Review by Suki Wessling (www.chatoyant.com)
THE BANDSAW RIOTS
by Arlitia Jones
Bear Star Press, 185 Hollow Oak Drive, Cohasset, CA 95973; ISBN# 09657177-7-1, 2001, 63 pp., $12.00
The great mystery of families--and lives--is why some of them work and so many don't. "Our parents did something right," mystified members of happy families might explain. It's much easier to explain failure than success. Arlitia Jones' autobiographical first book of poems, The Bandsaw Riots, goes a long way toward explaining one family's success, and is a great success in itself for the daughter of a butcher and a bank teller.
Set in Alaska, the book starts with the drudgery of work. "You never think it'll come to this," the butcher's daughter tells us as she sits on break outside a meat-packing plant in an Alaskan January. Winter himself makes a metaphorical appearance as a co-worker pulling off his lugger (butcher's coat) and pretending, for a moment, that he won't return. But work is as inevitable as winter in this place where no one lives in luxury, and work she does: in meat packing plants, at her father's butcher shop, in college classes. And the poems work, offering Jones' credentials in stark, colloquial language that tells stories simply and directly. Few frills adorn this verse, and the appearance of a few haiku halfway through seems almost extravagant.
Because of the thoughtful arrangement of the poems, this is the sort of collection that is a joy to read in the order printed. From the early poems that set the tone of her daily life, we move into contemplation and setting. Alaska, the background for most of the book, gets its due, though the poems always center on the people rather than the land. Alone early in the morning, "She is the only one to see the world / as it is, unknown and unspoken, / each rock a solid cool weight in her hand, / grit of earth rough on her skin, the wind--" In this middle section, Jones takes moments from a life of work to eulogize a friend, contemplate the winter solstice, and humorously ponder empty cabins and their former inhabitants.
The last section of the book quotes Hardy--"It takes two or three generations to do what I tried to do in one..."--but we quickly learn that Jones' process of moving past her parents' achievements was neither initiated recently nor done alone. In "Arrival," we meet Jones' first American forebears, the bare-footed matriarch keeping in mind "the legend of a President / born and raised in a one-room log cabin. / She saw it come true, the slogan hard-heeled through / her mother's heart, marching. In America, your kids / will have it better than you." Next we travel with Jones' family as they left Iowa "where we / would never be anything but the poor kids" and we see the strength of a family determined to better themselves.
Jones explores her relationship with her mother to further illustrate her struggle to reach past what she has been given. "Radical," the longest poem in the book, shows us Jones--"White coat, white apron, hair done up / in a bun, I look like the bride / of the USDA, nothing like a poet"--struggling with the expectations of a mother, who "survived her childhood / hiding in the tall grass out back / until the house fell quiet, didn't / fuck me up / despite every excuse". When her mother catches her reading an obituary of Bella Abzug instead of finishing the shop invoices, the defiant daughter declares, "I know whose daughter I am, / and the woman I'm determined to be." Yet in the very next poem the daughter's pride and fierce love shows her appreciation of her mother's particular style of child-rearing: "Only a bitch can raise a bitch. My mother's done it well."
The placement of "Young and Married and Making It" last before the Epilogue is not by chance. In this poem about her parents' young lives, Jones tells us her father, "liked the work. He was good at the living." One can easily say the same of the writer. These poems not only depict her struggle to "do in one generation" what others might not attempt in three--they are her struggle. Reveling in the language of her people, Jones presents us with vocabulary and diction that can only come from experience. But the experience of writing this book is also the struggle itself, to better herself, to clean her hands of the blood and knives that fill her poems, to create a new person by capturing the old within the world she is trying to leave.
Bear Star Press has done "something right" in bringing Jones' work to print. The small weaknesses of this book are not worth remarking. What is remarkable is the strength of this language, the story it tells, and the career that will hopefully blossom for this promising writer. Through her poems, we get the sense that Jones' parents, in their way, have brought their lives forward toward their goals. Perhaps Arlitia Jones will feel this way about her own life, though at the moment:
I'm Saran-ing hamburger, 700 pounds,
one pound at a time (holy fuck!
I'm gonna be here the rest of my life)
and thinking up the lines of a poem
I'll be too tired to write
by the time I get home.
Let's hope not.