It’s been some time since we had one of our Tweetspeak Poetry parties on Twitter—online poetry jams playing off prompts from memoirs, poems, plays, or other literary works. I miss them; Tweetspeak itself was born in a poetry party moment. Editing the submissions into coherent poems can be a challenge. Aligning lines of five, ten, or twenty people tweeting in response to a prompt or each other can look daunting at best or chaotic at worst—that is, until you find the theme or idea that brings order to the chaos, and often brings it suddenly.
Reading the 80 poems of Holding Company, the 2010 poetry collection by Major Jackson, is a similar experience. Jackson brings together ideas, themes, phrases, and often jolting metaphors in these poems, surprising, perplexing, and sometimes shocking the reader. And then the understanding comes, and with a smack of the head, the reader asks, “Why didn’t I see that immediately?” It may be because Jackson leads the eye and mind to a different understanding and a different context than you initially expect.
Consider a poem like “After Riefenstahl,” referring to the German film director and actress Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), a Nazi sympathizer and propagandist. The poem’s title could suggest “in the style of” or “what comes after.” It contains a reference to one of the films for which she’s best known, Triumph of the Will. But film, as Jackson points out, is a fabrication, perhaps echoing the idea that any art, including poetry, done in the service of propaganda, is a fabrication, something untrue.
And then he drops a hint of the personal with the phrase “your sweet messenger,” and then a reference to a person, “my love.” And the reader realizes this is about an unequal relationship, itself a kind of fabrication.
The screen’s fabrications remain. A film
shot never fails, sailing through the century
like a black V at the hour of moaning.
I premiere these pontifical birds: villagers march
and raise their arms, Marschleider. This I am
your sweet messenger glittering more than first stars,
a harvest of light concealing your nicks and little deaths.
My comrade, my camera, my power, my fury,
my triumph, my will: do you not also,
my love, flicker in a cathedral of terror?
This sense of sudden surprise is shared by almost all of the poems in the collection. Whether Jackson is writing about the seasons, heaven, love, landscapes, poetry, sex, migration, divorce, or even zucchini, he takes the reader and listener in unexpected directions. The poems seem a collective shout to understand and feel differently than what a surface glance will offer.
Jackson has published five poetry collections—Leaving Saturn (2002); Hoops (2006); Holding Company (2010); Roll Deep (2015); and The Absurd Man (2020). He has edited Best American Poetry 2019; Renga for Obama, contributions by 267 American poets on the Obama presidency; and Countee Cullen: Collected Poems. Leaving Saturn won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems. He has received fellowsips from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. He’s won a Pushcart Prize and a Whiting Writers’ Award. His poems have been published in numerous literary journals. Jackson is a professor of English and University Distinguished Professor at the University of Vermont, and he serves as poetry editor of The Harvard Review.
Holding Company is a vivid, unsettling collection. What appears to be an ax is a scalpel, and what appears to be a scalpel is an ax. You’re never quite sure which one you’re experiencing first. It’s one of the most original poetry collections I’ve read and keep reading.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish