by Amanda Huynh
In her debut poetry collection, Parneshia Jones leads her readers through a young black girl’s coming-of-age journey, and describes the transformation of her ties between family members, lovers, and society. Jones organizes the book into a five-sectioned quintet, where each section sings a distinct melody, but one that harmonizes as a collective whole.
The first section revolves around the discovery period in a child’s life, where questions of identity are confronted and wrestled with, like the brief desire of a friend’s name. In this section, there are a handful of poems that call upon childhood memories. For example, the opening poem, “Definition,” reveals the origin of Parneshia’s name. She draws a line between her name and that of the Greek mountain Parnassus; her action, to define one’s self, resonates with our tendencies to do the same even at a young age. Jones sets the foundation in this first poem because the succeeding ones focus on specific childhood memories. The poems transition into claiming one’s name, a grandmother’s warmth, a snippet from faded YMCA basement parties, and ends with “Bra Shopping” in Marshall Fields.
The sections in Vessel sail into each other flawlessly; while Jones ends with a girl’s inevitable experience with puberty, or bra shopping, it ties into the next section with an awkward experience in “French Kiss.” While the poems deal with the narrator’s community of friends, Jones also builds the familial community. Jones executes this with skill as it takes a closer read to see how her poetic mind is at work. The communities built in the second section, expand in the third as step-fathers, death, abuse, sickness, and “rows of unfinished dreams” find their way to the surface.
While another layer of the narrator’s foundational world is built, Jones proceeds to placing her narrator in a contrasting setting, Chicago. The previous poems were set in a warm immediate community (i.e. around family, childhood friends, etc.). The woman Jones portrays in Chicago is independent, a thinker, a poet, and very aware of her surroundings. These poems exude the essence of being aware, and what one’s responsibility becomes when residing in this awareness.
Of course, Jones brings her readers back in a full circle in the last section. She expands on one’s responsibility as a witness, as a poet, to society. The themes involve civil rights, Barack Obama, being black, and being a woman. The last poem, “Lesson Plan,” can be seen as an instructional piece for all women, as the narrator is told:
You are meant to have a daughter.
You are meant to pass on all of your women.
Speak all the women of you loudly—speak them with purpose.
As one moves through the collection, the poems and the voice grows. There is beautiful music within her poems. This poetry collection is the song of a woman’s plight. The epigraph, by Muriel Rukeyser, reads: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” This quote is a testament to the Jones’s craftsmanship attempts to capture in her debut collection.