It would be wrong to write about TJ Jarrett’s Zion without writing about who she is. She is a business intelligence consultant, a computer engineer. She is a black woman from Nashville. She is the daughter of a professor and a pastor. Her many identities are unified in her. Jarrett’s Zion, winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry’s Open Competition, is an elegy and an act of union. Her poems stitch and solder: individual to collective, life to death, past to present to transcendent afterlife. In her opening poem, Jarrett centers the union in a body:
My Grandmother Describes the Radiance
this body has always been
more waiting room than cage
In those first five lines, Jarrett lays a pit of quicksand that sunk me into questions. Whose body? What radiance? Is the body a waiting room or cage of self, holding it hostage until death? As Jarrett’s ethereal lyrics build a world of rivers and dreams, leading along like the classical elegy, the questions continue. Jarrett doesn’t stop when poles meet. She keeps pushing. Haunting the poem, Jarrett’s grandmother addresses her as the “Dark Girl,” the speaker in the world of living. Jarrett engages with the spiritual and social realms, and the bounds between spaces and people break down. Bodies cross rivers and float through dreams. Personas address themselves, each other, and to many manifestations of the divine. Bodies are shared by generations of women moving through each other’s beings. Jarrett’s mother “will split/herself in two, shear the thorax, cast off the shell of herself/and consume what-she-was as afterbirth so that she may live.” Life is always tenuous in Zion. The universe of Zion is populated with such personas. Some poems speak from clearly established personas; others cast shadows of selves that are disembodied and ethereal. Moving through Jarrett’s personas, grandmother to political figures to self, I felt a disorientation akin to Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda. Both collections interrogate the boundaries between self and other through dreamy sequences of haunting sound. Departing from conventions of space and time, Shaughnessy and Jarrett guide their readers with their commanding tone and mesmerizing music. Shaughnessy writes, “Though I am well,/ and deep, and fall asleep well,//I am not the wisher that I am.” In “At the Hospital,” Jarrett writes,
I asked so much of her,
so much of you and your mother and some would say
too much. And I just cant, I can’t yet say I am sorry for it.
And she lay down again, drowning in that river.
Jarrett’s off-rhymes move from “together” to “never” to “river,” to reach Zion’s River of Babylon. The river is both landmark and liminal space. At its banks a journey begins. Jarrett places herself in an eerie interaction with Theodore Bilbo, real-life Governor and U.S. Senator from Mississippi, a staunch segregationist and proud member of the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout Zion, these two figures are the only ones that remain clear, even though their actions are mysterious. They make riverside surveys, set out in a boat together, and cross to the “farther shore” and reach the ambiguous promised land. All the while, Jarrett and Bilbo hash out past wrongs and gesture toward forgiveness. “We will grieve. We will be done with it,” she writes; then, “I cannot be this angry for so long. It’s become exhausting.” Her tone shifts from high biblical diction to casual self-address, but question of mercy remains. In an interview with Win Bassett published in The Atlantic, Jarrett says, “I believe in redemption. I believe some poems are really prayer.” Christ appears as a figure representing both an eternal present and a promise. Past and present come together. “We Are Soldiers in the Army of the Lord” stakes a claim on the divine and the dead.
“The old gods are falling. So are we all. Citizen, they will not tell you that falling
can be forward motion, or that freedom is less being broken than will to rise. Go, my dark sweet girl.
Praise our fresh dead. Raise them up— call each by rightful name.”
Jarrett’s personas that hold each other accountable to a spiritual contract between humanity and the natural world. She lays out a dogma of sorts without any specific scheme of natural orders. The connections coalesce to form Jarrett’s scarred yet defiant spiritual world. While Jarrett’s conflation of personas is original, it’s also distancing. Without clear speakers in the poems apart from Jarrett and Bilbo, the collection is loosely sutured by questions of unity yet disjointed from specific human emotion. In her poems of meditation like “And through the Dark,” Jarrett’s launch toward a persona of collective voice embodies a scene “where the field sprawls/bearing hay bales harvested…We were the car and road, granite/and stream.” It was as if I’d stepped into Wallace Stevens’s “A Postcard from the Volcano,” but with no children or thoughts of future. Jarrett’s poems dwell in “light, our own undoing,” with disembodied voices. Once Jarrett and Bilbo reach the promised land, there is a final forgiveness between the two figures. “How small I’ve become/once there is no looking out, left only/with a spiraling inward gaze,” Jarrett writes. The act of mercy for Bilbo and his inhuman acts crystallizes Jarrett’s self apart from Bilbo, her grandmother, her mother, and all the other prayers and gestures that come before. “Believe me,” she writes, “I am as surprised as anyone.”