New poems from Richard Jackson reach beyond what is
READING THE POEMS IN RICH-ard Jackson’s latest book, Out of Place, is like immersing yourself in a conversation that circles around loss and horror and love and beauty.
It’s the opposite of driving by an accident you can’t look away from. Jackson returns to these painful images again and again, but he’s not just looking at them.
“For me the, idea in a poem is not just to report things but to try to use the poem to get beyond,” says Jackson, who teaches at UT Chattanooga in the writing program he largely founded more than 30 years ago. (Full disclosure: I was one of his students in the early ’80s.)
The Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun calls him a Martin Scorsese of poetry, “But where Scorsese almost succeeds in his films, then stops, seals and terrifies us, Jackson adds a tender, vulnerable voice that blossoms and transforms us.”
Salamun and Jackson became friends in the place that is the source of many of the book’s darkest images, the former Yugoslavia, where an extraordinarily brutal civil war was fought in Croatia in the 1990s. Jackson went to the country first in 1986 as a Fulbright fellow. He had to leave abruptly because Yugoslavia was in the path of radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident that year in Russia. But he returned with writing students the following year and has had a deep connection ever since.
When the Serbian army began targeting teachers and journalists for assassination, he became involved with the PEN International writers association, campaigning to end the war, raising money to get targeted people out of the country and helping make the world aware of the war by editing and publishing reports of Serbian atrocities. The images he read and saw have haunted him for decades. They feature prominently in his recent books of poetry, along with similar and more recent horrors from Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria.
If anything he says, his latest book is not as dark as the previous two or three, the poems “a little more sure of their way of overcoming some of the darkness.”
Jackson has no interest in poems that begin and end with something that’s well understood. He asks himself—and his writing students at UTC and workshops around the country—what is at stake in a poem.
“The poem should always be an act of discovery,” he says. “I think there has to be a way in which you’re given a perception of things, and somehow the poem changes that perception that you began with.”
But there’s no simple path in these poems from pain to transcendence. Despite the darkness, something better usually follows.
A poem called “What Comes Next” follows a series of elegies written for friends who have died. It begins, “There are knots of time so miserable they frighten me.” After spiraling through the latest massacre in Nigeria, a double murder over a custody fight in the U.S., coffins in a forest, a homeless man playing a broken guitar and Django Reinhardt’s serene guitar virtuosity despite burned and crippled fingers, it ends with these lines:
Which brings me back to all that fear, and so much
more we never see, but also how much meaning we never
guess is in a dot we thought was a star, but turns out to be
a galaxy of millions of stars, planets with their own secrets,
or the simple way a homeless man struggles with his own
story, waiting like all of us, for what comes next, the way
a salmon climbs a waterfall towards what it cannot see but loves.
Jackson’s poems themselves have changed over time. In his first collection, published in 1983, they were short and imagistic. After his initial, pre-war experiences in the former Yugoslavia, they became longer, more linear narratives in response to the stories people there were telling him. But that didn’t feel right, either. Searching for a writing style closer to the way he thinks, he found a more aphoristic style partly inspired by William Blake’s poetry.
He builds his poems from bits of images, ideas, observations, things seen. At some point, an audience begins to form in his imagination, one person or a group that the poem seems to address, and then he writes with them in mind, filling in gaps that he might understand but they would not. The result is a very conversational movement through what might otherwise be impossibly hostile territory, guided by a striking voice that is always moving forward.
“I have this sort of faith that if I make a lot of weird, different observations over the course of time there must be something that holds them together subconsciously. There must be some sort of connection going on back here that I’m not aware of,” he says, tapping the back of his head. “So part of my job in writing is to bring some of this stuff up to the front and then hopefully out to the reader.”
Out of Place’s official publication date is in April, but copies can already be ordered now from Ashland Poetry Press: (419) 289-5336, ask for Terri Hudson.