Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2002
Major Jackson is a native of North Philly, and though his journey has
taken him far from his hometown, Jacksons first book, Leaving
Saturn, is firmly grounded in Philadelphia, a city he pays homage
to throughout: "I pledged / my life right then to braiding her lines
to mine, / to anointing streets I love with all my minds wit".
Philly is a city obsessed with its past, while tremulously amnesiac about
its own present. Yet Philly also supports a diverse arts community that
reflects the citys recent regeneration. This backdrop of crisis
and possibility is fertile ground for Jackson to explore personal and
national identity, specifically what it means to be a young African-American
poet in the 21st century.
In his opening sequence "Urban Renewal," Jackson writes, "From
the LIBERTY BELLs glass asylum, / tourists emerge convinced of a
cracked republic". The "asylum" that encloses our nations
symbol of democracy connotes both safety and danger: Does the "asylum"
protect or imprison? The dualism present in the image of the glass asylum
also highlights the seen and unseen. Like a buildings beautiful
façade masking structural rot, beyond the manicured lawns of Independence
Hall you will find Phillys neighborhoods blighted with abandoned
You are almost invisible in all this plain decay.
Childrens laughter echoing in arcs of hydrant water-spray
knots the heart; those black bathers like Cézannes
will soon petrify to silence. A chorus of power lines
hums a melancholic hymn, tenements aching pyrrhics,
doorways and row-homes crumbling to gutted relics:
this one exposing a nude staircase, that one
a second-floor ceiling where swings
a lightbulb like your chipped soul suspended
from a thread of nerves.
Like the lightbulb hanging "from a thread of nerves," Jackson
illuminates that which is usually unseen, that which causes the tourists
to turn away. Jackson reveals it all, displaying the contradiction that
is present-day Philadelphia:
[. . .] Your Kangoled head spins
on cardboard, a windmill garnering allegiance.
Here prayed those who signed for Independence.
Break beats blasting your limbs to Market,
youre ghostbloom in the cameras flash,
so they call you FURIOUS ROCKER, CRAZYLEGS,
The circle tightens like a colony, horse-and-carriages
hemming OLDE CITY to scraps of time;
Jacksons work is alive with movement and music. These observations
break open the false division between past and present.
The importance of music is evident in the title of the collection, an
homage to Sun Ra. It is drawn from a poem whose full title is "Leaving
Saturn: Sun Ra & His Year 2000 Myth Science Arkestra at Grendels
Lair Cabaret, 1986." This piece is part of a series dedicated to
Sun Ra performances. Some of these efforts fall flat: "I created
a vacuum. / My story is a mystery. / Aint no way they / Can fill
a vacuum" while others dance: "Skyrocketed / My eyes dilate
old / Copper pennies". Jacksons poems sometimes creak under
too much narrative pressure, but this poet has a fine ear and explores
multiple trajectories that make this book worthy of the 2000 Cave Canem
--- Kathy Lou Schultz