Language Lesson and Surveillance by Ashaki M. Jackson

Reviewed By

A gifted poet and doctor of social psychology, Ashaki M. Jackson debuted two chapbooks in 2016, both remarkable for their delicate attention to language and conscience. Language Lesson involves the deeply personal process of grief after the loss of a close family member, and Surveillance a kind of communal grief (though no less personal) due to the ongoing police murders of black people.

Language Lesson (Miel 2016)

There is something about grief that can encourage writing that is sparse, full of space, as if to give the process necessary room to breathe. It is, however, not an empty space—it is filled to overflowing, with what has only recently departed, what remains, and what rushes in to try to fill the space. The chapbook Language Lesson is both a sacred pause and a moving prayer.

Full of white spaces for the eye to rest in and move through, with words and short phrases draping and swaying over each other, each poem in Language Lesson is its own suspended vessel of sternum, shoulder, skin, tongue, throat, ribs, bellies, and breath. Its poems traffic in hymn, scent, fury, wail, choke, bloom, root, hum, and keen. We witness flesh and bone opening, bending, bowing, swallowing, collapsing, filling, dissolving, and forgetting. Jackson’s lines unfold gracefully, drawing the reader inward and through the stumbling body of grief:

Our mouths: her grave___ thick-
tongued cavern ___From our throats she blooms
Sunday hymn toward a quiet sky

*

Thick-tongued quiet___ Our mouths
caverns __graves __Our throats
bloom a Sunday sky hymn

Towards the book’s end, we feel a shift as the speaker in Language Lesson starts to confront absence and forgetting—what happens when the physical presence of the departed’s body eventually goes missing, due to time or accident? Without that physical presence, what happens when the dead begin to escape our memories, when the speaker realizes, “Loss is a season”?

________Do not interrupt
when I ask myself
_____Who was crying
_____Who now wears her scent without ceremony

My memory begins to swallow
the grave

In this final poem of the book, the speaker consciously initiates a new direction, signaling perhaps not the end of mourning, but something else: “I want a turn.”

ashaki-jackson

While death is obviously a universal experience, reading Language Lesson in the context of Jackson’s other chapbook, Surveillance—and the continuing police murders of black people—one is struck by the centuries of racial inequities that have prevented (and keep preventing) so many from dying peacefully in the manner of their own choosing.

Surveillance (Writ Large Press 2016)

Los Angeles’ Writ Large Press challenges and expands the role of books to engage community and respond to the times, and nothing speaks to this commitment more than Jackson’s Surveillance. All sales of this chapbook are donated to support Black Lives Matter, and it has raised over $2,500 so far. It is, “an examination of videos capturing police killing civilians and the public’s consumption of these videos.”

The brilliance of Surveillance is Jackson’s ability to take the language of that surveillance and expose its Frankenstein, Machiavellian surfaces. From common police state euphemisms and USAmerican similes to the dissimulating discourses of media, Jackson excavates language that buries, elides, sidesteps, and exposes our own collusion as USAmericans and media consumers.

Surveillance, too, is a book of grief, but one in which the black body has been violently denied life by agents of the state and then (also violently), reanimated. The black body is forced to work and entertain after death, animated by dominant narratives about black value and criminality.

During autopsy ___the dead Black body
unfurl its arms ___presses its pinched fingers
against its wounds to extract taxpayers’ bullets
The dead black body does the work
for you

As in Language Lessons, a kind of space exists in these poems as well, but at a different register. Rather than expanding spaciously, it fragments. Pieces coexist uneasily or interrupt each other, creating a jagged experience that necessarily involves the reader as the mind interacts with the text. By also including the reader through the use of “you” and “we,” the book implicates one in the brutal mundaneness of surveillance, which takes place not just vis-a-vis a police cruiser or news camera, but also through self-policing, complacency, stunted affect, and unexamined assumptions. It is a space criss-crossed by discursive brutality, where social distance makes of empathy a privileged choice.

You remember
watching a handsome reporter admit that he was “really affected by the bodies”
back in the ward, swelling as the levees had done
So you decided to also feel affected.

surveillance

Surveillance is also a fiercely compassionate book with a multiply-positioned speaker. The speaker’s use of “you” brings the reader closer to the experience seeing one’s own community constantly under deadly attack. At other times, it is unclear who the “you” is, but this uncertainty allows differently positioned readers to find themselves pulled into the narrative. Obviously, everyone in the US is part of this narrative in some way, though many of us find it easy to forget or ignore. The truth is, we all participate in surveillance.

Together, Language Lesson and Surveillance offer complementary and contrasting experiences of grief and mourning. In Language Lesson, there is a familial grief that is intensely personal, that shakes you to beyond the bone and leaves nothing to stand on. In Surveillance, there is a day-to-day grief that accumulates over a lifetime, mediated by social proximity or distance, which has its own flavor of devastation. Both rearrange living—in Jackson’s books, grief is both a psychic and social force that grips every body and asks, what now will you (and we) do with this pain?


Kenji C. Liu is author of Map of an Onion, national winner of the 2015 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize. His poetry is in American Poetry Review, Action Yes!, Split This Rock’s poem of the week series, several anthologies, and a chapbook, You Left Without Your Shoes. He is a Kundiman fellow and an alumnus of VONA/Voices, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and the Community of Writers. More from this author →