by Peter Baroth
When it comes to literary figures, one often finds that there exists a schism. On one hand, there tend to be the professors and academic writers. On the other hand are the entertainers, the regalers, the spoken-word mavens, the emperors of low culture – the stars at the Apollo. Only, it seems, when we go back to the classics do we find writers with the grand ability to combine entertainment and education – the Homers and Shakespeares among us. Philadelphia poet and educator Quincy Scott Jones is one of those grand, rare, synthesizing birds. In The T-Bone Series [Whirlwind Press, 2009], Jones creates a poetry cycle around a character, who, like a 21st century Odysseus, embodies so many of the heroic traits, tragic shortcomings, and redeeming qualities that render him so attractive. Through T-Bone I was taken to the world of Harlem, the night club, the gospel church, the street corner, the front lines and beyond through the span of world history itself. In the end, like going back to 5th grade and having watched an excellent episode of “The Electric Company,” I found myself to be highly entertained, and just as highly educated; in this case about the African-American – and thus the human – condition.
Jones’ catchy verse – nothing abstruse here – goes down easy with the familiar feel of a folk tale. There is the innate accessibility of a John Henry, a Paul Bunyan, or a Tom Sawyer here, all told with a deceptively wry twist. Here we follow T-Bone’s experiences with defining moments in African-American culture. While he so much resembles an everyman from the neighborhood, his life is nearly stellar at times. He runs with the god Zeus for instance, as they spend a night out clubbing together. He tries out his moves, again and again, on some quintessentially beautiful, street-smart women. In one of the poems, “T-Bone Fights Death,” T-Bone finds himself fighting the Grim Reaper himself in order to save (for the time being) the life of his sister. Here, we have a typically deep commentary about the condition of African-Americans as the Grim Reaper (“Grim”) himself says:
…but now you can die like a real Negro:
without hope or prayer
by bloodshed, by disease spread,
by lack of health care.
As in so many of Jones’ pieces, T-Bone, here dodges a bullet only to discover some sort
of sad lesson about the deal he’s had to strike just to get by – to just survive to tell the tale. He’s brilliant, but the shackles of his own identity somehow never cease to cause him to be hoisted by his own petard. In “T-Bone Loses Time,” as he races with Inevitability, he manages to see it all as he runs his Sisyphean course “past Halle, Denzel, / Dandridge, Kong, / past Watts, Montgomery, / Port-au-Prince, Galveston…” until up to the moment of discovery that, “…it was all for naught / since we both had to walk / all the way back to the start.” Yes, Harlem may be the place to see all things, to run with the gods of the night, to meet the most beautiful, shapely women imaginable. But there always seems to be the morning after for T-Bone – as he is out of cigarettes, as his woman (the recurring Kea) has left him for L.A. to dance on “Soul Train,” or as he is just left jonesing for another fix.
There are some brilliant pieces here, such as “T-Bone Plays Spades,” where, with an ear towards rap, Jones, as T-Bone, finds himself analyzing Jung’s, Nietzsche’s, and Thomas Carlyle’s takes on African-Americans. There is so much of the cant about the black man as primitive outsider, enjoyer of rare pleasures, and as “hipper” to white Americans here as T-Bone ends up putting them all on and winning the intellectual pot.
Quincy Scott Jones is certainly a hip observer himself who applies his own extensive education (he has a Master’s degree) by sprinkling in the occasional Latin and, as in such pieces as “T-Bone Stakes Claim,” displaying a true understanding of mythmaking going back to the Greeks: that it is a tool for explaining just how things got to be the way they are.
Funny, touching, entertaining, musical, educational, The T-Bone Series is an acute meditation on the African-American masses’ apparently eternal fate to finish in second place in a world that is still far too “separate but equal.” Quincy Scott Jones offers a reflection on the Faustian temptation to go for the royal flush in the wee hours only to find in the glint of the morning light, a handful of nothing.