Roll Deep

by Stephen Burt

Jackson’s fourth book can be split neatly in half: the loose, often beautiful not-quite-blank-verse of the first part chronicles Jackson’s international travel. Line and cadence a bit like Derek Walcott’s in Midsummer (there’s also a poem dedicated to Walcott) sees the “calligraphic script” of Spain’s Alhambra and the attractions of a honeymoon in Tuscany, “by those cypresses / whose exclamations put a point to blessings.” In Kenya, however, Jackson takes on the borrowed voices of aid workers and refugees: “you never know who will shoot you, what laid / plans will ambush your breath.” Then Jackson returns to America—to Vermont, where he lives and teaches, and to his urban youth—for stand-alone poems: an ode to “the toughest kid / on my block,” who happened to be an international chess master; responses, in quatrains to Sun Ra and to Romare Bearden. Several poems on straight male desire, self-divided and strivingly honest (“I want to kill the polygamist in me.”) play off against starlit love poems, “sprigs of trembling and honeysuckle / nor other forms of desire.” As much as he pays homage to genuine masters, and to high traditions, Jackson displays his invention best in unpredictable topics and nonce forms, from the chess master to the airport body scanner, with its “full-on, arms up, frozen jumping jack” emulated in his short-then-long-then-short line. Though Jackson concludes with a poem—in bravura anaphora—called “Why I Write Poetry,” few readers will have to ask: The self-conscious beauty, the self-control, the wisdom here would each be reason enough.

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2015.