Raging Toward Heaven

What do any of us have to pass on, really? What will be left of us in the end? Major Jackson thinks hard and playfully about those questions in his poem “My Children’s Inheritance.” His answer takes the form of an inventory, a list, but there are no items of property on it, unless we count “a chifforobe of half-empty cologne bottles in various colors / and dried flowers more dignified in death,” and even these are not so much material objects as tokens of one man’s vanities and longings, “evidence that I once cherished bouquets and timelessness.”

The self that Jackson evokes in this poem is intangible and turbulent, difficult to represent. It can only be gestured at by symbols and metaphors, and perhaps only by mixed metaphors. Catachresis is the classical rhetorician’s category for tropes that confound reason and conflate the senses by reveling in paired terms that are seemingly mismatched. “My Children’s Inheritance” gives us plenty of examples: “gunpowder thinking,” “pitch-perfect mind,” “second thoughts gummed to the future,” and “blinking eyes whose silence is ancient and naked,” a line that Allen Ginsberg might have used in Howl. Jackson is a poet of passion, crowded lines, hyperbole, and surprise. In short, he is an unapologetically Romantic poet. His right hand, as he writes gripping an Aurora Diamante pen, “rages toward heaven.”

The first poem that Jackson read as an African-American child growing up in North Philadelphia was “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” by Robert Frost. Frost’s pastoral poems and the black cultural life of the postindustrial inner city might seem remote from each other, but they were both embedded in Jackson’s young imagination, and so they remain today. In “The Romantics of Franconia Notch,” for instance, we visit the heart of Frost country with Jackson and a friend, the poet Matthew Dickman. Here the fraught situation of a black man pulled over on the road by police is lightened by satire and camaraderie without reducing the menace.

Today Frost’s north-of-Boston is marked by drugs on the town green, Colonial-style homes dropped by developers on converted farmland, and ready-to-erupt racism. Nature is on the run. When “a black bear” jumps into view “as though chased /  by the ghost of the bear he used to be,” Dickman turns up Jay Z’s Black Album, giving the bear “a boost” of solidarity. The “further darkness” the creature lurches into will protect him for a time, but it is only more of the same, and hardly counts as an escape.

“Europa” takes us south to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, home to Titian’s mighty painting of the mythic civilization-founding rape. Here is a fable of catachresis, an image of the violent yoking of opposites, which is represented in the background simply as a blending of “torn clouds” and “craggy mountains.” As a good Romantic, Jackson knows there is a corresponding violence in the self, and “The Absurd Man: Europa Revisited” makes the point emphatically. This is a sonnet like Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” to which “brute hands at the nape” and other phrases clearly allude. The poem’s “I” is self-divided, and afraid of its own power and desire.

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Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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