Saturday, July 26, 2008

Gayl Jones

I just finished reading two books of poetry by Gayl Jones: "Xarque and Other Poems" and "The Hermit-Woman". As a poetry lover, I had always heard her name mentioned with glowing comments about her writing.

I looked up her biography after I read the first book. Her titles include novelist, poet, playwright, professor, and literary critic, and she was born in Lexington, Kentucky. But more disturbing to me was the chronicle of her personal life.

Her career has been marked by periods of silence, and apparently since the 1980's a withdrawal from public life. She has stated that she wanted to be known by her work and not her personal life. And really, that is quite understandable. Unfortunately her personal life became fodder for lurid headlines. Despite her accomplishments and success she seems to be quite a lonely figure and somewhat of a paranoid personality.

When she married, her husband (Bob Higgins) took the name Bob Jones. Higgins had already had several clashes with the police and was said to be a paranoid personality himself. When he was arrested after threatening someone with a shotgun, he and Gayl fled the country. Jones resigned her position (which was in Michigan at the time) with an angry letter that charged the administration with racism and, according to the New York Times, contained the sentences "Do what you want. God is with Bob and I'm with him."

The couple spent time in France and Sweden over the next few years and Gayl continued to write. When she and her husband returned to the states they moved in with Gayl's mother in Lexington. They rarely spoke to or interacted with their neighbors. Gayl's mother developed cancer and the couple became convinced that the hospital was using her secretly in medical experiments and removed her from the hospital against doctors' orders. When her mother died, they harassed hospital administrators and law enforcement officials.

When the police went to their house to serve an outstanding warrant on Bob, they found the door bolted and smelled gas. Gayle (according to the Boston Globe) dialed 911 and screamed "The state of Kentucky is damned. Get these cops out of here! The U.S. is damned. If you go to Iraq, I hope they destroy you. If you try to take my husband you'll have to kill me. You killed my mother, you'll have to kill me as well." Officers entering the house managed to subdue Gayle (who was held in a Kentucky mental hospital for 17 days), but Bob Jones slashed his own throat all the way through to the spinal cord and died instantly. "I'm sure you realize my brother-in-law was insane," Gayl Jones's brother Frank was quoted as saying in the New York Times.

Released from the hospital, Gayl stayed in Lexington and continued her reclusive life. But what a stormy and turbulent life it had been to that point.

Her writing, though criticized for what some see as an indictment against black men (portraying them as abusive husbands and lovers) still manages to show how racism and sexism build on each other. In "Hermit-Woman" the female narrator says: "I am any ordinary woman" when the lovers ask "Are you a hermit?". When asked "Does love transform?" the woman responds that "love's a danger and a promise". There are many passages in this book that prove Ms. Jones is an engaging story-teller who weaves together memorable narratives with intuitive depth and provocative implicitness. In fact, it has been said that perhaps the single strongest element in Jones's work is its evocation of human speech; she has said that she had to hear something before she could write it. Her language brings to mind improvisational jazz or the repetitions of blues music. And she always encouraged her students to write stories after listening to music.

It is a common notion that there is a fine line between creativity and insanity, and a brief perusal of history would probably support that notion. Are genius and madness related? There is something mysterious and unexplainable about the creative process. I'll leave all of that to the psychologists to sort out. I did find the writing of Gayl Jones fascinating.

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