Both Microscope and Telescope: The Absurd Man by Major Jackson

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What, in fact, is the absurd man? He who, without
negating it, does nothing for the eternal. Not that
nostalgia is foreign to him. But he prefers his
courage and his reasoning.

This Albert Camus quote from The Myth of Sisyphus is the epigraph for Major Jackson’s fifth, extraordinarily shaped collection, and regardless of Jackson’s intention toward posterity, these poems won’t soon fade from one’s memory. The Absurd Man is confident and daring with a muscular specificity of language that is both deeply resonant for a wide audience and also singular to the poet.

Tenderness and regret are threaded through many of these poems, with the speaker at a literal and figurative vantage point both geographically and biographically that provides intimacy and insight. Jackson’s deft and often startling conflation of nature and environment with the individual’s inner scaffolding, both as complement and contrast, is front and center. Yet even in the simplest moments, he is ever a cinematic conjurer who brings the inanimate to life, as when “a grumbling snowplow barrels up / the street like a middle linebacker.”

Divided into three sections, each organized differently, with numbers, letters, or no classification at all, the collection informs us at the outset that it—and its author—cannot be easily categorized.

In “My Children’s Inheritance,” the speaker considers legacy as a series of lists of thoughts, images, objects, a chest of memories and fleeting experiences, ending with “…the limitations / of secrets, long nights that cascade like waterfalls, / my madness, granular and complex, sealed like a footfall.”

“Thinking of Frost” is another poem that has Jackson’s poetic and intellectual power on full display. He employs gorgeous imagery—that brings to mind Frost’s bucolic forte—to also express the bitter American truths underlying those stunning settings, where

…I see fear
in the eyes of his children who walk home from school
as evening falls like an advancing trickle of bats, the sky
pungent as bounty in chimney smoke. I read the scowl
below the smiles of parents at my son’s soccer game, their agitation,
the figure of wind yellow leaves make of quaking aspens.

Jackson excels at sheering away extraneous language, leaving behind a quivering and bare nerve, streaked with an authenticity and vulnerability that are as powerful and enduring as the vistas his speakers describe. These spare and potent linguistic acrobatics—juxtaposing the breathtaking beauty of geographic nature with the horrifying aspects of human nature—enjoin and demand that we re-read the lines again before we move on, altered by their echo. The poet, with a mind of beauty splintered by dread, pares and places these potent and conflicting images impeccablywithout muddling, confusion, or diminishment, knocking you back with a gale wind of emotion.

Jackson’s vision is both that of a microscope and telescope: he employs the small details of an individual’s quotidian experiences that extrapolate outward to express a generation, a civilization, an era. His poetry is easily excerpted except when it isn’t: when the entirety of a poem encompasses so many elements that it’s akin to appreciating a close-up of the upper-left-hand eighth of Picasso’s Guernica. In “Double View of the Adirondacks as Reflected over Lake Champlain from Waterfront Park,” there is the superlative verbal and visual delight of this opening:

The mountains are at their theater again,
each ridge practicing an oration of scale and crest,
and the sails, performing glides across the lake, complain
of being outshadowed despite their gracious

Jackson then almost immediately outlines his own titanic life, with a far more personal rebuke:

A cyclone in my spirit led to divorce, four books
gave darkness an echo of control, my slurred
hand finding steadiness by the prop of a page,
and God, my children whom I scarred! Pray they forgive.

Given this heady parallel, readers are charged with considering how akin we may be with the environment: how much agency we have over our own personal natures, and what larger entity buffets us as we mark those around us. Are we the mountain, the lake, or the sails, or all three at different moments in our exceptionally brief lives, more like comets than earthbound entities? Jackson concludes:

The masts tip so far they appear to capsize, keeling
over where every father is a boat on water. The wakes
carry the memory of battles, and the Adirondacks
hold their measure. I am a tributary of something greater.

It would not be amiss to possibly hear a note of another titan of poets, Wallace Stevens, whose “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain” inhabits a similar landscape. Yet where Stevens’s ars poetica converges the poem and the mountain, if at a distance, Jackson’s gift is in how he examines the self—messier, imperfect, transitory—through the lens of nature, in a way that makes us both more and less than the configuration of our random cells.

In “The Flag of Imagination Unfurled,” the poet contemplates the source of creativity externally and within, as he “scribbled / toward some infinitude,” offering a self-portrait that is equal parts economical and powerful, echoed in the collection as a whole: “There is, within me, an invincible summer, / a seasonal wind, and my name is on it.”

The last section of the collection is devoted to “The Absurd Man Suite,” directly referring to Albert Camus’s classic tracts on existentialism, and allusive to the musical construct of linked or ordered set of pieces.

It’s also here that Jackson considers the word “absurd” more broadly beyond the illogical, into the Latinate meaning of “out of tune,” or “discordant.” Here is the speaker in friction with his era, with society, even with his own life, yet he is also the choreographer of a superb lyricism. Jackson uses certain set pieces from his experiences to weave back and forth in time, and in each pass, there’s an accretion resulting in a depth of meaning, and impact.

the puzzle of bagging a life
so that the unbagging does more than reverse
like Orpheus, but cast us forward
to some future communion.

When the cashier asks “How will
we be paying,” I pull out of my
front pocket poems, and more poems.

Later in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus describes one who “lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime” for whom “(a) greater life for him cannot mean another life.” Camus contemplated the absurdity of humanity: to persist in having hope for the future, to search for meaning, to expect profundity in a world that is eminently unreasonable and inexorably headed for death. Major Jackson, in this gripping, exquisite collection, doesn’t serve as an example of this definition: even as he faces and embraces the reality of our flawed, challenged lives, he uses his sublime weapon—these poems he pulls out of his pockets—to add to the clarity, meaning, and divine beauty of our ephemeral existence.

Mandana Chaffa is founder and editor-in-chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters, and editor and senior strategist at Chicago Review of Books. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in several anthologies, as well as in the Ploughshares blog, Chicago Review of Books, the Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, Split Lip Magazine, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. She was named a 2021-2022 Emerging Critics Fellow by the National Book Critics Circle. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York. More from this author →