The poetry of simmering Chicago summers

Parneshia Jones says she has always felt the tug of opposing forces in her life. Raised in the North, she also has a deep ancestral connection to the South. Her grandfather was part of the great migration to Chicago in the 1950s and her poems reflect that duality of place: The smells, tastes and sounds of Mississippi and Louisiana mingle with the rhythms and realities of a northern industrial city.

“I write a lot about family and place and landscape. My parents and grandparents told wonderful stories of the past. But I also love my home in Chicago. So there’s always this yin and yang.”

Jones said there was another “yin and yang” in her childhood. Her grandmother was very involved with the Baptist church while her grandfather operated a juke joint and was immersed in the blues and jazz scene.

“I was pretty much raised in a juke joint and loved every minute of it. I heard music played every single day and that has had a profound effect on my poetry. But my grandmother’s strength is also an inspiration,” said Jones.

Last year, Jones published her debut collection, “Vessel.” The Los Angeles Review said her poems mix nostalgia with provocation. “Jones easily shuttles between her own story and all our stories, and as we read we feel both invited in and called upon,” wrote reviewer Maggie Trapp.

In “Legacy,” Jones writes about the experience of African Americans moving to the northern lands.

A harvest of migrating hearts
tell our way back when.
We are porch stories, buttermilk aprons,
lovers of Sundays and sailboats.

Land of dew-winged cardinals with chandelier
forests preserves our pioneers and preachers.

We are the long grass and anxious wind, the generations, speaking softly, between
the lines of history.

Jones says she realizes that most people know the Chicago that makes headlines, with its violence and corruption. Every summer, Chicago erupts with shootings and street fighting. Already Chicago police officials are predicting that violence is likely to explode in the coming months. But Jones says there are so many other layers to her city: ethnic neighborhoods, tourist attractions, vibrant universities, creative communities. She says she’s especially hopeful about the new migration of artists to Chicago.

“I think we’re going through an incredible renaissance. Brilliant artists and writers are coming together and becoming part of the urban planning. Even with all of the tension and friction and violence, there is so much possibility here.”

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Jones wrote “Litany: Chicago Summers” as way to describe some of the complexity behind that summertime violence.

“It’s almost like a disease. But there’s still so much that is human behind it. I wanted to set a tone. I wanted people to see the landscape and the people who live in the violence.”

Listen to Jones read her poem here or read the text below.

Litany: Chicago Summers

Chicago has a strange metaphysical elegance of death about it.
-Claes Oldenburg

We are rapture, tundra,
The silk between concrete.

We are hallways of crying babies,
simmering neck-bones, sirens
across the ceiling’s midnight.

Shirtless boys run into oblivion.
Their mothers’ overtime eyes
never call in sick.

Caged ice cream trucks, El tracks,
the constant replay of Curtis Mayfield
offer a taste of a poor man’s heaven.. and hell.

We play in our shadows.
We are the televised, Technicolor,
inside -out dreams.
We are the preacher’s sermons,
splintered pews, haunted graves
still looking for their rest in peace.

To love us, you must come armed
with an iron soul.
Love the broken wings, spoiled air,
the swollen hearts that have forgotten
how to dream. Love our delirious souls
running wild in this concrete jungle.

Love us enough to save us from ourselves.

Imagine our resurrection.

Our silk-screen babies baptized
in these Third Coast holy springs.
Imagine the Lake Michigan waters
washing jubilee into our streets.

Watch us closely.


Be our witness.

Reprinted from Vessel: Poems by Parneshia Jones with permission from the publisher, Milkweed Editions, 2015.

Parneshia Jones studied creative writing at Chicago State University and earned an MFA from Spalding University. Her first book is Vessel (2015).

The recipient of a Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, a Margaret Walker Short Story Award, and an Aquarius Press Legacy Award, Jones has received commissions from such organizations as Art for Humanity in South Africa and Shorefront Legacy in Chicago and performed her work internationally. She serves on the boards of Cave Canem and the Guild Complex and the advisory board for UniVerse: A United Nations of Poetry. She is the poetry editor at Northwestern University Press.

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