or feel part of a multitude. ยท

(Rodney Jones's poem "Sitting with Others" can be found in his book "Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005." Houghton Mifflin. Copyright 2006 by Rodney Jones.)

Robert Pinsky's most recent book is "The Life of David."

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