…in an army of white dust,
blacks here to testify
and testify and testify,
and redeem, and redeem,
in black smoke coming,
as they wave their arms,
as they wave their tongues.
Michael S. Harper, from Song: I Want a Witness (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972)
In November 2011, Nikky Finney won the National Book Award for Poetry as a result of her fourth book of poetry Head Off & Split (Northwestern University Press, 2011). In her moving acceptance speech, Finney started with a history lesson in the form of a 1739 South Carolina Slave Code. This slave code forbade teaching slaves how to read and write, and threatened a fine, jail time, and even death “for circulating any incendiary literature.” Finney not only spoke with poise and determination regarding history, but also of her-story: her parents, her beloved press, her fellow finalists, and a pair of her teachers. The speech, like her book, quite rightly, garnered her widespread acclaim and I think of both regularly. These thoughts were especially illumed when I reached out to Northwestern University Press this past year to inquire about Marcus Jackson’s second full-length collection Pardon My Heart.
I first discovered Marcus Jackson’s work at a locally owned bookstore close to where I grew up—his first book, Neighborhood Register (CavanKerry Books, 2011), adorned the bookshelves, and the book itself is graced with blurbs from such luminaries as Cornelius Eady and Carl Phillips. Not to mention, I was instantly drawn to the cover with its use of shadows and stencil-esque font. I was going to put away Jackson’s book when it slipped from my hands and I dropped it. Embarrassingly, I picked it up and put it back on the shelves and snaked away to the clearance table to see if there was anything of consequence. When I regained calm, I noticed I dented the spine of Jackson’s book. To this day, the spine has a slight imperfection, but I bring this memory up because like my copy of his first book, my body and soul is altered by Jackson’s poems in a way that is different than it was prior to reading.
I came to know Kyle Dargan’s work a bit differently; I first read his work a couple years ago courtesy of Split This Rock, an organization which, as their website proclaims, calls “poets to a greater role in public life and foster[s] a national network of socially engaged poets.” The poem I read was titled “Natural Causes” and I was left mouth agape with the language and strength found in Dargan’s poem. The poem and poet instantly were stuck in heart and mind and on my poet radar and I committed myself to reading the book which housed “Natural Causes”. Sure enough, this past fall, I noticed Dargan’s name on Northwestern University Press’s list, and because they also were publishing Marcus Jackson’s second full-length, I gravitated toward the press even more.
Saying Pardon My Heart (Jackson) and Anagnorisis (Dargan)published by Northwestern University Press (Summer/Fall 2018) are important books doesn’t seem to do enough justice to the power found in the books. Saying they contribute to what Whitman called the powerful play seems canned. No, if anything, these two books demand attention. They also whole-heartedly deserve attention. From the books’ epigraphs, Jackson using Gwendolyn Brooks and Dargan using James Baldwin and Dove, readers are made aware that the poets successfully lens their respective poetic visions. To that point, I felt compelled to recall the poems of the late Michael S. Harper; his work was fused with music, passion, and has the ability to, as outlined on the flap for his collection Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2000), “… [call] a complacent society vigorously to account while cradling the wounded and remembering the lost.” Harper seemed like an appropriate stepping off point with poets like Jackson and Dargan share in Harper’s ability to use music and poetry of experience to speak of the political and personal, masculinity and tenderness, longingness and desire.
Thus begins, Marcus Jackson’s Pardon My Heart, with the title poem being the first poem of the book. The speaker of this poem, and Jackson’s poems as a whole, desires deep-rooted connection and possesses a spectrum of strength and tenderness. From the onset, the book is laid out in four parts, which is the first—but certainly not last—reference to the heart. Jackson’s poems implore to be read aloud and I found myself entranced by their musicality and struck by the rhythms and sounds working their magic within the poems. In addition to these qualities, the speaker of these poems is a sort of cautious individual, the sort of speaker who believes in the adage “better to hear from me than others”, and as a result, speaks openly of his heart and nurtures a bond of intimacy between reader and writer.
An early poem, “Dominion of Men”, speaks of “…the strange dominion of men, where faces/grow grim during stories of love, and where faces/become bright throughout fables full of pain.” The poem, itself, reflects on a memory which racial hostility ended with “a left-hand straight”, though really was “luck, a thoughtless reaction”. There is strength in this poem, which is found stemming from Jackson’s ability to articulate a lesson from an uncomfortable memory yet a willingness to learn from the action and allow for personal connection. There are multiple instances of this throughout the book, specifically with poems like “Lullaby” which still haunts me with the question placed in the heart of the poem: “Is there/a sure way to love a man the world won’t/quit dealing trouble to?” The poem doesn’t quite have an answer to that question but leaves readers with a mother’s gentle hum and sway.
