In Holding Company, his third collection of poems, Major Jackson achieves the difficult feat of writing a book that feels simultaneously both intensely personal and yet also archetypally American.
In Holding Company, his third collection of poems, Major Jackson achieves the difficult feat of writing a book that feels both intensely personal and yet also archetypally American. These are poems that seem as well-suited to being whispered like quasi-confessions into the ear of a sleeping lover in the dark as they do to appearing in smudged newsprint on the Op Ed page of one of our finer daily papers, grouped under the headline of “How We Live Now.” The speaker of these poems lives firmly ensconced within the loneliness of his “indestructible hunger,” and yet his affairs–these attempts at establishing a connection with an other or others– unfold within the greater disconnect of the American landscape where even as one praises the vast Tahkenitch and its “coniferous wall” one still notes that there is “not / a Domino’s for miles.”
It makes perfect sense then that, despite how so many of these poems circle around the corporeal realm, Jackson refuses to surrender himself to the myopia of the poet who only contemplates sexual love. Instead, he is a master of doing more with less, which is to say that these short muscular poems (almost all of which ring in at no more than ten lines each) not only contain a clear-eyed assessment of the self (alone and in relation with others), but that that assessment is grounded firmly within an awareness of the other external forces that bear down upon us. This is, after all, a book whose title not only name-checks a type of business at the zenith (or nadir, depending on one’s perspective) of capitalism, but could also easily serve as a vague euphemism for sex. That twined braid of American commerce and physical congress is the silent engine that hums beneath the poems in this collection, while a few iconic pop songs play faintly far away (let us not forget the title’s echo of Big Brother & the Holding Company, Janis Joplin’s iconic 1960s band).
Jackson frequently pilfers his poems to recycle lines, weaving recurrent phrases throughout the book so that later poems refract back upon earlier work, creating a cumulative power. The solitary “I” of “Towers” who “broadcast(s) my hunger” and claims “When the lonely swirl nights, I run toward them” returns in “More Feeling” with a line repeated from “Towers”:“I could give your glass palace more shine”–only, this time, instead of running towards others, the speaker contemplates dissolution, “undreaming the sea from the mountains.” Here, the body is a disappointment and communication is failure: “Your sportive flesh in the empire of blab” leads to the rueful admission of “Over our shoulders, our bodies fall–the lamps. / For I was born, too, in the muted winter of History.”
And yet History is, at its most basic level, the story of bodies as well–bodies that come together and fall apart, facts of which Jackson is cleanly aware. “How did I come to make a crisis of the body?” he asks in the first line of “More Feelings.” This question becomes part of the opening couplet to “Jewel-Tongued,” which is, along with “Hookups,” perhaps one of the loneliest sex poems ever written. In “Jewel-Tongued,” Jackson expands on the question he posed in “More Feelings,” this time saying, “How did I come to make a crisis / of the body, my fingers evaporating inside?”. He continues on to detail a life where “I scattered / myself into a luminance, shining over a village / of women. Was I less human or more?” In this poem, the sexual act is posed as a sort of radiant negation–shining but scattered–and so the last line, “We were blown away” reads more as an acknowledgment of loss, rather than of pleasure. “Hookups” shares this desolatory sexuality, delineating an assortment of brief lovers of whom, the speaker says:
they swarm to my room. Bored
I lead them to the firmanent of touch:
forage my blues, they say, as such,
cloud formations who graze horrors,
then release their internal weathers. Boom
boom in the dark regions. I wish I’d pulled
the covers over my head and were left alone.
What makes this poem so effective is that way the speaker’s gimlet eye gazes on but then looks past these nameless hookups, “moths mistaking the bulb,” to narrow in on the self as well. The speaker is aware of his inability to be what these others want (a lightbulb instead of the “dark moon”), and so presents the potential that the “horrors” they graze against may as easily be him as anything else. The solitary “I” remains separate even after the most intimate of acts, wishing for the meager consolation of at least being physically alone with his emotional isolation.
But the book is not so entirely bleak as I’ve thus far painted it. There are poems of consolation within as well, including poems of platonic and romantic love. There is the idea that one might be able to, at least, “live in the luxury of my friends” and the hard-earned optimism of the final poem in the book, “Forecast,” which begins by claiming “Whichever way our shoulders move, there’s joy” and continues on to present a real romanticism–one that acknowledges both personal responsibility (“we’ve our own hourglass / and no one else to blame”) and the truths of the world (“ruins through half-opened window” that we still somehow bring ourselves to caress). There is the continual desire to make something out of this world, in which “Despair (falls) into despair, building its music” and to find some connection, however tenuous, to sustain us. Even after “young boys expire / like comets” and “Blood darkens a stoop,” somewhere “a sunshower baptizes shadows on a street” and a “girl grabs / the hand of a boy and runs over the rubble,” somewhere there is still “a metropolis / of Sundays, an empire of hand-holding / and park benches” and “ a single kiss / that will contain us like a marathon / with no finish line.”