Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Monday, August 27, 2007

Major Jackson: HOOPS

There comes a point when reading Hoops, Major Jackson’s second collection of poetry, where one wonders what to make of this poet’s seemingly large leap from the relatively shorter hard-edged urban portraits that open the book to a lengthy letter-poem written in rime royal that fills the final 60% of the volume and is composed as an address to Gwendolyn Brooks, a significant figure among the poet’s idols. This nearly schizophrenic book of poetry practically invites readers to treat the parts as individual entities, a duo of units nevertheless designed to be considered separate from one another. Indeed, one sometimes feels as if Jackson has combined a pair of poetry manuscripts under one cover, offering two looks at his work for the price of one.

Consequently, one’s first instinct upon concluding this book may be to regard the collection as jarring to the senses, as if while moving smoothly through the early poems one suddenly has somehow encountered a speed bump or a more diverting detour, has unexpectedly been forced toward a different direction by the author. I must confess I had to shift gears when arriving at “Letter to Brooks,” and it took a few pages before I could comfortably cruise through the rest of this extended exercise. In fact, I initially wished this 75-page poem had been published in isolation from the other works, as a book-length poem, where it would receive sole attention and the two sections of this collection would not trespass upon one another or distract from each portion’s great merits.

Indeed, some poems in this collection’s first section are expanded or extended versions of poems previously seen in Major Jackson’s premiere publication, Leaving Saturn (2002), which had been a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Therefore, the poems in this volume preceding “Letter to Brooks” appear to some degree as if they are complementary addenda or supplemental works more easily attached in readers’ minds to the earlier collection.

Hoops begins with a prefatory poem, “Selling Out,” which quickly indicates the intensity one will discover in some of Jackson’s taut lyrics on incidents in urban living. The narrative concerns the past tense chronicling of a suspenseful twist taken during an attempted drug deal by two teens after their double shift of work at McDonald’s. The speaker and his friend found themselves held at gunpoint, their brief lives threatened: “each breath bursting to explosive fog / in a dead-end alley near Fifth, where on / my knees, with my fingers laced on my head / and a square barrel prodding a temple, / I thought of me in the afterlife.”

Jackson has a talent for portraying the moment, evoking emotions through his depiction of atmosphere. Here, the speaker offers the scene with an engaging use of language: “a single dog barked his own vapor, / an emptiness echoed through blasted / shells of rowhomes rising above, / and I heard deliverance in the bare / branches fingering a series of powerlines / in silhouette to the moon’s hushed / excursion across the battered fields / of our lives.” Since the situation is related in past tense and the voice of the narrator remains identifiably poetic, the poem’s closing lines appear even more appropriate as the speaker survives “to arrive / here, where the page is blank, an afterlife.”

In the book’s title poem Jackson meticulously describes with lyrically rhythmic lines containing alliteration or internal rhymes an urban scene of street basketball: “Elbows posed like handlebars, / he flicks a wrist, the pill arcs / through sunlight glare, / & splashes the basket’s // circle of air. A Boom Box bobs / & breaks beats on a buckling sea / of asphalt;—the hard, / driving rhymes of BDP, // rousing that rowdy crowd / of hustlers tossing craps, waging / fists & dollar bets, only louder— / & one more enraged // promises to pistol-whip / the punk who doesn’t pay.”

For many in the city’s neighborhoods—including Hank Gathers, the basketball player whose immense ability and tragic death are heroic legend, and to whom Jackson dedicates this poem—sports, particularly hoops, represent an opportunity and an escape from poverty or other hardships. But for the poem’s speaker other heroes, literary lights, provide guidance: “The ceiling in my room / a projector’s canvas, the moon / a flurried cone of light / to which I recite Brooks, // Frost, Hughes.” For some seeking rapid riches, the roads toward gang violence and drug money are tempting paths to follow: “Below bunk my cousin / stacks tens, twenties,— / pacing corners till twelve, // he & the Ooh-mob Gang / slinging plastic vials / of crack, the cursed slang / of death: ‘I’m gonna buy // a Gucci watch, Air Nikes, / the hypest gear to look Fly.’ / dazed he says then cocks / a Wesson.”

However, the poet knows the consequences when those paths lead literally to a dead end: “A darkness spreads— / at first as clouds float // -ing like this craft’s spirited / march, then arise / faces of friends resting / in caskets: Deshaun, // Darnell, Lil Mike, / Shantel, a slide show / whose carousel double-quick / click ricochets shots // across this elegiac.” Once again, as in “Selling Out” and elsewhere throughout the collection, the narrator’s self-image as a poet and a consciousness of language help shape his response. For instance, he notes the parenthetical dates accompanying news of another early death: “R.I.P. // & the too few years hemmed / between the cupped hands / of parentheses.” Additionally, as Jackson closes this poem, he mentions his poetic way of remembering those he once knew, presenting them in these stanzas of elegy: “The legions of lines my fist / inscribes calls back your days.”

As one might realize, Major Jackson frequently presents poems that connect the cityscape and its inhabitants with literary allusions or writers. He also likes to bridge autobiographical elements with images or stories drawn from literature. The poet begins “Bum Rush” with a couple of stanzas recalling his reading of Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery”: “how a small town piled stones, / the size of cannonballs and pelted // a mother, like yours or mine, wearing / her faded housedress and favorite pair / of slippers when she had drawn the black, / spotted paper from a splintered black box.”

