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Jonestown:
a poem


176 pages,
ISBN: 0771083165


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Disjunction Jones
by David Reed

Fraser Sutherland's new book revisits one of the most horrific cultic tragedies of this century. It appears after nearly two decades of chronological distance, but with the existential immediacy of last night's nightmare. The "logical" terminus of a megalomaniacal flight into fantasy is portrayed in its bitter, earthly reality.
Jonestown is the story of one man and over nine hundred devotees who credulously followed him to their deaths on November 18th, 1978. It is the story of one American cult, but I had the sense that Sutherland glimpsed our century and elevated this story from being "just-another", to make it a paradigm. There is a shape here to be discerned and a lesson to be grasped.
"Cult" is a weasel word, especially in our "interesting times". An anxious society can shift quickly from vigilance to vigilantism. Our interesting time is a particularly conflicted one: it is seeking unity by way of politically correct regulations, but without the necessary social glue; at the same time, it has obliged itself to refrain from restraint, in the name of individual freedom. Cults are the tragic extraction from a society that has given itself licence to over-realize its ideals.
Cults are many-faced: religious, social, political. New movements are sometimes attacked as cults; cults-in-embryo are often mistaken for wholesome experiments. Many are rather benign and direct their energies toward individual or communal self-fulfilment. A few, however, are of a revolutionary type, more radical in their goals and violent in their means.
It is not true that those attracted to cults are the uneducated poor. The People's Temple (Jim Jones' cult, known by the name of its church in Ukiah, California) attracted not only disenfranchised and restless blacks of the Civil Rights era, but also well-educated, white anti-war protesters, liberal social and political idealists...persons with a clean bill of mental health.
Cults flourish in times and places of psychological and social dislocation. People who are attracted to them feel a dissonance between themselves and their world. The sinister brilliance of a dangerous cult leader is displayed in the power to confer a name on the dissonance, to draw the line between that passing world and this new world, and finally to systematically dismantle the former until it disappears from the minds of the followers. The world of the cult is the only reality that remains. One follower said it all: "This is the whole world to me."
It is this deep sense of disjunction between our world and that of the People's Temple cult which Sutherland so skilfully portrays in Jonestown's content and style. The lens through which he guides the reader is the leader, Jim Jones.
The poem is structured along the story's outer history, with a retrospective twist. Part One rivets the reader's attention on the horrific details of the final two days in the cult's existence. (This part is a version of a poem written shortly after the massacre.) Part Five is a "Prospectus", with the middle three parts tracing the pilgrimage from Indiana, through California, to Guyana.
This outer story is a not an untypical American fable: the rise to power of a poor, underprivileged middle American. James Warren Jones was born near Lynn, Indiana, in 1931. His father was an alcoholic with Ku Klux Klan sympathies. His mother, though not very religious, was supportive of him throughout his tumultuous career.
The cracks that eventually would become a canyon in Jones's personality appear early. The young boy who makes his way to church alone, who "plays church" with his pet rabbit, who quits a basketball team because the coach is a racist, reveals a dark side. Passing up standard childhood pranks, he is fixated on power and guns. He shoots his childhood friend with a BB gun: "He just wondered if you could stand it." His penis becomes a power tool when he wins a contest and "pissed over the chicken coop." His subterranean anger erupts at regular intervals against Ronnie, a foster-child.
Before the age of thirty-five, Jones has become a Methodist preacher with the fašade of a healing evangelist. He marries the upright and religious "dutiful Marcie", compassionately adopts his "rainbow" children (black and Korean), spouts communistic rhetoric, and metamorphoses into a divinized prophet, inspired by the black cult leader Father Divine. In Sutherland's words,

He totes Hitler and Gandhi

Jones's vision of a nuclear holocaust arouses the paranoia that drives him and his small band to Ukiah, California, the "safest place" in North America. This is home from 1965 to 1977. Here the disjunction is exponentially intensified. Well-educated white idealists join the People's Temple and soon move into positions of leadership. The church becomes a corporation. Jones manipulates politicians and social agencies.
The mirage of power cascades through every level. He is now "Father" to his devotees, sometimes even the reincarnation of Jesus and Lenin. With the help of his Temple assistants, his mass healing services become displays of chicanery:

