Rhythm, Pace, Place: Major Jackson’s Lyric Revolt

February 20, 2018
Poet Major Jackson smiling, juxtaposed against the cover of his book Roll Deep.
Major Jackson / Photo courtesy of the author. Kehinde Wiley’s Morpheus (2008) appears on the cover of Roll Deep

Major Jackson’s latest book of poetry, Roll Deep (Norton, 2015), has landed well with America’s major critical outlets, from the New York Times and the Washington Post to the Rumpus and beyond. Reviewers point to the mastery with which Jackson undertakes a veritable odyssey, venturing out into foreign locales as a way of understanding and returning home. Through the epigraphs interspersed between the sections of the book, rolling deep takes on two connotations: one laden with images of waves, water, and movement, the other with a city, a family, a people. We hear Byron’s Childe Harold calling out, “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean—Roll!” and Mobb Deep rapping, “When worst comes to worst, / My peoples come first.” We also see diaspora and kinship meet in Langston Hughes intoning, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” This is the saddle in which the two metaphors slope into each other—a reminder that neither the seaborne pilgrimage nor the city can be navigated without a “crew.” Yet for all the insightful criticism of Jackson’s poems and the ways they pay homage to those he makes his crew, from the kids on the block and the cousin on bottom bunk to poets like Gwendolyn Brooks who paved the way, not enough has been said about the way Jackson laces together the rhythms and language of the Philadelphia street (or more often, the basketball court) with that of old-world boulevards and coves—not holding them in tension, but rather intentionally drawing them together to shatter presuppositions about style.

The dynamic rhythms and pacing of Hoops (2006), one of Jackson’s earlier collections with which Roll Deep demands comparison, demonstrate Jackson’s poetic project as well as his capacity. The title poem of Hoops is a study in movement and prosody. Set amidst a pickup game on the local court, the rhythm of the first two sections is the irregular bounce and dribble of the ball—now a steady end-rhyme every other line, now two, three quick alliterative consonants punctuating the phrase. The effect of repeated sounds, of any kind, is to unite the larger parts, tugging the words together across space, quickening the pace as it shortens the lull between lines. Feel the quick dribble of the fourth and fifth stanza, punching on b’s, p’s, and g’s as Radar drives the pill (ball), and hitting bonus midline rhymes as the ball makes the hoop:

. . . split-second lobs

past a squad of sweat-backed

ghosts,—pass, glide,

post, pivot away, look

 

then dish: follow through,—

Swish! Radar backpedals

as the net strings flap & swing to

rest. The blacktop ripples.

Jackson is always attentive to form, but the slack predictability of regular rhythm is busted up by repetition in moments of action, keeping the reader’s ear attentive. That Jackson draws on the rules of hip-hop, using the full range of assonance and consonance rather than only whole rhymes to direct the reader’s attention, is no surprise when one sees the high significance he seems to ascribe to the genre in some of the other poems in Hoops and Roll Deep. Jackson’s ability to work in different rhythms and even rules of rhythm within and between works is what so much of his poetry hinges on. Here on the court, the unpredictable patter of the sound pattern not only dictates the pace of action, it also designates uniqueness of place. Like an accent, it colors the space, forcing the reader to reconcile the audible contrast as he moves to other locales in Roll Deep. Thus “The Cyclades Blues Suite / i.” begins,

On the Aegean Speed Line, hightailing a fast ferry

away from Perseus’s birthplace, away from those beaches

with names like Ganema, Sykamia, Megalo Livadi,

whose scythe-like coves left us speechless

and shockingly bold as we unpeeled our bathing suits

like human wrappers,

 

working with epithets, allusions, and blatant similes almost impossible to picture in Hoops.

That Jackson draws on the rules of hip-hop, using the full range of assonance and consonance rather than only whole rhymes to direct the reader’s attention, is no surprise when one sees the high significance he seems to ascribe to the genre in some of the other poems in Hoops and Roll Deep.

What prevents the reader from simply regarding these poems on Greece, Spain, Kenya, and Italy as disconnected or even distant from Jackson’s work in Hoops—an option that might be tempting, considering the differences in place, prosody, allusive material, and overall style—is the fact that Jackson explicitly stages this “Urban Renewal” section in Roll Deep as a continuation of the identically titled section in Hoops. The first part of “XXI. Greece” picks up with the speaker “hightailing a fast ferry” following the despair-driven suicide at the end of “XX”—a flight from “the shapes of the trees” by which the speaker is previously “haunted.” The unsettling image of the trees’ lifelike “arms” in the earlier poem is echoed and altered in the second part of “Greece”: 

Never get used to this:

yucca leaves lifting like a chorus of arms,

the garnishing blue of the Aegean Sea splitting

your eyes into a million sparking charms.

Focusing our attention with the twice-repeated imperative, “Never get used to this,” Jackson challenges us to hold in our mind’s eye both images at once, the haunting and the charming, just as he forces us to flex with his fluid rhythms. What the collusion between Hoops and Roll Deep calls for is a kind of layered looking, the ability to see differences stacking rather than crowding each other out. The speaker in the first part of “XXII. Spain” is captivated by exactly that quality of compilation and contrast, of layered juxtaposition—by the “light lancing through leaves of madrone trees” and how the “Layers of morning pastries flaked gingerly / then fell, soft as vowels, on a china plate.” While feeling moved to “cherish the wizened reserve of old world manners” and the “grand edifices along this boulevard,” the speaker is also mindful of a layer of unrest, present and historical: “Yet Guernica is down the street, and some windshields / wear a sinister face, sometimes two. Think Goya.”

