February 2022: Major Jackson’s “Visitation” & Melvins’ “The Water Glass”

This month I’m going to discuss a poem from Major Jackson’s newest book The Absurd Man which came out in 2020 and is an incredibly important book in regards to contemporary poetry. It is a book that explores the self through a lens that is not just imaginative, but contemplative. The Absurd Man is a very literary book to me in all the best ways. It utilizes image, metaphor, language-play, and the personal voice with care, attentiveness, and liveliness. The collection feels very much to me like a combination of Jackson’s two books that he published previously to this one—Holding Company (2010) and Roll Deep (2015)—because of how he fuses lyrical language-play poems with personal narrative-style poems. Major Jackson was the first poet whose work I reviewed and I have been a fan of his poetry ever since. I’ve reviewed both Roll Deep and The Absurd Man and highly recommend them for readers who are looking for intelligent, refreshing, and playful poetry.

The poem I will be discussing is called “Visitation” and it’s the second poem in a series of poems titled The Absurd Man Suite. Here is the poem minus the last four lines:

When his dead mother reappears in a storefront glass
behind him somber as a midweek
wake, he knows it’s time to count
his reflections. He worries
when scars heal too fast
or when a memory of flames threads
his body like a cutthroat waltz. His body
hardened into a rainy nightfall, sleepwalking
a vortex of honeysuckle and wild hearts.

What I love so much about this poem is not just how image-heavy it is, but how those images work in conjunction with each other. The poem begins “When his dead mother reappears in a storefront glass” which immediately intensifies the reading experience because not only is it signaling deep loss for the man in the poem, it brings in a supernatural element, placing the poem in the realm of the spiritual. It also has a serious effect on the man in the poem because the speaker says “he knows it’s time to count / his reflections.” The speaker then elaborates on the psyche of the man: “He worries / when scars heal too fast / or when a memory of flames threads / his body like a cutthroat waltz.” These lines are rich with images: “scars,” “flames,” “threads,” and “cutthroat waltz”—which is incredibly interesting due to the contrasting nature of those two words being placed together and utilized as a metaphor to describe the person’s “memory of flames.” Right after that are these lines: “His body / hardened into a rainy nightfall, sleepwalking / a vortex of honeysuckle and wild hearts;” to me this is the most beautiful part of the poem because it includes two brilliant metaphors—one for the body and one for the vortex—“hardened to a rainy nightfall” and “honeysuckle and wild hearts.” Both of these metaphors are incredibly unique in how they give life to the images they describe—they are both nature-oriented and romantic, but also give specific form to those images. Here are the last four lines:

Let him glimpse himself too long,
and he will put a lantern brightness to his eyes
hoping to crowd out ghosts reaching
like moths across eternity with broken wings.

As the poem ends, it returns to the supernatural element that was established in the first line, but in a more general sense as it refers to “ghosts reaching / like moths across eternity with broken wings” which is both beautiful and heartbreaking in how the metaphorical moths can fly through time with wings that shouldn’t be able to take them the distance, but they do. What is interesting is that the speaker, after staring at himself too long, wants to rid himself of these ghost-moths and does it through his eyes with “a lantern brightness.” There is the sense here that the supernatural figures of the poem—the dead mother and the ghosts—are somehow problematic to the man (possibly the absurd man) who seems to be more interested in an imaginative journey rather than a spiritual one, and yet spiritual aspects keep appearing. This creates an interesting push-pull tension within the poem where not only the man, but the reader is confronted with the notion of the self as it grabbles with self-knowledge and spirituality as two independent forces.

What makes Major Jackson’s work so interesting and important to me are these subtle metaphysical and emotional threads that run throughout his work. “Visitation” is a perfect example of the depth that exists inside the images and descriptions that flourish within the poem. It is not simply a poem filled with creative contrasting images—it is a poem that deals with death, spirituality, the self, pain, loss, and nature in ways that are organic and playful, but ultimately heavy and intense. Jackson’s poetic style is subtle and brilliant because it always shows rather than tells, and what it shows is vast and immense and poignant.

The song I want to talk about this month is “The Water Glass” by the Melvins and it is a song that is radical not only in its structure, but in what it is capturing. The song itself is more of an embodiment of an experience; it is not necessarily about anything, although I would argue that the song does have a meaning that plays with notions of nonconformity and antimilitarism. The Melvins are a band I recently started listening to and the group’s music has quickly become part of my regular listening rotation not just because the music is excellent and aggressive and heavy, but because the band is incredibly interesting to me lyrically and conceptually. I would describe the Melvins as an avant-garde metal band—or to put it another way, a very artful metal band. Buzz Osborne is a brilliant musician, songwriter, and vocalist; he puts forth music that is purposely (and purposefully) antiestablishment and strange in ways that are utterly satisfying to listeners (like me) who like aggressive music that goes against the grain aesthetically and politically. Additionally, Dale Crover is an excellent and highly underrated drummer. This song in particular showcases his percussive skills; he is powerful, rhythmic, and precise, and his drum work is the driving force for most of the song.