Ross Gay, who offered a blurb for Jackson’s collection, states the book “explores the stupidity and sorrow of a certain idea of masculinity” and highlighted a thread which I couldn’t avoid seeing. Reading further in Part Two, I was drawn to the lulled gentleness found in poems like “One More Tiny Thing, 1985” and “Sweetest Day” which eventually gave way to a lesson only harsh reality could provide. The execution of these poems are results of Jackson’s intertwined nature of memory and music, language and lesson. Jackson’s poems remind me of the days of MapQuest and the windshield-wide road atlas in the sense that they provide direction, but if you miss a line or two, you’ll be lost “…tangling the particulars/of some complication or pain” as written in the poem “Mollified”. The music of these poems will draw you in; the humanity of these poems will keep you in the poems. This poet demands to be read and this book deserves real estate on your bookshelf.
Anagnorisis is defined, on the book’s back cover, as “…recoginition—the moment at which a tragic hero realizes the true nature of his own character, condition, or relationship with an antagonistic entity…” Comparatively to Marcus Jackson’s musicality of language, Kyle Dargan hits hard, writing poems fused with biting political commentary. The book begins with “Failed Sonnet after the Verdict” which is haunting and breath-taking. I am still left shaken by the poem, but especially its close:
No jury exists for such execution. Again, under this State,
angst absolves the trigger finger shaken by we
shadows—a silencing of our hearts’ transgressive beat.
I’m struck by the duality of word execution—both in the act of “yoking it to another child devoured. Self defense…” and “a preordained drowning”—both serving irrevocable executions indeed. I’m also drawn to the word again which reads with such intensity, such resignation, the duality of the word is haunting. Paired with the word absolves, which is successful in its formal tone, makes this poem a dagger of an opener. And, trust me, Dargan does not let up. And I never would ask him to because he’s speaking his truth through his poems, and as the late, great June Jordan reminded us “Poetry is a political act because involves telling the truth.” As a result, the fusion of political and personal narratives create a memorable, enduring, collection of poetry.
The collection has many poems that illume my imagination in ways I cannot fully explain, but I am going to try. One such poem is “In 2016, the African-American Poet Kyle Dargan is Asked to Consider Writing More Like the African-American Poet Ross Gay”. I don’t think I’m being over the top when I say this poem demands to be read by creative writing students and teachers worldwide. The poem begins with Ross Gay’s opening line to “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”, the title poem of his 2015 book from University of Pittsburgh Press: Friends, will you bear with me today and what results is a thought-provoking poem of immense movement and grace and anger and tenderness.
It’s fascinating to me to see the poem reference Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Thanks”, which in Dargan’s lens, is a poem where “…he (Komunyakaa) praises/off-mark bullets/and butterflies/that kept him alive”. By comparison, Dargan recalls his mother’s frank advice: “expect/no kindness from The Man—/this despite how often/The Man was someone/she called collegue,/coworker, and friend.” Dargan follows this with praise for his Mother, which in itself, is an act of unrivaled gentleness—a true testament to Dargan’s words. The poem continues though and the brilliance of it left me speechless. The following stanza reads, in part
my private aspect
(joy) to be public.
You want my public
aspect (pain) to be
my bed like a precious
might steal from me.
Damn. I’ve been looking for words to say about this poem. But…but honestly, I’m going directly to Dargan himself for this one. In a recent interview with The Adroit Journal, Dargan writes:
…I would like to be whole, humanly whole, in the way that vulnerability would allow me, but I just don’t have the faith that the American “you,” the self-identified “white” “you,” who would demand my gratitude would also be capable of recognizing the range of emotion that makes me human. It is a way of saying, “If you were different, I could be different, but I can’t always be the one offering to change first.” I cannot personally extend that credit to “white” America after 2016.
I can assure you that Dargan succeeds in his desire to be humanly whole with this poem and with this book. It’s a book of our time and for all time. Read it.
Stephen Furlong received his M.A. in Professional Writing from Southeast Missouri State University. His poems, interviews, and book reviews have appeared in Yes Poetry, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Pine Hills Review, among others. He currently serves as a Staff Reviewer for LitStyle which is a subset of the literary journal Five:2:One. He can be found on Twitter @StephenJFurlong where he tweets his adoration for poets and fudge grahams, among other things.
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