They gather background for the foreground of his mind

He exploits his workers. Jones's meanness manifests itself in all-night sessions where church discipline is exacted in public beatings. Identities are compromised and people are imprisoned in sexual bouts with "Father" both heterosexual and homosexual, involving young and old. Paranoia ripens into gun stockpiling.
As early as 1973 the ground is laid for the final stage. A fire started in the Temple triggers Jones's paranoia. Sensing the sting of public sentiment against him, he leases 27,000 acres of land in the interior of Guyana as an agricultural mission for ghetto youths. Back home the exit ritual is rehearsed, the "white night" of revolutionary suicide.
The catalyst comes in 1977 with an exposÚ in New West magazine. Congressman Leo Ryan asks prying questions. By early summer the move to Guyana is permanent:

He is preparing a Promised Land for us

In reality it begins the fateful annus mirabilis.
In Guyana the "project" is complete. With the effective weapon of isolation, the old world is gone:

He is crazy but his craziness is all they know

While Jones's empire shrinks in the Guyanese jungle, the demand for total loyalty swells. The idolization and allegiance of some intensify:
Sometimes He made you feel good
You just couldn't be there & not want to be a part

But there is also restlessness in the camp, a threat to the christocracy. Restricting movement is not evil, but love:

It's a rage of love that causes all this
Otherwise every indulgent act would be endorsed
You understand that?

We gotta teach that this kind of behavior
Can't be tolerated. We don't hate you. We love you
Dismissed

The end-time is fast approaching, with mounting lawsuits back in California, fact-finding missions by politicians, restless defectors. Jones himself is on the way out, with a collapsing capacity to discern reality and in deteriorating health. Persecution is expected, and finally comes in the form of Congressman Ryan, who presses to visit the commune with newsmen and a representative group of concerned family members.
November 17th: the routine interviews and tours occur. Discreet messages are passed to Ryan, requesting permission to leave. The next day, more interviews. But the line is crossed when a cult zealot attacks Ryan with a knife. Tension mounts and confusion ripples through the camp as "turncoats" cluster by the departing trailer. Moments later at the nearby jungle airstrip the attack erupts, leaving Ryan, three newsmen, and one defector dead.
The final ritual begins as Jones summons his Remnant to the pavilion-Prophet speaking "reality"

He's speaking to you now not as an administrator
He's speaking as a Prophet today

Priest, presiding over the last communion

Drink this poison it's his body

King, ruling after the Order of the Ultimate

This is a revolutionary council
We have no other road

When all have partaken-men, women, children, animals-911 human bodies are counted.
Sutherland is not the first to tell this story. But his brilliant achievement is the poetic skill with which he explores the unspeakable depths of this terror and leaves a lingering word of hope for another generation.
Why is poetry the medium of choice? Part of the answer may lie in the shock and horror that left Sutherland and most of North America speechless in 1978. Poetry, like filled silence, art, and speaking in tongues, reaches into the human realities of great joy and unspeakable pain, humanizing them with speech that cannot be contained in prose.
Sutherland puts to use both text and printed page. Stanza shapes, fonts, and punctuation come to his aid. Longer stanzas that resemble prose paragraphs connect the chronology. Short one- and two-liners may be a thought, statement, dialogue, feeling, or a means of propelling the story along:

He steps into the pool
Laughs
Now that He's stepped in here this
is Holy Water

Then it isn't a joke

Abbreviations make the point. "Xian" and "Xst" (for "Christian" and "Christ") strike at Jones' stunted version of authentic religion, while the consistent capitalizing of the personal pronoun for Jones ("He") exposes his messianic pretensions. Numbers appear as numerals. Occasionally the text reads like an outline or a grocery list. Sometimes there is an almost total absence of the conjunction "and" , which is replaced by the symbol &.
Abbreviations and short impact lines drive home the disjunction at the heart of the story, at times giving it a strobe-light effect. Yet Sutherland speeds up the movement by clearing the text of commas:

