Bill Jones’ Still Life in a Hurricane, Reviewed by Dan Cuddy

71azYRJbzCLBill Jones, Still Life in a Hurricane, Apprentice House Press, Loyola University Maryland, 2019, ISBN 978-1-62720-206-0, 85 pages

The difficulty I find in writing about Bill Jones’ book Still Life in a Hurricane is controlling my enthusiasm. Even readers who never touch a book of poetry in their adult life will be entertained and wowed by this book. They will be moved by the serious moments, such as in “The Woman with Needs”. The image of a “….little boy who turned to a wall for comfort.” They will feel the deep love that the poet writes to and about his wife in a 50th-anniversary poem. “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Revising” is a satiric poem about writing poetry that should even make non-writers smile. There are the odd, freakish images in the surreal “Dream Poem: Picture Day.” Students with a touch of the perverse in their imaginations will delight in it. There are poems honoring Bill Jones’ grandparents. They are personal, but the reader gets a feeling for them, their lives, their times. They are vignettes with just enough detail to encapsulate a whole life. Bill Jones is never wordy. His art is sculpted with precision. Here are three stanzas from “My Grandfather Ulpiano” :

But I prefer to think of him
As the man who, as a teenager,
Came to this country from Ecuador
Against his father’s wishes,

Who learned English
In a machine shop in Baltimore,
Sharpened his vocabulary by reading Poe,
Earned a degree at Maryland,

Became the chief civil engineer
In the country of his birth,
And then, back in America, helped to design
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Bill Jones is at home in narratives, in describing scenes, in revealing the complexities of human emotion. None of it is done in a heavy-handed manner. The poet describes what it is like skydiving. The last stanza takes a leap from the literal subject into the existential. It is done in his poem just like he physically jumped from the plane. Often his poems leave the reader with a lyric wonder, as in “Manta Ray”:

Twice more that night
The fish appears,
Beyond where any hooks can reach,
A tan ghost
Rising from the deep,
Giving us a glimpse of God,
Then diving into

There is a religious and philosophic sensibility in many of the poems. It isn’t heavy. When old-fashioned piety is described it is through those who were part of his childhood. The people of the past had a lived faith, said rosaries, were moored in the sureties of their times. The poet is a man of the 21st century. There is piety in his character. It is expressed in wonderful, secular terms—-but religious nonetheless. Here is the closing poem in the book. It is short, simple, electric in its illumination of the almost inexpressible:

There’s something almost spiritual
In our bodies barely touching
In the first moments of quiet
After making love.

There’s something almost spiritual
In our children’s peaceful breathing,
Their faces bathed in the glow of sleep
As we cover them for the night.

There’s something almost spiritual
At the finish of a poem
As thoughts settle like falling leaves
In the sudden silence.

There are many hushed and lyrical moments in the book, but there is also the noise of life. There are scenes described—well, not described, but brought to life with the magic of the poet’s words in both poetry and prose, as part of the selections are prose or prose-poems. It may seem almost sacrilegious to not end this review with the magnificent poem above, but it is important to emphasize that Bill Jones is a poet who writes about almost the entire spectrum of life. One of the prose pieces is titled “In the Heat at Crazy Ray’s.” It is almost as far as you can get from the magnificently refined emotions above. Crazy Ray’s is about a junkyard, selling your old worn-out car for some ready cash. There is the narrative “In Santa Marta, Gambling” (Santa Marta, Colombia in 1979), and riding with a maverick Uber-like driver who took the poet to a casino “like those on the back roads of Nevada.” On the road coming back, the vehicle was stopped by a group of men who surrounded it pointing automatic weapons at them. There is the irony and very self-aware emotion that the poet experienced at a Benefit held at The Baltimore Museum of Art in 1979. There is the humor of Bill Jones poem “Why I’m Not in the Basketball Hall of Fame.” I will not reveal that reason in this review. These are just a few of the stories and revelations in the writing.

If I was giving a star rating for Still Life in a Hurricane, I’d give the book five stars. Actually, the book’s title reveals the essence of the creation here. Each poem or narrative is a “still” verbal photo of “life”, both Mr. Jones’ personal life with his wife, children, parents, grandparents, and also the universal life of being American, human in the mid to late 20th and early 21st century. And that life? Well, it is often a storm of incident, of emotion, of constant change and adventure. This book of poetry is high entertainment and insight.

© Dan Cuddy and Bill Jones

Dan Cuddy is an editor of the Loch Raven Review. His poems have appeared in many journals, most recently in End of 83, the Baltimore Post Examiner, and the Bhubaneswar Review, and work forthcoming in Welter and the Broadkill Review.

Bill Jones has lived and taught writing in the Baltimore area for more than 40 years. A former recipient of a Baltimore Artscape Literary Arts Award for Poetry, he has had work appear in numerous small press publications across the country. His memoir in poetry, At Sunset, Facing East, was published in 2016 by Apprentice House Press. Still Life in a Hurricane, his first collection of poetry and prose, was published by Apprentice House in 2019.

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