Major Jackson’s The Absurd Man

Major Jackson takes his lyrical voice to new depths with his fifth poetry collection, The Absurd Man (W.W. Norton & Company, 2020). The poems in this book are similar in scope to Jackson’s second collection Holding Company (W.W. Norton & Company, 2010) through their use of surrealistic playfulness, varying language textures, and lyrical flexibility, but this time they are filtered through Albert Camus’s conception of the absurd man who “must give the void its colors.” This is exactly what Jackson does in this collection. Here, he paints a rich, modern, surrealistic landscape using deep image and a finely-tuned lyrical voice as it switches back and forth between the absurd man (a variation of the speaker) and the speaker. As a result, readers can enjoy poems written from a double perspective that are imaginative, meditative, highly observant, intelligent, and playful.

“Going into Battle,” a poem that appears early in the collection, is written from the perspective of the speaker as himself. It employs a more stripped-down writing style as compared to other poems in the collection, opening up space for the speaker to explore ideas of intimacy and protection. Here are the first two stanzas:

The birthmark on the lower right
of my wife’s back is a letter of resurrection.
Each night I kiss it before I turn out the lights
so that it blesses my sleep.

A stamp of all her sorrows.
I regard it with the utmost importance,
for it sets her apart from all other creatures.
Sometimes I put my face to its amoeba-like shape
to see if I can hear the long wail of her creation.

This part of the poem contains spiritual language: “resurrection,” “blesses,” “sorrows,” “creation.” It also elevates the image of the birthmark as a symbol of individual identity and an object of worship. It is located in an intimate spot: “the lower right / of my wife’s back,” and the speaker kisses it in a ritualistic manner. Here, spirituality and intimacy become intertwined and set the tone for the last three stanzas that take an interesting poetic turn:

Periodically it guides me across the waters
of my absent desire like a beacon,
only brown and lightly spotted.

One before saw it as a sign of war and created a sentinel
around his body, and he who beheld it next heard
the rattling of dice in a gambler’s hand.

I am the only one who makes peace before facing
the large screen of dreams, knowing a wind-cursed
city lies behind my eyelids.

Here, the poem opens up and zooms out; the image of the birthmark is transformed into a symbol of protection and an omen of war. Here also, the birthmark becomes an amulet that allows the speaker to contend with his subconscious, a place he describes as “a wind-cursed / city.” In this poem, the birthmark is the central image, and it takes on multiple meanings for the speaker. This is a wonderful example of a deep image poem with lyrical sensibilities; it is a great poetic accomplishment for Jackson.

“I’ve Said Too Much” is a poem that playfully uses beautiful language and lush images as the speaker embarks on a lyrical meditation that ventures toward the fantastical world. Here is the first half of the poem:

I’ve said too much. The soil overruns with honey.
Porch lights blaze into the afternoons.
I find it difficult to control my idioms; only ask
which direction the wind blows,
and I will give you a history of my elms and
cottonwoods or my theft of fire. My brain plunders
its orchard of speech. Watch the expressionist stains
at the corners of my mouth, dark as blueberries,
blossom into a symphony. I am too far from the land
of hush to be useful. What is said must be said
so I say it.

In this poem, image and metaphor abound, guided by the speaker’s lyrical voice. He admits: “I’ve said too much,” which feels cleverly ironic as he continues with a long meditation that enacts verbal sensuousness. “The soil overruns with honey” and “Porch lights blaze into afternoons.” The speaker dives deep into metaphorical beauty: “I will give you a history of my elms and / cottonwoods or my theft of fire,” “My brain plunders / its orchard of speech.” At the end of this section of the poem he justifies his excessive outpouring with concise precision: “What is said must be said / so I say it.” In the last part of the poem, the speaker continues with his luscious meditative perspective, describing himself as “Inheritor of hieroglyphs and cave drawings, / I keep the engines of hearsay fueled…,” and addresses a “you” when he says “Leave me with your griefs and barefoot secrets, / and rest assured, I will secure your memory, / and your name….” This poem embodies a gorgeous modern sensibility with its metaphors and symbols, as well as a speaker who is ironic, insightful, and bursting with imaginative language.

“Double Major” is perhaps the strongest and most cleverly written poem in the collection due to the positioning of the voice: the absurd man within the speaker. The poem represents both perspectives simultaneously, and this is what makes it such a captivating read—it inhabits a complex authorial space. This is also the last poem in the collection, bringing together the dual narrative threads. Here is the first half of the poem:

I emerge whenever he confuses the lamp for a moon.
It is when he thinks of fine binding in ordered athenaeums.
I own his face, but he washes and spends too little time behind his ears.
He sees me in the mirror behind thick clouds of shaving
cream then suddenly believes in ghosts.
His other selves are murals in the cave of his mind. They are speechless
yet large. They steer his wishes like summer rain and amplify
his terrors like newscasters.
What he doesn’t know: his dreams are his father’s dreams, which are his
grandfather’s dreams, and so on. They possessed a single wish.
He knocks repeatedly on the bolted door to his imagination.
Tragically, he believes he can mend his wounds with his poetry.
And thus, I am his most loyal critic.

“I emerge” immediately complicates the poem and sets the stage for a series of long-lined assertions describing the nature of the speaker’s double identity. “I own his face,” “He sees me in the mirror,” “His other selves are murals” all confront the difficulty of a blurred identity. Additionally, the speaker expresses poignant truths on behalf of his other self: “What he doesn’t know: his dreams are his father’s dreams, which are his grandfather’s dreams, and so on. They possessed a single wish” and point to a male lineage of imaginative desire; “He knocks repeatedly on the bolted door of his imagination” and “Tragically, he believes he can mend his wounds with his poetry” suggest that those imaginative desires are inaccessible and resist his need to heal existential wounds. However, the speaker says with directness and clarity: “I am his most loyal critic.” In the last part of the poem, the speaker seeks to articulate and solidify the nature of this dual relationship through image: “Our voices come together like two wings of a butterfly,” but admits that it is essentially a push-and-pull relationship: “I suffer in silence wedded to his convictions.” The last line of the poem adds more narrative complexity as it addresses a “you”: “He would like to tell you the truth about love. But we are going to bed, to bed.” What makes this poem so powerful is the ways in which it seeks to account for the dual identities: the speaker as himself and the absurd man, but also concludes with open-endedness because there is no way to fully explain the nature of the relationship between the two identities. This is the beauty and the challenge of The Absurd Man; it shows rather than tells, embodying both speakers’ complexities and contradictions to great poetic effect.

Jackson’s poetry has matured wonderfully; The Absurd Man is notable for its dual speakers, variety and depth of images, and a musicality that has undergone further refinement. As always, Jackson’s work is rooted in poetic tradition and gives homage to the master poets that have informed and influenced his work. His strengths lie in the fact that he uses the poetic tradition as a means for carving out his own poetic territory, making his poems sharp and witty, but also meditative and empathetic toward the overall human condition. As with past collections, Jackson reinvents his lyrical voice through his use of poetic forms; his poems are never fixed in one style, but rather, embody multiple styles. He is a poet of eclecticism and fusion and his voice remains solid and steady, growing wiser with time. As always, it will be interesting to see where he goes from here.

June 8, 2020