In his mind he views the fictional character’s “clumps / of blood mingling with dust / when she fell in the garden of stones.” Yet, by the final stanzas of the poem, Jackson makes a transition to the last time he saw his mother, a night in which he “mumbled / through the evening, kicking / and biting back at the inevitable.” Even today, the speaker confides: “I stare at heaps of potatoes, fearful / of reliving that walk in the snow / away from her grave.”

A variety of Jackson’s fine images of city life and autobiographical memories occur in the sequence of poetry vignettes titled “Urban Renewal,” which continues from its appearance in Leaving Saturn. These numbered pieces seem at times as vivid as the striking book-jacket painting on the front cover of Hoops. In one canto Jackson tells of how his grandfather kneeling, “stabs his shears into earth” to plant beans, attempting to grow something from among the “ruins” of the city: “Forty years / from a three-story, he has watched the neighborhood,— / postwar marble steps, a scrubbed frontier / of Pontiacs lining the curb, fade to a hood. / Pasture of wind-driven litter swirls among greasy / bags of takeouts. Panicles of nightblasts / cap the air, a corner lot of broken TVs empties / and spills from a suitcase of hurt. Life amassed, / meaningless as a trampled box of Cornflakes.”

“Letter to Brooks” steps beyond even the autobiographical recollections or personal observations contained in the poetry that opens Hoops. In this ambitious and wide-ranging work fashioned as an intimate address to Gwendolyn Brooks, a poet admired by the young Jackson when he was still an aspiring writer, Major Jackson strips away layers of language or the buffers offered by personae to speak in an unmistakably candid and frank manner. As one might expect in a 75-page poem that puts forth opinion on a vast array of topics—9/11, the Columbine shootings, slavery and contemporary race relations, the Internet or other electronic communication systems, music, differing schools of poetry, etc.—the monologue can become tedious or tangential at times.

The speaker labels his poem an “epistolary chat,” and the poet displays both an entertaining charm and an engaging intelligence; nevertheless, the voice occasionally supplies moments that may exasperate some readers with its appearance of meandering from one subject to another. Apparently addressing Brooks, the speaker states: “I’ve set the task of bringing up to date / All the news down here; the current state // Of poetry, what’s in and what’s out, sports, / Fad diets and more.” In one stanza the speaker acknowledges and perhaps worries: “I tend to be long / winded.” However, for others (like myself) Jackson’s language that allows allusions to Robert Lowell and The Cure in the same sentence could be seen as daring and delightful.

Jackson divides the poem into 15 parts, each written in stanzas of rime royal and titled with the name of a Philadelphia train station, as if the poet is leading readers along a personal trip, internal as well as external, through thoughts or neighborhoods that are familiar and meaningful territory to the author. As a result, those personal comments can become obscure for a number of readers. In a section titled “North Philadelphia,” he humorously notes moments from attendance at an AWP (Associated Writing Programs) Conference, where Jackson proposes: “Many wear their scorn / On their sleeves and talk of chopping folks / At the knees.” Later in the same section, the poet notes: “Helen V. sizzles in the frying pan; / Poor Alice Q. takes it on the chin; / Rita voodooed to a doll of pushpins.” But the following stanza concedes: “This feels a little too insiderish, / A little too gossipy, a little / Too off the beaten.”

Whether or not most readers will recognize Helen Vendler, Alice Quinn, and Rita Dove, or the poetic issues in question, this contrasts substantially with a more somber stanza in the section titled “Erie”: “Paradise is a checkpoint of virgins / For which a vest of bombs body-strapped / Blasts shrapnel eyes into martyrdom. / So they tell us a river of honey maps / Fluted glasses of desire. On a raft / Float children of Columbine and Palestine, / Bypassing their lives for an ocean of wine.” Indeed, while I admire and am entertained by Jackson’s honesty in offering takes on his own poetic preferences (“I put a premium on rhymes . . . “) and others’ poetic approaches (“Reading habits like Top 40 I fear / Make what’s fashionable soon dreary, / E.g., L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry”), I find parts that discuss topics other than poetry more powerful, and I can imagine that would be felt further by those readers who cannot make out all the poetry business allusions.

An exception must be made, however, for the section titled “Wyoming,” in which Jackson recounts a time when he drove Gwendolyn Brooks from Philadelphia to her poetry reading in New York City.: “We pulled over. Nice! The Plaza Hotel, / Central Park South. A black-caped doorman / Jaunted curbside, opened your door, ‘Welcome / Back Ms. Brooks.’ His words allayed fears / You’d be hurt while in my care.” The young Jackson is then surprised by a kind gesture Brooks offers him: “you could / Have amicably thanked me for the ride, / Extending your elbow-length glove, you could / Have disappeared in that opulent façade, / Instead you asked if I’d read alongside / That night.”

Perhaps with that gesture Gwendolyn Brooks welcomed Major Jackson into the world of poetry as a practitioner of the art for which he has demonstrated great affection. (Moreover, Jackson’s demonstrated affection for poetry links this poem’s speaker with those in the earlier sections of Hoops and argues for a connection between the book’s parts.) In return, maybe Jackson now offers his tribute to Brooks as a poetic form of thanks. However, readers should be grateful as well for Brooks’ symbolic invitation to Jackson and her encouragement, especially since with his first two books of poetry he has firmly established that his presence as a compelling and compassionate poet is well deserved.

Jackson, Major. Hoops. W.W. Norton, 2006.

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