- "Yet what connects those dots":The Slim Rim of Fear in Major Jackson's Hoops
The dots that make up the circle of life in Major Jackson's new book Hoops have a surprising linkage: fear. Major Jackson reveals in this second book an unexpected and deep-seated trust in it. His is different from the fear of a relatively young culture, mapped in the United States by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman, for example, in the postrevolutionary and early modern era, or that of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, among others, who picked up that thread of cultural defensiveness and went on the offensive, famously propounding the "new."
Such responses to a colonial past reproduce the familiar arc of the fight-or-flight response embedded in fear's genetic code. When Major Jackson identifies fear inhabiting the country from a racial rather than trans-Atlantic angle in Hoops, he sounds off on another history and another lineage, "Hayden, Baraka, Dove, and Wright." As he says, "America could / Never deal with a diverse canon of poets."
In Jackson's world, the nearly-dead are ferried back into the afterlife of living: "to arrive / here, where the page is blank, an afterlife." So the actual dead are also transported back into the world of the living on this reenergized spectrum that includes all dead, all living. Jackson's position on fear therefore is not essentially defensive, nor offensive: neither [End Page 1119] fight nor flight. In Hoops, fear serves as an extraordinary ferry, and the poet can be a "chauffeur" who carries the "true and living through muck and mire." In this revitalized echo (rather than full-fledged allusion) to Charon, the ferryman of the dead over the river Acheron, the divide between the alive and the dead from all times is effectively crossed out, making room for more crossings. Hoops thus ties and connects back together fearful and wounded bodies.
This is also true at the level of form. In a resounding interconnection of literary forms, rhetoric, and prosody (ballad stanza, rime royal, updated Skeltonics, allusion, and sometimes downgraded allusion), Hoops focuses on a network of transversing, ferrying verbs: "I cross," "I liken to," "I jet." Utilizing these verbs as the book's pump, the poems, as a body, organize the circulation, simultaneously profound and humorous: "I've a long ride to Philly / I'll give this [letter] to Gramps. Perhaps, he'll think it silly."
Almost the entire second half of the book is a humorously long and seriously engaged "epistolary chat" from the near-dead poet Jackson to the dead poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who herself is depicted as nearly-alive, "up there." The nearly-dead and the nearly-alive, therefore, are never far apart. Addressed to Brooks, the letter is a juxtaposition in epic time between every two hands held in fear: "which is to say, we are / Never alone."
The epistolary chat is at once ceremonial and informal; completed and dangling; written and voiced; conversational and ultra self-conscious (sometimes too much so, as in "I want a form / For my lyrical stealth. I want a malt / To toast the public's health. / I want a storm to rest my perfect shelf"). Sometimes the self-deprecation and recovery can stick out awkwardly, as in these lines where Jackson ropes Thomas Hardy with Seamus Heaney: "Far from the maddening / caravan of fistfights, jacked-rides, drunkards / my pen takes aim from the thumbnail of his [Grandfather's] yard."
Still, most interestingly, Jackson's pen does not dig down to history, as Heaney's "squat pen" dug in tune with his rural father's own spade. Instead, by "tak[ing] aim," it literalizes and urbanizes such a pen. In a long-winded extenuation of fear, Jackson reconnects history not just to the dead, as Heaney does, but to the living, including himself. What we experience overall through these hoops is the slim rim, forged in fear. This fine circle is not between life and death, but less conventionally—and beginning in reverse—death-as-rebirth and life-as-near-death. In Hoops...