“The Water Glass” is from the group’s seventeenth album The Bride Screamed Murder (2010) and it starts out with this incredibly powerful winding riff that immediately sets the tone of the song—which is both solid and aggressive. Once the riff is established, the drums begin to pound and the riff repeats. Then, the song shifts as the guitar fades and the drum rhythm changes to a pounding roll and then immediately shifts into a groove that sounds like a high school marching band drum line with loud guitar sounds—it is incredibly primal, sensual, and hypnotic. Then the guitar disappears and the drums shift into what sounds like a military marching drill. After that, the drums stop entirely and Crover begins to hit his drumsticks together in a quick rhythm. This is when Osborne finally sings: “Run me / Run me in the dirt / Run me run me / Get hurt.” The drums start up again in a more complex rhythm that still sounds very much like a marching drill. He slows down the drum rhythm a bit and incorporates little drumrolls as the song prepares for its lyrical component. Here is the beginning of it:

1, 2
1, 2, 3, 4
Here we go (16x)
Every day (2x)
All the way (2x)
In the groove (2x)
On the move (2x)
Hoo hoo ha ha (2x)
Ready (8x)
We are ready (2x)

The entire time this is sung, Crover hits his drumsticks together. In this song, Osborne takes on the role of the drill sergeant whose lines are repeated back to him by his soldiers-in-training. The drums don’t return until the line “We are ready” is sung and it comes back in a steady rhythm which causes another shift in the song. Osborne sings more lines that are repeated by the soldiers:

I said we are ready ready ready
We are ready ready ready
We are ready (2x)
I said we are ready ready ready (2x)
Rock me rock me rock rock steady (2x)
Roll me roll me roll me ready (2x)
Rock me rock me rock rock steady (2x)
Roll me roll me roll me ready (2x)

After these lines are sung, the song shifts slightly in its lyrical tone, but the drum rhythm remains the same:

Say yeah pot lady-o (2x)
Yeah pot lady-o (2x)
Here we go lady-o (2x)
Add a double time (2x)
Say yeah pot lady-o (2x)
Whole lotta lady-o (2x)
Add a double time (2x)

Again, the song shifts lyrically as Osborne shouts “Pain” and sings the other lines:

Pain (2x)
In my head (2x)
Pain (2x)
In my back (2x)
We don’t care (2x)
We like it there (2x)
Pain (2x)
In my arms (2x)
Pain (2x)
In my legs (2x)
We don’t care (2x)
We like it there (2x)

To end the song, Osborne and his soldiers shout “Huh!” with a simultaneous drum pound.

This is probably my favorite Melvins song because it’s incredibly creative and because of its artistic character. The aggressive guitar riff at the beginning combined with the rhythmically forceful drums makes “The Water Glass” a metal song, but then it appropriates the marching band drum line and the military drill not just as a way to utilize those rhythmic elements, but to cleverly point to the authoritarian nature of those particular types of music. I think the song brilliantly points out the fact that music is an important aspect of upholding the military-industrial complex, but it also shows how music can dismantle those very forces through appropriation and lyric play. “The Water Glass” is a perfect example of the avant-garde quality of the Melvins’ music. In this song in particular, it plays a prominent role in not only how the song sounds, but how it is understood by listeners. It could be perceived as merely playful in nature, but the fact that it incorporates the march drill and pairs it with lyrics that are groovy and humorous in nature bring in deeper implications about authoritarianism and how the avant-garde rails against it. “The Water Glass” is an embodiment of who the Melvins are: aggressive, creative, and antiestablishment.

What Major Jackson and the Melvins share is a desire to incorporate playfulness in artistic forms of expression—poetry and music. For Jackson, the self is endless terrain for exploring creativity, philosophy, spirituality, and the complexities of what it means to be a thinking person in a world that is not always stable and grounded. He places the self at the center of his work and also privileges the self over societal standards of what it means to be masculine and Black and imaginative. The Melvins bring playfulness into the metal genre, which is rare because the genre is generally regarded as technical, aggressive, and serious. And yet, through the group’s playfulness, the band is really good at maintaining a serious edge. The avant-garde elements of the Melvins’ music is where the political implications are most visibly apparent and it is also what makes them refreshing and exciting to listen to. The Melvins engage with politics through artful means and this is something that metal music needs more of. If poetry readers and music listeners are looking for work that pushes the envelope on an aesthetic and political level, Major Jackson and the Melvins excel as counterpoints to traditional forms of expression in their respective genres.

February 7, 2022