Where Words Fail and Images Lie: Poet Develops Collection About the Residents of Jonestown

My childhood sometimes seems a blur of images. I distinctly recall them, which makes me so aware of their relevance, that whatever event or person they illustrate has shaped me as unwittingly as wind might shape rocks over time.

I vividly remember the front pages of the local newspaper and the covers of Jet magazine: school pictures of boys who looked like my friends during the Atlanta Child Murders; Bernard Goetz nerdy in glasses and handcuffs under the word “vigilante,” which I promptly looked up in our fat grey family dictionary and still didn’t quite get; the Pope waving and wearing that weak pale smile in a visit to “Mary” Land – as my kindergarten eyes read “Maryland” – not connecting it to the place I had been a million times for our tri-annual family gatherings. Each image became a personal research project, something I was determined to make sense of in order to give substance to the image and to whatever cautious but clear explanation my mother is so good at giving about “the hard stuff.”

Jonestown was one of those images. Not just because of the media favorites of the mass of lined up bodies, the empty cups and the vat of the grape Flavor-aid. I was struck by the other pictures, like the one that got me started on a poetry project that considers the mood and attitude that shaped the voices of Jonestown: a picture of a smiling couple—she in afro and he in cornrows. So, umm, average.

An assignment for a two-week writing workshop, to research a historical event for poems we would develop while in residence, might’ve been devised as just an exercise that is probably important to writers: to get outside of self. But the self never exists in a vacuum.

I had a list of events – images really. I ended up sticking to Jonestown, mostly because of the picture of that couple. They looked like my parents looked around that time.

I gathered preliminary research but couldn’t write the first poem. Nothing came. I stared at the picture half the night, even at the risk of bad dreams. The next morning before breakfast, I began to think about the woman in the picture a lot. I wrote the first poem just in time for our workshop.

Sure it’s raw. Sure it needs work. The few poems I have been able to manage since do too. Which suits me. Otherwise the collection becomes a bunch of poems “about” Jonestown. Clumping so many individuals together and making them a single event. That smiling couple was not that event.

Their aunties, parents, and homegirls didn’t see them as a soundbyte, any more than I had as a curious kid trying to make sense of the images that piled on our coffee table. My kid eyes didn’t know they were processing where words fail and images lie.

(Poet darlene anita scott is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete collection of writings and poetry for this site may be found here. She can be reached at darleneanitascott@gmail.com.)