Ramblin’ Man: On Major Jackson’s Roll Deep

W.W. Norton & Co.
August 2015
$26.95; 96 pp.

Major Jackson’s fourth collection of poems, Roll Deep, is suffused with what Elizabeth Bishop would call questions of travel. Indeed, the first poem, “Reverse Voyage,” ends with a vow “to roam / like decomposing clouds rolling deep, / re-forming constantly and away, above / toughened streets, above sunlit ruins / and scattering mounds. My eyes went / elsewhere or nowhere, open and determined.” These questions are, first, geographic: the book, particularly its second part (of five), is a globetrotter, visiting places as far as apart as Kenya, Italy, and Philadelphia. Such travel is also a form of historical movement, back into the origins of the African diaspora, into the rolling waters of the Middle Passage, into the correspondent imperial globalization of English. The journeys are thus also among poets and poems. This includes not only canonical literary figures like Auden, Walcott, and Langston Hughes, among others who are alluded to both directly and tonally, but also the rhetoric of hip hop: Mobb Deep provide the morally ambiguous epigraph to the book’s final section: “When worst comes to worst, / My peoples come first.”

Taken as a whole, Jackson’s peripatetic work responds to the accumulating disasters of late capitalism, and in doing so it articulates two overlapping ways of encountering the world: a poetics of American geopolitical empathy, and a vocabulary for the smaller, sometimes wholly private thrills of embodied experience. Vivid lines and associational imagistic weirdness abound, but Roll Deep rolls far past individual spurts of brilliance. Without becoming tendentious, it unfolds a coherent view of the world, swinging between the macro and the micro in a universe where “the body is blaring” (“Special Needs”).

The book’s most powerful section is its second, “Urban Renewal,” a loaded term that points up Jackson’s method of handling race and its intersections: rather than approach black lives as a direct ethnographic or philosophical question, rather than topically address the Western world’s racist lineage, rather than explicitly indict structures of power or specific agents of chaos who ensure that some people count more than others, he relies on a lyric build-up of particularities, including the sediments of language. The idea of “Urban Renewal,” which often connotes projects designed to purify or gentrify poor nonwhite neighborhoods, becomes the section’s ironic heart. It encompasses global horrors—climate change, resource wars, hillside slums, pandemics, militant religion, the collapse of civil society in developing nations—as well as the alternative visions of love and poetry.

Jackson splits “Urban Renewal” into “suites” placed in countries wracked by twenty-first-century shock capitalism: Greece, Spain, Italy, Kenya, Brazil. The “Brazil” suite displays the technical firepower at his disposal; as has been evident since his previous book, Holding Company (2010), his control of form and music is superb. This suite consists of one poem, a sixteen-line sonnet whose rhythmic power-loom entails end-rhymed (or partly so) couplets as well as internal, mid-line rhymes. The poem also establishes key themes. Brazil was the last industrial slave hell in the New World, a disgorger of sugar and coffee, and it is now a place of ghastly wealth disparities and riot police swarming during World Cups, where the speaker thinks of

            how war defines a century, how the last goodbye
            is often a surprise, how the silver bars of a ladder
            means someone needs setting free, or sadder
            still, how we must always answer Who are We?: that is,
            we’re set upon by gourd and stone; you’re the crisis
            I hear when I bend to kiss my son, or when,
            at a bar standing, see my brown face in a glass of rum

Throughout the text, Jackson jumps between the metaphorical and the literal, the vernacular and the lyrical, referential realism and visionary imagination. Like Derek Walcott, a master likewise obsessed with the dark interchange between Old and New Worlds, Jackson has one foot in description and narrative, and the other in language-bending pyrotechnics. As such, Roll Deep never slips into mere topical reportage, nor does it treat the world as an object to be aestheticized and transfigured by a poet’s imperious mind.

The bewildering core of “Urban Renewal” is “Kenya: The Dadaab Suite.” Opened by the United Nations in the early 1990s to house Somalis fleeing civil war and drought, the five major installations in the Dadaab area have metastasized, becoming settlements of over 350,000 refugees from the Horn of Africa. The camps are badly overcrowded, under-resourced, and beset by the same security problems that brought them into existence in the first place. Jackson conveys the surreal grimness of life in Dadaab, where man and nature alike provide abundant opportunities for death during “the placid lean of an arid summer, in the lingering / snarl of pit latrines,” where poetry can record but, as Auden says, make nothing happen.

