Review by Cecilia Savala
Ashley M. Jones’s newest poetry collection, dark // thing, winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry, emphasizes the strength in “Otherness” while refusing to be set aside. Mostly set in Jones’s home state of Alabama, the poetry in the collection cannot be constrained. Jones does not color inside the lines but instead straddles them, stretches them, and even redefines them with her expert use of language, sound, and form. Between speaking for and through Otherness, her poetry won’t allow the reader to ignore the inhumanity of being Othered.
Jones’s cadence and use of sound lull her readers into a false sense of security while her capacity with form and manipulation of the space on the page shake the reader’s sense of the familiar. She takes hold of slurs; she takes off on a motorcycle, vicariously. Without waiting for anyone to give her the floor, she claims her space, both on the page and off. She exhibits the courage to take on forms, molding them to her purposes, as in “Sunken Place Sestina,” where the ends of her lines liken “hall” to “haul” and she slant-rhymes “shall,” “all” and “enthrall.” Her sestinas are especially powerful. In “Water,” which is an almost-sestina, and in “When You Tell Me I’d Be Prettier With Straight Hair,” Jones’s voice shines through her control. She uses variations of her first stanza’s final words to gently sculpt her lines like pottery in her hands.
dark // thing marries the familiar with the experimental, pushing the boundaries of what’s comfortable and, as a result, asking the reader to explore a perspective different from his or her own. Via consistently heavy religious references and, for example, threads of conversation between the speakers and Harriet Tubman, Jones has created a landscape in which it is impossible to pretend all is well.
In “Recitation,” a young girl is Othered from her peers at the recital of the title because she is a person of color in a gifted classroom. This poem allows the reader to step into the shoes of the girl and feel the solitude when no one around is enough like you: “I wonder, each day, how it feels to breathe like the other children, like the pretty girls.” Jones puts the loneliness in the reader’s face, and forces upon her the discomfort of feeling different. Similarly, in “When You Tell Me I’d Be Prettier With Straight Hair,” the speaker’s hair is what sets her apart from the Black men she encounters. “men // all their hair costs is a biweekly haircut / twenty bucks and side of pride for Rogaine Hair Club for Men.”
Jones directs our attention to the fact that we have many things in common as well. Pop culture abounds in dark // thing. “Sunken Place Sestina” references Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and claims “even a brother / can appreciate Harry Potter.” The references run the gamut from Voldemort to The Jetsons, and include A Different World and Tony! Toni! Toné!.
The collection unites the reader with not just the speaker, but with a community of Others. Jones has managed to draw distinctions as well as create unity, putting Black and white men and women together in a room, eating fancy cheese and listening to nineties pop music, while at the same time illuminating barriers between them, in order to show the drastic contrast felt daily when part of a culture that’s been Othered. Like the poem “Antiquing,” dark // thing is a trunkful of observations that stem from finding a single broken toy.
Cecilia Savala is a student at the University of Central Missouri, where she is majoring in English Education and is the Editor in Chief of Arcade Magazine. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Underground Art and Literary Journal, and Mangrove Journal, among others. Cecilia was recently selected as the Honorable Mention for the Assembly for Teachers of English Grammar's 2019 Future Teacher Award.