What I’m Reading: Major Jackson

The new poems section of Major Jackson’s New and Selected are delicious verbal candy. Full of atmospheric insights, these newest poems dance across ambivalences arising from contemporary living. With urbane linguistic tonalities that his work has displayed from the get go, Jackson’s newer work has more whimsy, looser wisdom, more dreaminess out loud, all mixed with a certain sort of giving up on final answers.

While Major Jackson is a poet that I’ve long admired, his new poems could be deemed among his best. They are quite mature: a thinking person’s poetry, and a poetry of consciousness, point of view, and memory. They are set further from the Philadelphia of his youth and first book, which remains a strong book of urban Phili vignettes, often set in one scene as it unfolds, and sharing the deeply felt voice of someone growing up in the visceral, East Coast, inner city, aspirational, and African-American milieu.

In terms of Major Jackson’s new poems, they remind me of what Wallace Stevens described in “Of Modern Poetry” as

The poem of the mind in the act of finding   

What will suffice. . . .

If this applies to Major Jackson, his new poems show someone who–more than solving matters at hand, to tie them up in a bow and shelve them–likes to taste, juggle, and dance. His new poems involve simultaneous overlapping and contradicting sensations and events. In other words, they are poems of a mature, world-traveled contemporary adult. This said, it’s rare to find such a balancing act translated – not just into subject matter – but into language itself: diverse, coming into and out of balance, and dynamic in sound within each poetic line and across lines.

To turn back to Stevens again, Jackson’s new poems, as Stevens puts it in describing modern poetry:

. . . .construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage   

And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and

With meditation, speak words that in the ear. . . .

See for yourself. Jackson’s poem, “It Must Be The Supermarket in Me” is available as a podcast as The Slowdown online (linked here).

That was one of my favorite, though his new poems offer a bouquet of favorites. The extended metaphor in this particular poem, with its apt and yet far-flung comparison threaded throughout the poem, makes one think as well of Tony Hoagland’s later work. Of course this approach also hearkens back to a metaphysical poet like John Donne and his extended figures. If compared to Hoagland, Major Jackson’s “It Must Be The Supermarket in Me” is more intimate, more vulnerable, less finished in its final arrival than Hoagland’s tendency, yet, still arriving into greater self knowledge.

Major Jackson’s Web site can be found here.



G. H. Mosson