Reviewed by Kate Welsh
We indulge in the power / to inhabit a world a page removed from our own" (p. 81), writes Gary Jackson in "Reading Comic Books in the Rain," the last poem of his first collection, Missing You, Metropolis. Selected by Yusef Komunyakaa as the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the book addresses life through the world of cartooned adventures and the stories of superheroes. The caped protagonists and villains are the main players in the impressive debut, and take on a new sort of humanity when mingled with and filtered through stories of growing up, the deaths of family members and friends, sexual encounters, and racial issues.
This could easily be a clumsy exercise in too obvious symbolism and metaphor. Superheroes could be tossed carelessly into black and white stories of good versus evil, of incredible gifts, of misunderstood strength. While these issues are undoubtedly addressed, the poet's dexterity, sensitivity, and humor puts these subjects in a realm that surprises instead of bores. Like many comic books, characters appear and disappear as they are needed. The themes of death, immortality, love, sex, strength (both physical and emotional) and personal history -- for humans and superhumans alike -- are thoughtfully addressed. While ruminating on his beloved comic books, Jackson gives his readers insight into the very depths of human experience.
The first poem, appropriately called "The Secret Art of Reading a Comic," alludes to W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts," claiming, instead of "masters," it was "The old comics [that] were never wrong" (p. 5). In it, Jackson recounts the stories of Thor and how "Mjolnir, his mystical hammer, slams / against the Black Knight's helmet / with a thwack in red letters." In the third stanza, "Captain America and his sidekick / Bucky chase a runaway plane." The poem suggests comic book narrator reportage. With the play-by-play imagery and the staccato sounds and sentences, the rhythm of the cartoon strip -- the separate boxes, the punctuated motion -- is understood. The boxes encapsulating each action and onomatopoeia are drawn by the punctuation and the clever line breaks.
Jackson's use of enjambment is particularly agile. He uses the unfinished phrase on one line to create a nanosecond of suspense before the end of the sentence, answering the question the enjambment poses. Enjambment is used particularly well in "Stuart," a poem about the speaker's oldest friend who appears throughout the text:
We emerged into the world
in the same room:
Our mothers' friendship triggered
by our simultaneous birth.
-- p. 7
The ends of both the first and third lines leave so much room for the reader to guess the words that follow. They could have "emerged into the world" years apart, as twins, by Caesarean section; the mothers' friendship could have sparked a bad memory, could have been started by a traumatic event, or could have begun from their own mothers' friendship. Jackson has an ability to choose words that are sometimes big and broad (like the world) and can be unbreakably linked to one specific word (as "triggered" is to gun and to trauma). In this stanza, "the world" leads to one room, and "triggered" leads to new life, catching the reader delightedly off-guard.
Jackson's humor has a tendency to surprise the reader as well. "Autumn in Chestnut Falls" is placed in between "Storm on Display," a poem which paints the female superhero -- "the marvelous / wonder of a woman genetically confused" (p. 54) -- as a traveling circus freak and "Home from Work, I Face My Newborn Mutant Sun," a heartwrenching account of a father seeing his child who is literally as delicate as glass. In this somber placement, "Autumn in Chestnut Falls" holds some needed lightheartedness, even if it is grimly-crafted humor. The first few lines immediately hook the reader:
Sure, some of us felt sorry
when the Franklins moved.
But once their oldest boy
grew tentacles for arms
we couldn't help but keep away.
-- p. 55
This scenario could as easily be a comic strip box as it could be a metaphor for the boy's deviant behavior. The situation, if possible, becomes even more bizarre when
found her Labrador flayed to the bone
in her backyard. But we should have
known that boy was trouble when
he got kicked off varsity for leaving
welts on everyone he tackled,
even though he could hold onto
a ball like nobody's business.
-- p. 55
The humor in "Autumn in Chestnut Falls" comes from the subject, of course, but also from the inclusion of such colloquial phrases like "nobody's business" and "that boy was trouble," whose familiarity provide contrast to the notion of tentacles coming out of a football uniform.
The phrase "that boy was trouble" takes on new meaning when presented in a racial context. "How to Get Lynched on the Job" addresses the subject of being black at work and the fear that perpetuates. Stuart appears in this poem, too, when he whispers "in Nicole's ear that he wanted to taste / her. She got the hell away, // he just laughed" (p. 59). The speaker goes on to say that "It was the first time / I worried for him." He is sure that Stuart should have been sued for harassment because she was white. Chillingly, he recalls a famous case sparked by racism:
Whistling and whispering, it's all the same.
The truth is the world ain't changed.
None of us are far
from ending up like Emmett.
-- p. 59
He refers, of course to case of Emmett Till, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. Jackson's concentration on race in much of the book is very deliberate. In his short essay on Missing You, Metropolis, he writes "Regardless of my content, my poetry stems from, and reflects, the perspective of being black in America."
From this focus, however, Jackson's persona poems in Missing You, Metropolis range from the decidedly human woman that Jackson's speaker first has sex with to the remarkably disturbed Joker from the Batman comics. The poem "The Dilemma of Lois Lane" falls somewhere in the middle of these two poems, mingling the human and superhuman as the speaker is a woman in love with a superhero. Lois Lane muses on what it was like to first realize her Clark Kent was really Superman: she realizes his eyes will always be bright, his hair will always curl, and his body will always be "as solid as diamonds" (p. 38). However, she pretends those certainties are not real, because she prefers the reality of the human Clark Kent, and wishes he could
the Clark that steps on people's
shoes in elevators, the Clark that
spills coffee on the break
room floor. But you blow forest
fires out with those same breaths
I take into me when we kiss
-- p. 38
This bumbling Clark Kent is the one that is most human to Lois, and perhaps the one that seems most available to love. Who can honestly say that they are in love with a superhero? And as a superhero, do they even share the same capacity to love? Clark seems to understand Lois' conundrum:
when we're alone at home,
fixing dinner, you'll pretend
to wince when you cut yourself,
and I find myself hoping
that the tiniest drop of blood
will bloom on your finger.
-- p. 38
He recognizes that Lois would be more comfortable with him as fully human, so he goes through the motions of pretending to be. However, he can never truly bleed. They play a game of pretending, both hoping Clark Kent/Superman was only human.
Jackson's Missing You, Metropolis highlights the "human" part of superhumans. In the midst of the mess of human existence -- gangs, racism, tragic deaths -- people have the ability to rise above it. Superheroes may be able to fly, may never bleed, may control the weather, but humans can grow, learn, soothe, and love. Humans can be more. Can be super. Can be heroes.
Kate Welsh studies at Barnard College of Columbia University. She serves as the layout editor for Echoes, the Barnard literary magazine, and works as an intern at the Poetry Society of America.
This review was first published in Cerise Press.
Books mentioned in this post