By Hettie Jones
Hanging Loose Press, 92 pages, $15.
It is hard to talk about Hettie Jones’s poetry without mentioning her biography. Born Hettie Cohen in 1934, brought up in a middle-class section of Queens, she decamped to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in the mid-1950s. There she met and married the young black poet and soon-to-be playwright LeRoi Jones. In “How I Became Hettie Jones,” her remarkably level-headed 1990 memoir of that remarkably un-levelheaded period, Jones claims that she made this series of leaps because she was Jewish, although not in any conventional way. “As an outsider Jew I could have tried for white, aspired to the liberal intellectual, potentially conservative Western tradition,” she wrote. “But I was never drawn to that history and with so little to call my own, I felt free to choose.”
She chose New York’s Beat Bohemia and had quite a time. She became friends with poets (Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara), with musicians (Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp) and with painters (Franz Kline and Larry Rivers). As we know, this multi-hued downtown scene, so lovingly depicted in “How I Became Hettie Jones,” did not last. In the final analysis, it could not. The tensions of the early ’60s drove a thick racial wedge through the whole shebang — through her marriage as well as through a whole series of equally fragile alliances. LeRoi Jones became Amiri Baraka, but not before he left his wife and kids. And the rest, as they say, is history.
“How I Became Hettie Jones,” makes it clear that the complicated Beat paradise it describes was much more heavenly for the men than for the women. With a few exceptions, the guys were old-fashioned guys. They wrote, drank, smoked dope and screwed around, while their wives and girlfriends — all talented in their own right — earned the money and took care of the bills and looked after the kids. Occasionally they managed to screw around, as well, but only in their rare, free moments. The toll on their creativity was pretty high. While Hettie Jones did write a number of books for children and adults through the ’90s, she did not publish her first volume of poetry until she was over 60. She has made up for lost time “Doing 70” is her third in nine years. On the whole, Jones’s poems present fresh examples of a late ’50s/early ’60s aesthetic. To call them “Beat” does not do them justice, because they are happily devoid of the dated prophetic stances and the willful cuteness that you find in way too many works of the time. Nevertheless, she claims kin with the Beats. Her poetry mixes the everyday diction of William Carlos Williams with a capacious Zen openness. It tends to move swiftly from a concrete present to moments of glancing insight. Her poems usually start with mundane, very urban occurrences (getting towed, calling the plumber, meeting an acquaintance from the neighborhood in the street), only to end with expressions of unexpected joy.
Here is the end of “Genuflection to the Cable Guys From Time Warner,” which describes a rainy-day confrontation between two workmen who insist there is a cable box on the roof and an “undersized, overdressed/older white woman/in raveling fingerless gloves,” that is, the poet herself:
Genuflection in the house
to the cable guys
from Time Warner
who find nothing on the roof
and are laughing coming down
the one who says, oh, you have a nice apartment
and the one who reaches to shake my half-gloved hand
sweet meeting, these bare, wet fingers.
The poem concludes with that lovely second of contact between Jones and the workers. she describes all this with such lightness, such good humor that even the most informed reader might miss what I take to be an echo of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” But perhaps you don’t actually need to notice it, because Jones’s refusal of Pound is so complete. She rejects Pound’s urban anomie, however pretty it might be, and substitutes in its place the odd recognitions and connections of city life.
This same insistence on human contact animates “Women in Black,” a brief account of a vigil in Beijing:
Patterns in the dust of
different kinds of shoe soles
black on black
we sway like grain, like the woman
beside me, the scar of the burning
When she turns to me,
smiling, the scar is a path, slick
in the gathering dark Half the world
is ours to take.
This poem is not the best in the collection (the title poem takes that prize), but it definitely shows Jones at her best. She moves with deceptive ease from perception to simile and then to flat declaration. Jones is also very deft in her treatment of what becomes the central figure of that poem, the scar that marks the woman beside her. That scar seems to signal some untold story of violence, but Jones lets it rest as a simple fact. She avoids the temptations of melodrama and opts instead for the hope and the wit of the final line. Not only is Jones apparently free of rancor, but she also is possessed of what might be the greatest of political virtues: solidarity. She is able to relate without having to identify, to love without having to consume. This is a great gift, and, coupled with her resolute optimism, it is worth the price of admission.
Needless to say, not all the poetry in “Doing 70” is as successful as this. It is very hard to find a consistent balance between relatively slight motivations and resonant conclusions, especially in anti-war poems. So the book is uneven and sometimes the endings don’t work. That doesn’t matter. The strength of Jones’s work does not really rest on its best lines or its aptest metaphors or its most fitting closures. Instead, the poems serve as models of emotional engagement. Tough and sexy, they remain committed to the upstart possibilities of the postmodern city. Jones lacks illusion, but she is not disillusioned. That is no small thing, and may well be one of the gifts of age. She is, in the end, a mensch. It is usually mere irrelevance or pure sentimentality to talk about a poet’s heart. With Hettie Jones, it becomes a form of praise.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.