Spanning over fifty years in the town of Cold Springs, this new work from an award-winning poet expands on the idea of memory and pushes the bounds of what poetry—and literature—can be.
“A novel in language as dense and lush and beautiful as poetry . . . [or] a book of poetry with the vivid characters and the narrative force of a novel? Whatever you care to call it, it’s a remarkable achievement.” — Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Empire Falls
Village Prodigies imagines the town of Cold Springs, Alabama, from 1950 to 2015 and unfurls its narrative reach as six boys—prodigies and swains—grow up and leave the familiarity of home and the rural South.
Yet all prodigies, all memories, all stories inevitably loop back. Through a multiplicity of points of view and innovative forms, Rodney Jones plays with the contradictions in our experience of time, creating portals through which we travel between moments and characters, from the interior mind to the most exterior speech, from delusions to rational thought. We experience Alzheimer’s and its effect on family, listen to family lore and read family Facebook posts, relive war, and revive half-forgotten folktales and video games. In this deep examination of personal and communal memory, Jones blurs the lines between analog and digital, poetry and prose.
The Portal of the Years
Whole days try to crowd into the portal. It is a portal or it is a switch-board. A big party line, each must wait a turn. Inchoate twittering of porch chickens. Rain barrels full after the storm empties. A small place, everyone speaks and everyone listens. Though in the portal, it is not places but times that converse, while inside the switchboard, it is only the one time. Early summer, a barber in the front room shakes talcum onto the neck of a janitor. An operator named Eunice places the calls, and they race through the feet of crows. Eunice overhears everything: she can describe the new baby’s crib-cap, the voices of father and son raised in anger before the shooting in the motel room. But omniscience is discreet, nods knowingly, chews gum. God imagines nothing. A man kneels to the meat on the grill and knows the unsayable thing. She has been dead weeks and the Zippo she slipped into his pocket still makes a ?ame.
REQUIEM FOR REBA PORTIS
I (Cleon Portis)
Deaf raconteur will talk your ear o?
(just a loose reckoning, the ratio
of saying to listening might
run anywhere from 80:20 to 97:03) —
the children wait, sort, analyze.
Then respond on a yellow legal pad.
He reads quickly and never replies.
They do not expect explanation.
These are anecdotes, after all, and in each
some especially vivid or sentimental
image: the theft of a slave’s only socks,
a hole in the woods with no bottom.
The lung sounds in his words click home.
A gravel road winds past a quarry.
The house sits on a limestone blu?
between a spring and a cemetery.
Today the daughter is very happy
and writes to tell the father why.
After much phoning, she has found
a capable girl to stay with mother.
The father has a way of making himself
handsome when he does not wish
to reply; it is the look of a good boy
who has been gifted a pony with one eye.
The eyebrows rise, the head tilts
like a bobber when a bream nibbles
but will not take the hook. This
is Morse a new anecdote is forming.
A cousin previously unknown to him
has written from Texas she wants to see
the old homeplace and will visit
once she gets out of the penitentiary.
Well, it is a hard kind of thing to answer.
Brooke looks to Cleon and Cleon to Brooke.
White in her wingchair the mother taps.
Seth debrides anecdotes that concern him.
From visit to visit, anecdotes cycle
like painted horses on a carousel.
In one, sailors ?sh for monster cat?sh
in the mouth of the Amazon. The bosun
fashions a hook from a steel piston.
The cook pro?ers a whole chicken for bait.
Another is of a widow and son,
cotton pickers — once the mother
questioned the way he sold it. What
was that word she used? Untoward.
And how can she forget now?
His voice drags a tarred sack. At intervals
the widow undoes her blouse,
and the son, who is so tall he stands
?atfooted to nurse, wears
a rooster feather in his hat.
