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James S. Torrens, S.J.January 16, 2012
Imaginary Logicby By Rodney JonesHoughton Mifflin Harcourt. 96p $22

I approach the reviewer’s task with caution because of what Rodney Jones says in his poem “Criticism,” that a critic is always focusing on some minor quality or picking out inadequacies. (I did in fact pick out a blooper in this small volume, a poem entitled “In Media Res.” I would expect “In Medias Res,” but nobody gets the Latin right anymore!) In “Criticism,” the poet is poking fun at critics, because they never talk about “taste,” “though clearly that is the main thing.” No matter, he concludes; the whole of creation “proves nearly/ impervious to criticism because of the peach.”

Imaginary Logic is, to my taste, a peach. First of all, the writer is what he calls “a diction beagle,” ever so apt in his phrasing. And story, or bits of it, abounds in these poems, as we can expect from a Southerner. Most of the book is scenarios from Jones’s life, from early to late. Evangelical religion appears here and there, as when in “North Alabama Endtime” a man named Earlie comes to his house “to say that the world is ending (‘Anyone can see it,’ he says).” In “Two Quick Scenes from the Late Sixties,” the second scene, subtitled “The Rush,” finds him smoking a hallucinogenic mix at what may be a frat-house party (the college rush?) but is called “Time’s house” (indicative of what those times did to us?). The dizzying high, the rush, concludes this way: “and now, said Time, now for a shotgun of the really dynamite stuff.”

The endings of these poems offer continual surprise. “The Heaven of Self-Pity,” reminding us of all the “poor me” things we treasure up, concludes: “In the heaven of self-pity you are given a gun.” To get even, I assume. In “Deathly” the poet, driving out of St. Louis at night over the river into the countryside, falls into reveries while playing and replaying a rock ‘n’ roll ballad. We leave him “singing along,/ driving with my lights out for the fun of it.” Some fun!

In his one long, multipart poem called “The Previous Tenants,” Jones describes phases of remodeling his house, but does so while remembering the former owners and their deaths. The woman, of regal bearing, a counselor, “had a gift for empathy,” we are told. At her funeral, though, “the younger son stood and agreed that, yes,/ she was a fine counselor, but a terrible mother.” “She was not there for us when we failed.” Jones recalls that “the instant/ stuck there like an arrow singing in a wall.”

Though a professor in Carbondale, Ill., Rodney Jones is 100 percent Alabamian, where football is king. “The End of Practice” conjures up young gridiron warriors, subjected to “the coachly speech, the whistle, and then the last sprints.” Images of the sweaty workout accumulate. The poem ends: “and, while this came to pass,/ monks in Asia soaked their robes in gasoline and burned alive for peace.” In “Confidential Advice,” the coachly speech is put in the mouth of the legendary Bear Bryant of Alabama’s Crimson Tide, who urges one of his minions, “Get in there, turd./ You gotta shake off them heart attacks.”

Life has its high points too in Imaginary Logic. One is the deft profile of ordinary good folks, the Jones family, on an outing by car—“The Trip to Opelika.” My favorite is “In Media Res.” It shines a light upon a farm wife, “large and blond, easy with herself and others,” like the gracious queen Wealhtheow in Beowulf. But the young husband is the real focus. Gray and drawn from leukemia, close to death amid fields of growing wheat, yet with courage and a touch of humor, he is being taken off in the middle of things. How fleeting but precious life is.

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