How to Kill Yourself Instead of Your Children, Quincy Scott Jones’ poetry collection, crawls into the bloodstream, lays in wait, inching up the heat. His is an in-your-face look at race and culture, as much eulogy as history lesson, as much elegy as admonition. Jones, incinerator and extinguisher, understands the assignment he has given, coaxing us into the work needed with ten restrained lines spaced for contemplation:
if you ssssssssssssssh i’ll tell you whenever
we found the lynched boys
restrung them in the leaves
hidden cherubs / tourist canopies
we rehung them in the trees
they sing when it breeze
the neighborhood knows
Jones’ ease with subtlety and rhyme travels back to Hughes’ 1926, uncloaking Weary Blues; and forward almost a century to a place now known all too well in the anaphoric, “Don’t”:
Don’t resist. Don’t struggle
Don’t put up a fight
Mr. Policeman has a gun
Mr. Gun has a sight
Mr. Bullet very fast
Mr. Coffin very tight
How to Kill Yourself Instead of Your Children is a fulcrum—a prism redirecting light onto inescapable truths, balancing, even, current events like the Rittenhouse, Charlottesville, and McMichael verdicts. Jones’ candor shines directly in our eyes and does not let us look away. For example, in his erasure of the City of Fenton’s (Missouri) now erased Facebook post following the 2014 killing of Tamir Rice, Jones warns, “kids will be war in the common ground.” His form choice, doubly layered—Rice’s killing in 2014 essentially “erased” without any indictments ever issued.
This book time-travels backward a decade, its vehicle, “Trayvon [Martin] Triptych,” a persona poem—two parts persona non grata—a killer, a bullet, and their victim (Martin). “Zimmer” complains, “They say I was angry” and “So what if I am angry.” He shapeshifts from assailant into self-righteous assailant into the alleged victim: “cause I never saw anger till / I saw [Martin’s] fists / … / … he could’ve punched a sinkhole the size of Florida ….”
“Zimmer’s” bullet, a narcissist, proclaims itself a type of Superman:
I weigh the same as seven Skittles
a hundredth of an Arizona tall ice tea
In a fraction of a second
I am faster than cable news commentary
can outrun any child’s cry
Jones reveals, for us, the bullet’s kryptonite, “confined in a chamber / jammed metal to metal with my brothers / shivering in the same nightmare.” Then, the inevitable destruction at the hands of its ego: “Imagine my relief after the fire / … / nestled in the boy’s chest / found rest in a ready-made womb.”
How to Kill Yourself Instead of Your Children is an epitaph, the stone its inscription resides, America’s psyche. Jones lets no reader escape unburdened. He unburies the dead as an instructional manual for the living. “How To Talk With Zora Neale Hurston When No One Else Can Hear” forewarns:
Watch your language, your dactyls
and your spondees. She’s a trickster
and tricksters be trickling on the tongue
like tuners touching on piano keys
Our ears are forced to the ground to listen for the final moments of Alesia Thomas, Renisha McBride, and Aiyanna Stanley-Jones, to “hear gardens growing in the breath of unmarked graves.”
Music is Jones’ connective tissue; he plays it when we need relief, like offering up a moment to scream in “How To Get Down Like James Brown”:
One time — huh!
Two times — huh! Huh!
And dropping bars and causes for alarm:
How you be preacher
and creature and sex
machine and prey.
How you pray like
paradise on fire
and rise …
“Music Appreciation” teaches us that before Jordan Davis was “just shot away / just shot away,” Davis spent his Mondays’ roller-skating:
$1 per slice
$1 to skate
one in front and one behind
bounce left bounce right
His mother right there
watching her son glide on through
the world turning beneath his feet
Now a DJ, Jones samples the next hit from The Godfather of Soul, for “How To Dance During A Riot”:
Get on up
Left foot stomp!
Right foot stomp!
Ain’t nothing going on
But a peaceful protest
Just get back up
Before they think you’re dead
Get your hands up
Get ‘em up
In “Rhetoric,” Jones centers Michael Brown, opening with part of Audre Lorde’s “Power” as epigraph and book title, “The difference between poetry and rhetoric is being ready to kill yourself instead of your children.” In response to the acquittal of a police officer who killed Clifford Glover, a 10-year-old boy, Lorde’s poem precedes by 50 years the poems in this volume. Jones’ found poem, mined from transcripts of TV talking heads discussing Ferguson, enrages and highlights how rhetoric can become a weapon.
The brilliance of “All Lines Matter” is reminiscent of Karisma Price’s poem, “My Phone Autocorrects ‘Nigga’ to ‘Night,’” both anaphoric, both similarly subversive. Price beautifully satirizes her cellphone’s decision to supplant her diction, ultimately overriding it. At the same time, Jones’ layered verse intentionally perverts a cliched, hair-trigger response to the non-radical utterance: “Black Lives Matter.” In this cento, he replaces the word “Black” with “All,” using lines he describes in the endnotes as “appropriated from” the likes of Paul Laurence Dunbar, William Blake, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, Elizabeth Alexander, Jay-Z, and Biggie Smalls. Blake’s line becomes “And I am all, but O! my soul is white,” and Sanchez’s becomes “from white hands peeling all skins over / America.” And like the poem itself, its title’s wordplay, “All Lines Matter,” has multiple layers for us to discover at each reading.
In How to Kill Yourself Instead of Your Children, Jones does not absolve or shield us from the race-based violence young Black and Brown lives experience. He educates and enlightens, always speaking raw truth to power as his verse dissects the heart, teaching everything from how “silence [is] the most violent word / [a] poem knows,” to “How To Cook A Fish”:
on a bed of onions until smoke
becomes a cloud of unwanted
kisses and the sizzle
becomes a noose
blessings. Love the
kaleidoscope of faces
and know that one of them
will betray you
while the rest sit back
How to Kill Yourself Instead of Your Children, by Quincy Scott Jones. C&R Press, October 2021. 84 pages. $16.00, paper.
teri elam’s poetry and essays appear in Prairie Schooner, december magazine, The Future of Black: Afrofuturism, Black Comics, and Superhero Poetry, and An Impulse To Keep: Greenwood (Tulsa) Art Project. She recently published a short essay on Incluvie, an online site that rates movies based on the inclusion of women and people of color and LGBTQIA+ representation, and has an essay forthcoming in the Birmingham Poetry Review. teri lives in Georgia. Twitter: @terielamstories/IG: @terielam.stories.