“The book bursts with anecdotes and experiences… [Jones builds] a perfectly flawed landscape of characters… sprawling… its poems inhabit the psychology and mythology of this Southern town… In these reflective moments, Jones’ voice surfaces and unifies the collection.” —ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
“[Village Prodigies] presents a multifaceted, impressionistic history of an extended, ‘backcountry genteel’ Southern family… Holding the work together is Jones’s vivid (‘oil derricks in the white fields near the cemetery/like elephants doing pushups in dreams’) and pithy (‘It is how we see that composes us’) poetic diction. Readers who seek out experimental literature will appreciate Jones’s challenging approach to storytelling, as will those in search of richly realized, imaginatively crafted poetry.” —LIBRARY JOURNAL
“Jones presents a novel in verse that is wonderfully complex in structure and reach and lively in its characters and setting, the imaginary southern town of Cold Springs, Alabama… Any James Dickey connoisseurs or fans of the films of David Lynch or Chris Nolan will feel right at home on these pages… This is a gorgeous, thought-provoking, and evocative book of narrative poetry.” —BOOKLIST
“Already a master of narrative poetry, Rodney Jones has increased the possibilities of that form sevenfold with Village Prodigies, but that's just for starters. This book…[has] everything worth having, by the bucketload: a rare genius for the fabric of this world, linguistic inventiveness that Joyce would have envied and a music, in whatever measure he chooses to employ, that most poets don't even try for. This is it, the real thing, contemporary poetry's gold standard.”
– John Burnside, author of Black Cat Bone, winner of the Forward Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize
“Wonderfully rich and dense; an adventure, a trip, an engrossing read, a Southern golden book of words.”
–C.D. Wright, author of Shallcross, winner of National Book Critics Circle Award, Griffin International Poetry Prize
“The affinity and affection I have for Jones’s previous books of poetry are beyond bounds, but Village Prodigies completely blows my mind—and my heart. What do you get when you combine feel-good evangelicalism, blind patriotism, Cold War paranoia, small-town gossip, southern repression and provincialism, a cast of characters Shakespeare would envy, dead-on time travel, and a recurring poetic line of pentameter? Apparently, you get this book, a novel in verse that expands the capabilities and the forms of poetry, a work of art set partly in a more innocent time that puts the turmoil of our own time into wise perspective. Here we have the diagnosis and the antidote, as Robert Penn Warren observed, a commentary and, if not a way out, at least a way forward. This is a book of inherent wisdom and explicit vision. I am tempted to say a genius is behind this, but I know, more candidly, this book is a labor, the true work and attention of art, and the full expression of love, a human love reaching for a greater love out there in the vastness. Here is a book, for all its irreverence, to raise to the heavens and be happy.”
–Maurice Manning, author of One Man's Dark and Pulitzer Prize finalist
“Village Prodigies uses a modest American town and its citizens to ponder an immodest array of the world's most baffling imponderables. Beginning with the fallibility of one's own internal compass–the mind–and extending to every further layer of reliable knowns (family, circle of friends, town, country, world), Jones' characters have been thrown a gauntlet of conflicts (personal, local, national). And if the inner world trembles with uncertainty, the physical world -- by season, by tool, by history, by progress -- plods forward regardless. The book has it both ways, showcasing the lyric beauty of the eternal and abiding, as well as celebrating the individual in his headlong hurl through the too-brief and chaotic corporeal life. I applaud the truly avant garde nature of this project.”
–Antonya Nelson, author of Funny Once and Nothing Right
“There is a novelistic wholeness, with characters recurrent and developing, and a firm sense of place which, taken together, cause the sense of entering into a whole life. The drama and individuals are compellingly present. Nobody gets lost in the interweaving or in the shifts of perspectives…Some of the events are almost too painful to face, some too funny to do anything but grin. It is a fable as strong and true as that film I love, "Stand By Me," but with the grim future we all have also hovering in every instant.”
– Dave Smith, author of Hawks on Wires and Little Boats, Unsalvaged
“It’s one of the best contemporary poetry books I’ve ever read ever. The book plays with different forms, plays with punctuation and lines, syntax and diction, varies the points of view, moves between comic and tragic. It makes the poems continually surprising both in form and content, which also creates a lot of energy…a tremendous achievement.”
–Stephen Dobyns, author of Cemetery Nights
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