“Art as a Container for the Self”: The Absurd Man by Major Jackson

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The Absurd Man
by Major Jackson
(Norton, 2020, 104 pages, $26.95)

Every four or five years since 2002, when Leaving Saturn was released, Major Jackson has published a book of poems, each marked by his command of form, knowledge of art, literature, and jazz, and each informed by his experiences as a Black man in America.  His landscapes have included Philadelphia (his birthplace), Provincetown, Vermont, New York (both urban and rural), Kenya, Europe; his familiarity with poets (living and dead) has always been evident, whether referencing them in poems or dedications.  Jackson’s fifth volume, The Absurd Man, invokes Albert Camus, an author long important to him.  As Jackson wrote in “Hunting Park,” in his 2006 volume Hoops: “At twelve, I despaired / Till I read Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Camus aired / My darkest thoughts (and the ghetto luckless / Who often pronounced, I don’t give a fuck).” Epigraphs for his new book’s three sections are taken from Camus.  “The Absurd Man” section of The Myth of Sisyphus echoes in both Jackson’s choice of book title and his significant, concluding sequence of poems, “The Absurd Man Suite”.

The collection resonates uncannily in the era of the Covid-19 pandemic, a time in which so many have confronted the absurdity of the universe while struggling for meaning. Of course, the poems in Jackson’s volume were written before the pandemic. They depict a mature man reckoning with his life (specifically, a divorce, alienation from his son, and a new love), while striving for clarity in an unfeeling, irrational world, where “carnage” [is] a way of life like a plain gold / ring inscribed with a single word: Darwin.” The fact that he writes these poems is, in Camus’ vocabulary, an act of passion and rebellion, a hard truth the poet knows well.  It’s also work that he is compelled to do, as Sisyphus is compelled to continue pushing his rock up the mountain. As Jackson writes in “The Absurd Man is Subject to Pareidolia”: “Something shows between / the branches, taking shape. / I know I’ll suffer this plague forever.”

The poems in The Absurd Man are philosophical, imaginative, and self-aware, by turns humorous and deeply serious.  In his beginning poem, “Major and I,” indebted to Borges, he depicts the poet’s competing voices, those of the living man and the writing man. Jackson acknowledges the ambition and pretenses behind “his grandiloquent poems,” yet believes these poems to be “the boot camp of self-redemption.”  Manifesting the book’s scrupulous organization, this first poem pairs with the final one, “Double Major,” wherein he suggests he can’t in fact “mend his wounds with his poetry.”  These poems frame the whole, which contains the “the narrow road to his interior.”

Proclaiming “art as a container / for the self” in the fine poem “November in Xichang,” Jackson is concerned throughout this book with imagination, love, and, as he writes in his standout poem of the first section, “The Flaneur Tends a Well-Liked Summer Cocktail”:  the “immense…wages / we pay boarding the great carousel of flesh.” Yet the flesh often brings “resurrection” as he describes the birthmark on his wife’s back in the contiguous poem: “A stamp of all her sorrows, / I regard it with the utmost importance, / for it sets her apart from all other creatures.” The third section, with its persona of the absurd man, allows Jackson to return to and to counterbalance themes hinted at in the first section, whether examining fully and painfully the dissolution of his first marriage in “What Happened” and “Our Eyes Were Far Away” or imagining a future consonance with his son in “No One Forgets”: “We will compare our sorrows and the roadkill / we drove over as the car windows / darkened in a valley of somber mountains.” He claims in “Dear Zaki,” a poem contained in the first section and dedicated to Ntozake Shange: “The world’s full / of absurd men, free / of guilt whose kisses are lures / that hook a would-be bride then flee…”. In the third section, he elaborates on this idea, using himself as an example. Though the third section unfolds in the voice of a constructed speaker, the poems doubtlessly reflect the poet, if we believe Oscar Wilde’s dictum in “The Critic as Artist”: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

At the heart of the book, its midpoint, are eight impressive lyrics in a section called “Urban Renewal,” numbers twenty-six through thirty-three, prior installments in the series having appeared in Roll Deep (2015), Hoops (2006), and Leaving Saturn (2002). Whether evoking Washington Square, with its fountain and “drug-riddled couple” sharing “the smoldering remains of an American Spirit, / their grizzled dog roped to a shopping cart,” as in “Washington Square,” or the coming of fall “when a black skein of geese voyages like a dropped / string from God slowly shifting,” as in “Thinking of Frost,” these poems delicately balance the public and private, the exterior and the interior. In “Paris,” the poet turns away from the Bastille Day celebration outside his window to the intimacy of love, effectively telescoping the scene from a noisy parade to “her trembling eyelash”; in “North Philadelphia,” he recalls a distant, but still deeply internalized church scene of women singing: “a slow grumbling, / fitful drawn-out grunts grafting onto gospel notes / not recognized but felt, a ring-shout.” In “Double View of the Adirondacks as Reflected Over Lake Champlain from Waterfront Park,” gazing at the mountains yields a direct route back to his thoughts:

…Thirteen years in this state, what hasn’t occurred?
A cyclone in my spirit led to divorce, four books
gave darkness an echo of control, my slurred
hand finding steadiness by the prop of a page,
and God, my children whom I’ve scarred! Pray they forgive.

Perhaps the most exemplary of these eight poems is “Fish & Wildlife”, since here everything Jackson excels at is on display. The diction, syntax, and musical elements, including end rhymes and alliteration, result in a flow of rich, textured language, as well-made as it feels effortless. Evocative and compact, the poem drills down on a winter night in an upstate New York bar, with its menacing interior: “the nation / might as well be this small shadowy room half in hunting / gear, eyeing the woman holding a cue at a haloed / pool table” to get at the private, ironic matter: “…The almost bare streets seem clutched / in ice, wind dusting up crystals in orange streetlight. / Old men in Franklin County dream of being touched.”

Throughout the collection, Jackson infuses his sonorous poems with strong verbs and energetic imagery, favoring similes and synesthesia:  light snow is “patient as an assassin”; an old woman “speaks gentle as coiled smoke”; “little translucent scales” under a fisherman’s fillet knife “burst / like a frenzy of designs from the Age of Enlightenment.” His references to music made me listen to the Ink Spots, The System (“don’t disturb / this groove”), and Ragamuffin.

In the end, Jackson’s The Absurd Man coheres admirably in both imagery and theme, illustrating Camus’ assertion in The Myth of Sisyphus that “the last pages of a book are already contained in the first pages.” It represents a conscious effort at clarity where, as he writes in “Double Major,” his “voices come together like two wings of a butterfly.” With the book’s sturdy, slim middle section and parts one and three fanning out on either side, this organic volume takes flight.