After a dose of piccaninny picnics
he can deflect detract deride

Their mercenary comfort loving pastor
gluts on white women
Their pastor is a bad black
He is a good black

He doesn't have sex with blacks
He has no wish to exploit them

Sutherland uses crude language sparingly but effectively, aware that cursing and vulgarity are verbal signals of frustration and anger against a world that resists control. It is a pointer, if not appeal, to the transcendent, a verbal blessing or metaphysical fist-flailing. One of the best examples occurs when Jones is appointed to his first church, a small Methodist charge in Indiana:

Here he was raving
against the church ridiculing God all this shit
You fucker he's not going to your goddamn office
But He did for some instinctive reason He went. Man said
I want you to take a church
& he appointed Him
a fucking communist to a goddamn church

Two features, in particular, stand out in the poem. One is Sutherland's use of the word "body". It always stands alone: a body, some body, any body. Persons are identified as a body, never a person. The effect was to pull me back to the scene that millions of North Americans witnessed the day the story broke: a shocking magazine-cover photograph of hundreds of dead bodies strewn over a field, not slaughtered in bloody conflict, but seduced into obliviousness.
For me, at least, the standing singular "body" in this poem gives solemn attention to the respect and dignity due that body, whatever its status or colour, and the horrific abuse and destruction it received at the hands of a master-destroyer. Sutherland has captured that first visual image and turned it towards hope.
The other feature is the inclusion of italicized stanzas that occur through the poem. They appear to derive their significance from another source: a chronologically extended heading, "The Railroad to Heaven", naming in succession the places where Jones lives. The last entry reads: "The Railroad to Heaven: Crete Lynn Richmond Bloomington Indianapolis Belo Horizonte Indianapolis Redwood Valley San Francisco Guyana". The dual world of Jones and its disjunction is powerfully symbolized here, in ordinary places on a map which trace the "messianic" journey. It is a kind of heilsgeschichte (sacred history), The Gospel According to Jim Jones.
The "sacred stanzas" function something like the red line version of the Bible, with the words of Jesus highlighted. They include direct quotations from or allusions to Scripture ("My soul doth magnify the Lord"), and hymns ("Low in the grave He lay"). The sequence moves with christic intimations from sacred birth with messianic hopes to sacrificial death and a Resurrection hymn.
My only caution for another reader is a practical one. The poetic style occasionally makes it difficult to follow the actual story-line in its historical detail. I found the "Table of Principal Characters" at the end of the book necessary but not sufficient. For a clearer historical account, a well-written popular version would be helpful. Once grasped, it will free the reader to experience the full impact of Sutherland's much richer presentation.
Why Jonestown now, nearly two decades later? Are there not more recent cultic disasters to write about, such as the one in Waco, Texas? Of course, only the author can say. It is clear that the massacre captured Sutherland's attention and imagination from the beginning. Only two years later he penned the powerful poem that is in substance Part One. It is certainly possible to be so gripped by this tragedy that only a long period of gestation can do justice to its magnitude. Beyond the timeless message of human dignity and freedom, it struck me that Jonestown is a pointed reminder for a generation approaching the millennium with its predictable parade of apocalyptic prophets.
I do not want to reduce good art to mere moralizing. Jonestown is more than mere commentary. The last line of Part One (after the final suicide scene) memorializes the chimpanzee: Mr. Muggs dead. Part Five, "Prospectus", is a brief, idyllic fantasy rewrite of the socialist experiment as the followers would surely like it to have been. But it is precisely here that the book ends, with a haunting reminder that the cycle of poisoned power begins again with the very hairline cracks of human aspiration:

I just picked up a hurt monkey out of the jungle
& he's going to be all mine

l David Reed is associate professor of pastoral theology, at Wycliffe College in the University of Toronto. Besides his pastoral subjects, he continues to pursue an interest in Pentecostal and charismatic studies, movements of spirituality, and cults.

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