The poems’ speaker, a traveling writer, remarks that “I have come to Dadaab like an actor / on a press release, unprepared for the drained faces / of famine-fleeing refugees, my craft’s glamour / dimmed by hundreds of infant graves, children / whose lolling heads’ final drop landed on their mothers’ / backs like soft stones.” At the camps, the poetic “craft’s glamor” confronts the realities around it, where even UN soldiers “are afraid / of patrolling in between on crowded footpaths / because you never know who will shoot you, what laid / plans will ambush your breath,” where Islamist bandits “snatch refugees then vanish quick as a scent,” turning their prey into child soldiers (“they gave us uniforms and said we were now / Allah’s warriors”). Here thousands of “women speak little, their smiles / like broken carts,” because this is a land “of men surrounding women / and the countless rapes,” of dead and dying infants, of families scrambling for scoops of grain (“They wait for the First / of the Month like the poor in Detroit”), of “the girl who sells her limbs for all her body can take,” of “nonchalant giraffes glid[ing] by like war profiteers,” and

            of women whose walk and sighs in the market
            tell of red sand and breathing while counting the hours,
            of scavenging storks, of horrors seething
            at dusty checkpoints on earth[.]

The speaker finds himself trying to “unearth a feeling for a people who are not your own[.]” Jackson is too honest to end with anything like meliorism. Instead he has a rigorous, provisional empathy, the difficult act of acknowledging and remembering the pain of others, something easy for a privileged Westerner to avoid doing: “Think of the rootless, the dispersed, when you slide / into the porcelain glove of your tub like an emperor, / call back the Horn of Africa. Close the divide. / For fear of despair’s reprisal, pray they love in return.”

Given that the speaker has identified himself as brown-skinned, the image of settling into the “porcelain glove” can be taken metaphorically. The tub’s opulent whiteness encourages him to conflate his own social value with its material solidity, to imagine that as a writer paid to travel and observe, he has escaped the constraints that America—to which Roll Deep returns in section three—puts on its black members. This is the central tenet of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, that there are no exceptions, that even brilliant African Americans are always under threat from America’s mechanisms of power and disproportion, that even success is no guarantee of safety.

Worst still, the talents in “Mighty Pawns” and “Dreams of Permanence,” the second and third poems after we come back from Kenya, never have much of a chance. Systemic inequity gets them early. The latter presents a kid artist lost in the city, dodging police and joining legions of graffiti taggers who only have the time to “scurry their scrawlings” on abandoned territory (“a canvas for the poor”), while they long to leave something more durable. The boy is “some shy kid who longs / merely for the miraculous,—a recognition unfound / among his six younger siblings whose sprawling / caretaking fades him to a name among names[.]” In “Mighty Pawns,” Earl, another young black man, perhaps the same, has a “Section 8 home” and is “the toughest kid / on my block in North Philadelphia, / bow-legged and ominous,” and he also happens to be a chess genius able to “beat / any man or woman in ten moves playing white[.]” But “playing white” isn’t the same as being white, and so while Earl moves with great “ferocity / after-school on the board in Mr. Sherman’s class,” the rest of the time he is marked as a problematic, scary Black Male “when he stands near you / at a downtown bus-stop[.]”

As Philip Larkin, a poet with rather different political inclinations, ambiguously puts it, “What will survive of us is love.” Roll Deep shares that humanist conviction, despite its skepticism about certain forms of modern romantic attraction. (In the ironically Whitmanesque “OK Cupid,” an associational, anaphoric, cross-linked structure mimics the grotesque abundance of online dating sites, as the poem zooms from image to image, notion to notion, lifestyle to lifestyle, like someone compulsively swiping left or right on their phone: “and dating a blonde is like dating a Swede / and dating a Swede is like dating IKEA / and dating IKEA is like dating Whole Foods / and dating Whole Foods is like dating a yoga instructor / and dating a yoga instructor is like dating an e-reader.”) Jackson’s work offers a more difficult idea of love, where the creative urge itself derives from (and refuels) the noblest human impulse, which only sometimes wins out: the impulse to pay as much attention to others as we do to ourselves and our things. Most poets probably could not get away with putting a text called “Why I Write Poetry” at the end of their books, but Jackson pulls it off, setting creative imagination against the pressures of global capital, and underscoring, as he has throughout the text, that price and value aren’t nearly the same thing:

            Because the long coast of my dreams is filled
                                          with saxophones and poems
            Because somewhere someone is buying a Rolex or a Piaget
            Because I wish I could speak three different languages
                                          but have to settle for the language of business
                                          and commerce
            Because I used to wear paisley shirts and herringbone
                            sports jackets
            Because I better git it in my soul

In the same Larkin poem, we should remember, our “almost-instinct” for love is deemed “almost true.” And while in some respects it might be soothing if Jackson had gone another direction and concocted some easy optimism about history—we all like to be reassured that things will turn out fine, or at least become less terrible—that is a politician’s job, not a poet’s, and Jackson’s verse accepts this.

There is plenty of joy in Roll Deep, but it is always tinctured with pain and loss. This lends the work a terrible reality that we should be grateful for. There is more to beauty than the beautiful, and sometimes the strangest visionaries are the deepest realists.

—Ryan Boyd