Major Jackson’s Roll Deep

Major Jackson’s fourth poetry collection, Roll Deep, is a mature and smooth-flowing journey through the perspective of a man with Philadelphia roots who has found relative comfort as a poet and husband. This collection rivals his debut Leaving Saturn, which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. The particular strength of Jackson’s work in previous collections has been his ability to humanize everyday people (a barber dealing with the death of his teenage assistant, a reverend who brings in a young Jackson to tutor his star basketball player in Algebra, and a grandfather gardening on top of a three-floor apartment building). These people carry out the difficult task of nurturing a community that suffers from the greater systematic problems of racism. In Roll Deep, Jackson marries his keen social insight with a finely-textured verse and a natural, but deeply-refined musicality that makes these poems a pleasure to read aloud.

Structurally, Roll Deep doesn’t look different from Jackson’s other collections in the sense that he allows himself to move in any direction his artistic instincts decide to take him. He has explored meter, rhyme, epistolary poetry as well as an entire book dedicated to highly-condensed, ten-line poems. In Roll Deep, Jackson has mastered his ability to showcase the natural music of his poetics while maintaining tight, compressed lines that breathe well. This poem, “The Great Beauty,” is a nice example of those elements working together:

If that sleeper should change pose, and half undress
herself of sheets, let her shift not break cataclysmic
and lose sight of the stone-bright travertine walls,
nor the hills rolling soft as her body, these ancient brick
farmhouses, nor morning’s rustic tinkling call
of sheep bells, the honeyed fortress of his city whose blush
of red poppies in fields below collapses some tourist,
our dreamer, into the arms of her husband… (43)

Generally, the lines are longer in Roll Deep, particularly in the first half of the book as the speaker travels through Africa and Europe. These explorations produce crisply-tuned, breezy verses. In the last half of the book, Jackson plays with form. “OK Cupid” and “Why I Write Poetry” employ musical repetition; “Aubade” is the quintessential morning love poem with a light and simple rhyme scheme. Additionally, Jackson executes a poem composed of tercets in “Ode to Mount Philo” and experiments a bit with form in “Canon of Proportions.” The assortment of forms and well-crafted verse keep the reader invested all the way through.

The crowning achievement of Roll Deep, however, is the opening poem, “Reverse Voyage” because it sets the stage for the way the rest of the book is read. The poem gets its own section, and, according to the notes, is written with the poetry of Larry Levis in mind. Levis grew up around migrant farm workers in California. Early on, his poetry was concerned with politics and disenfranchised individuals, but eventually he turned toward writing more personal verse, and the overall strengths of his poetics dealt with imagism and surrealism. These same elements appear in “Reverse Voyage.” Jackson uses his Philadelphia roots as a foundation for what he will eventually witness while traveling abroad. Toward the beginning of the poem, he says:

I’m brought back to
the silence, oblique, hidden deep inside
the ventricle caves of my body’s chambers
to nail salons, check cashing stores, pawnshops.
How characteristic of them to greet me though,
the old folk, in such a way: magisterial (19).

Further down, the speaker sees what might possibly be a younger version of himself:

and yet, behind a first-floor window, a young boy bends
over an old encyclopedia, a remarkable script,
a genuine compendium that shows his people’s Africa
like a sculpted mask for tourists in an open-market
which he slowly turns contemplating skin, the color
of almonds, pyramids, revolutions, and other such beauties.

This is the richest poem of the collection because it allows space for the speaker to identify his oppression while also recognizing his privilege through the reality of his environment and his perceptions of Africa. In “Reverse Voyage” Jackson brings in everyday people not unlike those from Leaving Saturn: a domestic worker named Mrs. Pearl, a retired bricklayer and his wife, and a drug addict and her daughter. The speaker says they’re calling to him: “Return to us. You’ve become all there is / to become” (20). However, he resists this in the last lines when he says “my eyes went / elsewhere and nowhere, open and determined” (21).

The poems about Africa are dark and brutal; they deal with infant graves, child soldiers, starvation, banditry, and refugee camps. This is not the Africa from the encyclopedia. The speaker acknowledges his privilege in “The Dadaab Suite” by saying:

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 (34)

Jackson’s depth and maturity as a poet are exemplified in form and content throughout the book as he negotiates the complex identity of a man who is both oppressed and privileged. His willingness to inhabit that space makes Roll Deep a superbly well-rounded and satisfying read.

Originally published in Gulf Coast Online, January 31, 2016