Last Seen by Jacqueline Jones LaMon
One gorgeous spring day, my friend Linda, who had been teaching poetry at Hampshire College for a year, came by my house in Amherst, Massachusetts, to say goodbye. As we stood on the front porch, an ice cream truck rolled down the street. My son Eli, then seven years old, tore past me with his fistful of coins as the truck stopped on our corner. But in an instant, as I greeted Linda, the truck with its mocking tune was gone and so was Eli. I was terrified and I ran down the block, yelling for my son.
Sometimes it happens like that. Children disappear. Jacqueline Jones LaMon, in Last Seen, winner of the 2010 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry, covers this excruciating territory. In her preface to the section “The Elsewhere Chronicles” she describes looking closely at pictures of African American girls who had gone missing, and later searching online, discovering records of missing African Americans over many years. She struggled to hear their “collective voice.”
Reading this collection of persona poems, I had a visceral memory of Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination, a brilliant, searing volume written in persona, with two missing children at its center. Eady’s book deconstructs a toxic and widely held myth about black men. Through multiple voices Brutal Imagination reveals how destructive stereotypes get passed along and how the perception of violence becomes racialized. I feel Eady’s powerful influence in LaMon’s tightly controlled and deep exploration of every parent’s nightmare. The title poem, a litany, evokes the kind of emotional pain the reader feels physically:
outside of her home on February 25
playing in the hallway outside of her apartment
playing in his front yard playing in her back yard
at home sitting on her front porch, in a stroller
at home, with a friend watching
LaMon’s use of persona in these poems is courageous. You cannot speak for someone else, but you can let “the other” inside and see what happens when the two of you inhabit the same moment. The poet goes through a transformation with “the other” before the poem is written. LaMon has created work in which connection sparks poems that find their way out of chaos, as in the opening poem, “Mrs. Minor Gives Directions to Strangers”:
Turn LEFT at the second light
Follow the road until the three-way fork
Make a slight no that cannot be RIGHT
Think about all that is LEFT
His eyes, his crib, his socks are STRAIGHT AHEAD
RIGHT, PAST DARK. Right, past darkness.
No. Let me start again.
Reginald Shepherd, in Orpheus in the Bronx, says “art is the lie that tells the truth and the truth art tells need not be about oneself” and that among the “precious qualities” of literature, but specifically poetry, is “the access it allows to otherness (including the otherness to ourselves).”
As LaMon is a mother herself, inhabiting one in extreme circumstances was, no doubt, a hair-raising journey (“A Suspect Mother Answers during Polygraph”):
I once held a bird, and crushed it, by mistake
I was never stopped for driving drunk
You do not scare me
And later in the poem:
When the doorbell rings, I clench my fists
I know I can breathe underwater
You need to ask his father
Each three-line stanza juts further across the page, ominously.
Every poem in Last Seen has a solid structure, its own careful, skillfully wrought weaving of language and experience. Sometimes the structure and content are mysterious. Am I missing something, or is the section of the book called “Boy Meets Girl” oddly incongruous? I am intrigued as well, that each poem in this section has twenty-six lines without stanza breaks. They are love poems, offering welcome relief from the pain of loss and violence. They lead back to sorrow and outrage in the section called “The San Francisco Sonnets” dedicated to a pregnant eighteen-year-old girl who went missing and told in a stunning array of voices, including, among others, family members, seagulls over the bay, and a detective. There are two sections which form an envelope for the volume, with poems written from the titles of poems found in Bhanu Kapil Rider’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers.
I was lucky, that day my son inexplicably ranged out of my peripheral vision, chasing the ice cream man. I had never run so fast in my life, but he hadn’t gotten far, with his ice cream cone melting in little drips as he made his way home. An unforgettable day, indelibly etching the limits of vigilance and inescapability of danger. I won’t forget Last Seen anytime soon, either.
Last Seen by Jacqueline Jones LaMon
University of Wisconsin Press