In the next section, “ii. Salobreña,” any separation between layers dissolves, so that “The firing squad’s gun pops are that Flamencan / dancer’s heel stomps.” The same unparadoxical duplicity, the same simultaneous doubleness that Jackson depicts in Spain is played out on a larger screen in his “Urban Renewal” project, driving home the essence of the “Reverse Journey” with which he prefaces the book. The effect, I would suggest, is not simply incidental and descriptive but sharply intentional and political: for Jackson, “All seeing is an act of war.”

What the collusion between Hoops and Roll Deep calls for is a kind of layered looking, the ability to see differences stacking rather than crowding each other out.

Embedded in Jackson’s poetics is a heteroglossic array of rhythm, speech, and style that declare war on what the twentieth-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin calls the “official style,” language conceived as singular and thus controlled. Heteroglossic discourse draws on the diverse kinds of language and style found in daily life and forces them into close contact with each other. In his essay on “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin pushes against the notion that style is about “private craftsmanship,” arguing instead that it is about “the social life of discourse outside the artist’s study, discourse in the open spaces of public squares, streets, cities and villages.” Writing in the 1930s, Bakhtin thought that this kind of discourse was only found in the novel and did not fit into the poetic mode as it then existed. But Jackson, writing seventy years later, does see heteroglossia in verse—in the music of hip-hop artists, for instance. In “Hunting Park,” he claims that “Hip-hop’s current genius loci / Believes the cut, scratch, and spin / Amends heteroglossia & situates Bakhtin.”

Clearly Jackson takes on heteroglossia in his own poetry, too. Open, social spaces are precisely where Jackson takes his style; the marrow of his poems, their sound, rhythm, and pace, comes from the where of his verse, which differs from the ball court to the café. In these spaces one finds what Bakhtin describes as the “internal stratification of any single national language into social dialects, characteristic group behavior . . . languages that serve the specific sociopolitical purposes of the day, even of the hour.” This kind of language—the kind you pick up on the court or the web and put down when you enter the classroom—is what we hear in poems like “Moose”: “If the ball sank / If the net strings snapped / Then coiled, Butter Baby.” One of the points Bakhtin is making in his essay is that, when we understand “language conceived as ideologically saturated, language as a worldview,” we know this is never “just” slang. Jackson takes this idea a step further in “Hunting Park,” bringing it to bear on the most elemental level of language: “To wit, sounds are political.”

By layering not only language, settings, and allusions but also his pace and prosody, he introduces a poetic heteroglossia that ultimately “amends” and re-“situates” Bakhtin.

In “Hunting Park,” Jackson gets explicit about the politics of style and the project he sees unfolding across a whole community of artists, tipping his hand enough to clue us in on how Roll Deep not only follows but furthers the stylistic work of Hoops. After calling out

Those who would revoke my poet card,

Who would charge me with class ascension,

Who would banish me to the stockyard

Of single-raced anthologies or mention

Such asinine folly as, “His attention

To rhyme?”—weak shot to procure a public

he goes on to flaunt his style- (and thus race- and class-) crossing verse, invoking the classical Orpheus alongside “Kanye mixing music with fire / Spitting souls through wires.” But truly heteroglossic texts do more than just reference different styles of discourse; they voice them, giving each an undeniable presence that cannot be subsumed into or subjugated by another. It is because of this that Bakhtin thought heteroglossic verse impossible, for “everywhere there is only one face—the linguistic face of the author, answering for every word as if it were his own.” Furthermore, he accuses rhythm of contributing only to linguistic uniformity, which “destroys in embryo those social worlds of speech.” Rhythm is fundamental; it is the basis, the “embryo,” of any voice. That’s why Jackson’s lyrical work is so important to the social and political force of Hoops and Roll Deep. By layering not only language, settings, and allusions but also his pace and prosody, he introduces a poetic heteroglossia that ultimately “amends” and re-“situates” Bakhtin.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Jackson’s brief reference to heteroglossia in “Hunting Park” is how he inverts the normal (“proper” or “official”) chain of interpretation, giving top priority to the work still happening today. Bakhtin cannot reach forward to shape hip-hop and poetry, but hip-hop and poetry can reach back and reshape his theory, all while going about their own business. Roll Deep is not “about” heteroglossia. It is about how home dwells deep in a place where it cannot be plucked out and how kinship rolls through one’s veins however far one roams. But in paying homage to Brooks and Byron and Earl the street-hard chess champ, in pulling in the voices of so many people and places, Jackson achieves a stylistic feat, and in the process a political one, breaking some of language’s internalized boundaries. Liberating on the most elemental levels, his poems leave in us a modicum of his own “surfeit of ambition”: “to roam / like decomposing clouds rolling deep, / re-forming constantly and away, above.”

University of Oklahoma

Grant Schatzman is a WLT intern finishing degrees in letters and English literature at the University of Oklahoma. After graduation, he plans to do as many interesting things as possible in order to put off graduate studies.

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