There is an irrepressible spirit of voyage in Major Jackson’s newest book, Roll Deep. The title itself alludes to a rocking back and forth, a voyage that moves seamlessly from the past to the present. The entire book—set in destinations as disparate as East Kenya, Greece, Philadelphia—is in itself a reverse voyage, the author working back through the past while simultaneously forging new journeys, both physical and emotional.
With a modern yet lyric sensibility, the poems in Roll Deep are a testament both to memory and renewal; the human ability to persevere. Jackson explores his African-American roots while writing of the rootless: child soldiers in Dadaab, a refugee camp in East Kenya or “sons taken from homes and shot on Somali streets, of gestures and dimming eyes but no words.” The poems, shifting through continents, seem like portraits of opposite poles: journeys forward and rearward voyages into the past. Through Jackson’s travels we see a poet search for meaning: “Was this the answer to his ghetto past?” he writes. “Since a child, even in sleep, he voyaged and broke free.”
Jackson writes of his youth in urban America with a fine-toothed brilliance that sets on the page images that crackle with a cinematic gleam: “avenues in sheaths of grit/and utility wires like veins stitched to power supplies/buzzing…;” “graffiti lines, finally whitewashed, nearly expunged.” In the collection’s opening poem, “Reverse Voyage” Jackson writes about being black in America with a fierce elegance: “he slowly turns contemplating skin, the color /of almonds, pyramids, revolutions, and other such beauties.” He writes about race with an unabashed sense of both weight and vulnerability, an unapologetic fearlessness that is both poignant and searing.
The sense throughout Roll Deep is one of astonishment. Poems set in Spain and Greece reveal a tender and affecting portrait of human intimacy. Occasionally, abstractions such as romantic love, memory, journey are overworked, but Jackson counteracts them with an eye for scintillating detail: “dazzling nipples of Americans redden to rusted dials” a fisherman who “slaps his octopus again and again on a stone by the bay of Livadi at dawn.” Moving descriptions can be read when Jackson gives voice to the voiceless: rape victims in Kenya, refugees in Dadaab, “a collection of faces like smoking embers.”
The peripatetic poems of Roll Deep are intensified by the author’s penetrating exploration of the past, but it is not only the familial ancestors that are summoned. Jackson’s debt to his poetic forbears is palpable; he mentions Mark Strand and Derek Walcott, as well as artist Romare Bearden. The influences of these figures is profoundly felt in Jackson’s formalist tendencies, in meter, imagery and sometimes rhyme. Yet Jackson’s is a new formalism; he lends one foot to convention while the other improvises in a beautiful, riotous fashion:
…I was already awake,
a surfeit of ambition struck: to roam
like decomposing clouds rolling deep,
re-forming constantly and away, above
toughened streets, above sunlit ruins
and scattering mounds. My eyes went
elsewhere and nowhere, open and determined.