Major Jackson, Minor Irony
a review of Holding Company by Major Jackson
by DANIEL HOWELL

W. W. Norton, 2010

If there is a key to Major Jackson's newest poems, which are markedly more difficult than his earlier poems, it is Jackson himself.  Maybe it's not the real Jackson or the autobiographical Jackson, but a certain version of Jackson, whose voice has a certain timbre to it, becomes the main character of the poems.  Understanding the poems requires understanding this Jackson.  When I heard Jackson read from his recent collection Holding Company in the spring, I had the elucidating opportunity of hearing the marriage of what we call “voice” in writing with the “voice” that his mouth and throat and voice box make.

When he reads, he seemingly wants to come across as a kind of lothario; or if that isn't his intention, that's sort of how it plays out.  He chuckles liberally in a way that's both self-possessed and commanding.  He hums with a satisfaction that he keeps in check (he never quite seems exuberant).  He hushes his voice such as to give it an asperate quality, like pepper; it is not particularly deep and yet is distinctly virile.  He reads slyly, so much is certain, but he also projects a kind of allure.

I would venture that Jackson wants us to be sensitive to his voice.  In Holding Company's least guarded lines—and they are beautiful precisely because they are unguarded—Jackson describes a lecture given by Immanuel Velikovksy (in one of the footnotes at the end of the collection, which seem to be issued almost at random, we learn that Velikovsky's sci-fi theories about planetary orbits earned him popularity everywhere except among curmudgeonly academics; his lecture circuit thus consists of such locales as the “Royal Hypnagogic Society in Edmonton”).  The scene of Velikovksy giving a speech is sketched with a swelling tenderness: “Someone coughed. / Despair fell into despair, building its music […] / He saw the microphone's convexed portals as one / of many recognizable texts out of our celestial holes.”  This marriage of musical crescendo and the phenomenology of speaking, this is Jackson at his best.  This scene also very carefully freezes the moment before the emergence of voice. 

Sound, not grammar, governs poetry for Jackson, who imagines himself as a “gambler embroidered with bells / on her vest who knows if you over-attention / your syntax, every surface is fustian at best.”  In fact, Jackson's own poetic surfaces, without over-attentioning his syntax, are usually most likeable when they are most charmingly fustian.  In some cases, such as in the poem “Lost Lake,” the music is so fine that to parse the poem semiotically is to empty it of its sonorous meaning: “White-winged gulls shrieked / and flapped at our misery frothing in waves.”  The collection operates on an aesthetic of lyrical tableaux, ordered in neat, precisely sounded poems of 10 lines each.  Like “one last cinematic glance / in the prime like a loose smile filling the frame / over a shoulder,” moments in the book work, and work well, by creating affective context free of content.

If this sounds ballsy, it is.  Jackson's temperament is urbane, verging on sovereign.  The first line of the first poem establishes the thematic centrality of the poet: “For I was born, too, in the stunted winter of History.”  Let's take this sentence seriously.  The “I” here, the poet, is the topic to which the predicate of “History” is appended.  Even if History (with a capital H, mind you) is the object of reverence, syntactically it appears only in retrogression from the poet.  Jackson-as-poet stands at the center of the work.  Hence Jackson's penchant for reminding us of his poetic activity.  “I sing to you, now,” he insists in several poems, including the last.  If you train your ear on Jackson, you won't help but notice that throughout the book he playfully repeats a set of pet phrases, often distorting them before reintroducing them (in “Manna”: “'To sea! To sea!' shouted the marvelous girls, 'To sea!'”; 22 pages later, in “Overwrought Power Ballad”: “'To die! To die!' shouted / the marvelous girls, 'To die!'”).  This hallmark of Holding Company introduces us into Jackson's mind, into his dreams; later poems vaguely, even primordially, recall earlier poems, suggesting the  robustness of the poet's subterranean project at work.  This tightly controlled self-revelation, where Jackson exposes the machinery of his psyche but is very careful about what he lets us see, is the flip-side of the gasconade he displays elsewhere: “I could give your palace more glass shine,” he affirms about his own lyrical prowess in several poems.  Even more aggressive is the book's second poem in which he asserts his divine ability to provide the metaphysical forms of everyday objects with their necessary supplements: “I gave the bathtub purity and honor […] I gave salt & pepper the table.”  Jackson gets off on power: “When girls cried after I declared it over, I grew / an erection.”

