Every once in a while, a book holds my hand tightly, says, You listen here. I’d be remiss to reply any other way but Yes, Ma’am. Yet TJ Jarrett is no elder. The whites of her eyes are not yellow. The poet is just in her early forties, and Ain’t No Grave is her debut. Maybe she couldn’t help herself, being the daughter of a professor and a preacher, but this book will grab your palm, tell you, Those lifelines are not just yours. There are others, going back long years.
Ain’t No Grave is largely an exploration of darkness—a place where myth, both its creation and silencing, governs. The speaker follows others into the dark and reveals what she learns, so it is not only the speaker’s story but theirs, too. So often these others are from our past, from eras long gone. But humans don’t really understand time, can’t understand because we aren’t here long enough. Instead, the poet turns to sand and dust: “It was damp in that dark and/ We lay one grain of sand against another// Until we were whole. Solid./ Indistinguishable—dust for dust, soot for soot” (“Middle Passage”). Jarrett reminds us that people can’t exist without myth. We want to know where we come from. Just like trying to separate our lives from history, what is sand in its singular? If you want to see in the dark, then “Regret. Return./ Shiny curling black is the color God’s eye makes” (“Silk”). The pupil appears black because it allows light to enter and reflections to exit, and like the pupil, the speaker has learned that she has to travel back and forth, into history and into herself. The ending of “What the Sky Said” states, “It grew dark. It was dark like where the/ bones go once we’re through of them . . .Sometimes, this emptiness squares its/ shoulders and stares right back.” Jarrett emphasizes the dual natures, the fluidity of relationships. Full can’t define itself without empty, nor light without dark. Lastly, Jarrett posits that what is seen is also a seer.
This darkness is also an exploration into murder, and history’s silence of murder. For example, “What We Say to the Tree” is a poem written for Mary Turner, burned and then hanged in 1918: “Light me so I may/ curse the dark.// I promise. I will find/ words for it, and whisper// them to the leaves.” The dark is racism’s brutality, yes, but it’s also what is hidden—then and now—and what people in their hurry to be post-race don’t want to talk about. All that was supposedly so long ago. Mary Turner’s voice was silenced. Jarrett ends so many lines with verbs: may, find, and whisper. A poet nearly a century later tries to find her words and assures Turner of this responsibility. These shared words, when together, begin to make a semblance of a whole. “What the Dark Said,” a poem for Cordella Stevenson who was raped and then hanged in 1915, concludes, “Nothing can happen to you in the dark/ as long as you carry your name.// Without shame, you can say:/ Nothing happened to me in the dark/ because the dark forgets. Forgets.” When we have poets as powerful as Jarrett, we can trust that poetry will not forget. Poetry joins up with history, takes it off a forgotten shelf. She ends the line with “dark” repeatedly. In contrast to the nothingness on the page after “dark,” poetry can serve as an agent, living in the darkness but able to name the darkness. If the exploration is more than theoretical, what provides the compass, maps, and crew? Jarrett writes:
Let me tell you how
to withstand the dark: The dark will go on only as long
as you let it. You must forgive the dark. It never takes you
into account. Forgive the earth that bears the dark
on its back. Forgive, then, the ghosts you carry. Touch them
on the cheek tenderly, each one, and send them on ahead
of you. (“When the Sun Nears the Earth in the West”).
Again, Jarrett takes supreme care with these line breaks; she couples “long” with “you,” “dark” with “them,” and “ahead” with “you.” To forgive is to let loose, as a tender bids farewell. Jarrett breaks the line at “ahead,” leaving the much shorter “of you” afterwards, emphasizing the space, the other ghosts who are sent on. The last instructions in the above poem are to “Behold the spinning earth. Choose.” The sun sets, and there is darkness. The dead, too, have their sunset. The speaker has to know intimately the choice she did not make, the behold representing the be of existence and the hold of touch and body. She addresses mortality, our hardest struggle, with such succinct deftness.
A fist is one of Jarrett’s conceits throughout the five sections of Ain’t No Grave. Like the aforementioned eye, it closes and opens. It bruises and also builds. In “After I Came to Bed, Unable to Understand Why Mike Brady is Beating Kunta Kinte on Television, My Grandmother Explains: A Lullaby,” a girl learns about an actor’s range of roles and Roots, written by a fellow Tennesseean, but also what hands make: “Pappy built the house with his hands.// Some stones were no bigger than a fist./ The house was on the lip of the valley.// A fist is what you make of your hands./ Light and smoke were filling the valley.// The ghosts passed through.” A girl learns what can now be made and kept, what can now offer shelter. Perhaps ghosts pass through from last century when a house could not be owned nor passed down by an African American family. Notice how Jarrett uses “lip.” Her fists don’t make a house but poems that speak. Jarrett’s debut is dedicated to her godmother, Paula Rankin, and the individual poem dedicated to her also addresses this conceit. Sage poet speaks to a newer poet, reasserting the author in authority: “Imagine a poem in this hand, imagine that hand a fist./ Do you know what I know? Do you yet understand that/ you can’t run from this poem or the hand that makes it” (“How It Hurts, Scars, Mars”). Knowledge and will lend more power. When the fingers close tightly, the hand can’t break as easily. There is a togetherness between makers, between what is made and the poet.
“Ruin,” a series of poems, is divided between the sections of Ain’t No Grave. “Ruin” works as a love story, a cautionary tell, and a lament. Having “Ruin” all together would fail to use form to heighten the subject. Ruin doesn’t stay contained like that, after all. It unfolds and repeats in this book, too. In the first one, Jarrett takes humans out of the story altogether:
For a long, long time, there was nothing
but God and the wine-black sea. His voice
against Her waters. Always.
Don’t you know what it’s like
to love in the dark?. . .
Firmament. I could see Him giving the earth
its bounty and the sea crying out. . .
For a time, they must have been quite happy.
Let’s shift captivation from the myth to Jarrett’s lovely sound quality. The “But listen” is a short imperative with a dash, making us stop. Then there is the time extended with the repetition of “long” and the natural pauses of commas. The break between “voice” and “against” is right before “always,” an irrefutable fragment. She wants us to keep that in our ears. The next stanza starts with an interrogative and a direct address. “Firmament” stands alone as a fragment, and this one she wants to keep in our mouths with the M sounds of lovers. The lovers, so generous, are then undercut by a wisdom—is it a little sneering?—that passion can cry out in loss and pain, as well. The tone shifts to advance the change in the story and the perspective of the speaker. The third “Ruin” is one of the shortest poems in Ain’t No Grave:
Because She could,
She cleaved the Dark into a thousand pieces,
gathered what She could in Her arms
and smuggled the Dark into Herself.
The Dark goes marauding,
gathering Himself as he goes.
Here, Jarrett shows off her line break strengths once again but also her use of syllabics, aiding the plot and characterization. The urgent monosyllables in this first stanza show the split and slice. The violence, as evidenced in content and sound, justifies itself with no real reason: just because. Jarrett describes She in 1-2 syllables only. In the ending, the three-syllable verbs and verb phrases, “goes marauding” and “gathering” bring into prominence the Dark spreading, continuing, and dispersing. The fourth “Ruin” opens, “The Dark all around them. Since the/ Dark was blind but all hearing, they invented/ a manner of speaking with hands pressed/ one against the other.” Ain’t No Grave undoes as it upholds, watches over as it points out, caresses as it white-knuckles. Jarrett is a startling poet of innovation and audacity.