Saeed Jones Explores Grief and Other Themes in “Alive at the End of the World”
The Columbus-based poet and memoirist unravels one of the title poems from his latest collection, “Alive at the End of the World.”
Columbus Monthly’s September 2022 issue includes a deconstruction of one of the 40-odd poems in “Alive at the End of the World” by the collection’s author, Saeed Jones. Much of the work in this book was completed since the 2019 release of Jones’ memoir, “How We Fight for Our Lives,” and explores themes of grief from multiple, often unexpected, viewpoints. Where Jones’ first poetry collection, “Prelude to Bruise,” felt largely introspective, even in its fictionalized narratives, “Alive” shows a more outward-facing journey. In fact, Jones compares himself to a living historian when discussing some of the themes his latest work explores.
“I think, maybe particularly in the last year, I’ve really felt an urgent desire to try to connect the dots,” Jones says. “There’s so much gun violence, police violence, climate change, violence against people’s bodies, loss of reproductive rights, anti-trans [movements]. … If we’re talking about something systemic, collective, historical, I think the best way to do that is to bring in history, to bring in other places, to bring in other people. That’s why it’s not just Saeed as a narrator on the page talking about grief, talking about rage and the sense of betrayal. It’s Paul Mooney, it’s Diahann Carroll, it’s Aretha Franklin.”
Poems throughout the collection imagine internal monologues and external interactions with those celebrities and more, all centered around an idea of loss or theft or anguish in what Jones calls using the past to provide context for what it looks like when people have no choice but to keep living their day-to-day lives while the world is ending around them. Other poems describe more civilian scenes, real or imagined, that similarly intertwine the mundane with the horrific.
“I wanted to honor that on the page and in these different poems, because it’s so important to have a piece of art—it could be a poem, it could be a movie, it could be a TikTok or whatever—that honors some seething part of you,” Jones says.
“If the apocalypse of peril is often depicted as a sea of people running [from danger], … what happens when those people go home?” Jones wonders, speculating on the image of those terrified people trying to eat lunch the next day, go on a date, listen to music. “I’m grateful for poetry,” he adds. “It saved my life. And I think it’s something that poetry allows us to do, to kind of sit in those moments of [being] on the edge of the neon, you know?”
So what is it like for Jones to be alive at the end of the world, to carry on living amid a seemingly unending cycle of apocalyptic upheavals?
“I would argue that the end of the world is more of a state of being than a linear event that begins and ends and you can see the edges of it,” Jones says. “That was the first gesture that I realized I wanted to do, was having a bunch of ‘endings’ throughout the book.” The deconstruction published in our September issue, of a poem titled “That’s Not Snow, It’s Ash,” explored one kind of an ending. Here, Jones dives into another, the first of five poems that share a name with collection in which they’re published.
Prologue Bookshop will host Saeed Jones, in conversation with Cameron Granger, at a book launch and reading at 8 p.m. on Sept. 13 at Two Dollar Radio Headquarters. Tickets are free; pre-register to claim your spot here. Jones will also appear at the Wexner Center for the Arts on Sept. 16 for the Lambert Family Lecture Series.