Although Jackson's is particularly bald, poetic self-consequence is by no means a bad thing.  In fact, all good poets have it in some in some measure.  For one thing, it is necessary for a poetic program.  For another, it is necessary for the poet to project a sense of self that the reader can hook onto: “Let me call your name; the ground here is soft & broken.”  Jackson has poetically already broken the ground for our own selfhood by breaking the language in which poetry is to be sown.  (Incidentally, he has also “Broken / hearts in the name of art.”)  At moments, the ground is perhaps too broken; for instance, he likes to drop names.  People who understand “Sembène” and “Truffaut” as shorthand for certain aesthetic experiences are often  the same people who read poetry.  The pale fire he steals here to a certain literary effect indicates a pessimism about the relevance of poetry.  The book is already dangerously difficult; by relying at moments on a knowledge of art cinema, it risks total meaninglessness to all but the initiated.  Jackson may not necessarily “call your name,” but he definitely calls someone's.

Name-dropping is a crutch, one sign of several that he may not reign as the self-sufficient, poetic overman he first appears to be.  At moments, he exhibits a surprising humility or self-deflation, expertly orchestrated to temper the dominant tone of self-assertion.  “Breakups,” for example, which begins with such egocentrism, recognizes that the pain experienced by women he dumped was the same as his own pain getting pummeled by a friend because he “stepped in the neighborhood / punch block.”  And the poem “Headfirst” manifests the exemplary graciousness with which Jackson takes criticism in bed: “I admit: my solo was tucked / away in the lavish & vast wardrobe of misery. / I only just now gathered your complaint.”

That is, Jackson's figuration of himself in the poems quickly reveals itself as heteronomous.  Sometimes his poetic subjecthood is split up by a woman, as in the poem “At the Club”: “Just then, I saw her inhabiting me and inhabiting me.”  Not only does the repetition of the words “inhabiting me” produce a duration (that is, a distance in time), the woman also triangulates between the perception of the self and the inhabiting of the self.  In the poem “Lying,” we have an even more raw, even more honest appraisal of his poetic self: “Such a dislike for transparence, he'd overdid / himself” (indeed, at a handful of moments, Jackson does seem to so dislike transparency, one wonders if the poetry could be easily translated into banalities, in lines such as: “Crucifixes find their way above senate bills”).  A poet with Jackson's psychic integrity can only register his excess of virtuosity by externalizing himself into a “himself.”

This is why “to live freely / presages danger in a democracy.”  The restraint imposed by the “self” as an idea, a “compass point given to the lost,” if perhaps not as a metaphysical necessity, makes democracy possible.  This tension between freedom and self-restraint Jackson calls a “major irony.”  The phrase may not be very apt for Jackson, and indeed, he means it in the Alanis Morissette sense of the word “irony.”  However, if there exists another irony, a kind of ventriloquism, then Jackson's is slightly less than a major irony, a stage persona if not a literal mask.  By constating its own mastery, Jackson's “I” actually becomes masterful; it operates on the simple principle that all you need to be self-confident is the resolution to be self-confident.  Thus the “I” in the poems is not itself transcendent; it openly becomes the mere interface between the reader and poetic virtuosity.  This means that “we” too can be intimately drawn in by the poet: “Our bodies fall,” he repeats in two poems.  The first time he says it, it is again the “I” who holds creative agency: “I sculpt moonlit clouds / over our shoulders.  Our bodies fall.”  The speaking subject's pre-eminence is cut out when the line is repeated, however, the bodies falling together in an impossible corporeal geometry: “Over our shoulders, our bodies fall.”  In the poem “Club Revival,” “our” dancing bodies become indistinguishable: “We arise and drop, arise / and sway.”  Jackson's intimacy takes place in streetcars in New Orleans and in lobbies in Boerum Hill; his intimacy, his love poems are often strewn about in public spaces, spaces across which Jackson acts on us, making us vibrate with his voice.  Social existence cannot be conceived of merely as the distances between us because distance connects as well as separates.  In Jackson's brilliantly self-illustrating teaching, poetry “like a guitar string / believes in distance;” it collapses belief into both social action and the action of love.  The instrument for this collapsing of space is, of course, voice.  Voice brings the speaker closer to the listener even as both stand still.  When voice evolves to the point that it is neither the naively romantic expression of the soul nor the cynical parody of its opposite, we may call it a minor irony.

Listening to him, penetrated by his voice at short distance, Jackson induced an understanding in me.  His poems are love poems—not because they're about love but because Jackson reads them with a seductive voice.  As the title of the collection suggests, Jackson himself may be the “Holding Company” of our hearts.

DANIEL HOWELL is a PhD candidate in the NYU department of Comparative Literature. His essays and criticism have appeared in Cinematic Magazine, The Harvard Crimson, and The Oxonian Review. He is currently working as an editor at the nascent cultural criticism magazine The Bad Version.