Missing You, Metropolis
by Gary Jackson
Reviewed by Richard Oyama
For many boys, superhero comic books offer a temporary refuge, a parallel world in which to entertain fantasies of power and take solace in moral simplicities. As Gary Jackson puts it in "The Secret Art of Reading a Comic," echoing Auden: "The old comics were never wrong." It's a Platonic world where the tragic is effaced and elided: Captain America "falling and helpless / to watch Bucky / fragment into pieces" is an image you won't find illustrated in the early comics about the hero and his sidekick, though it's suggested all the same.
Jackson knows all this and more, but his debut volume Missing You, Metropolis, selected as winner of the 2009 Cave Canem Poetry Prize by Yusef Komunyakaa, also recognizes the fundamental aloneness of superheroes, and how their dual selves can function as a potent metaphor for what W. E. B. DuBois called "the double consciousness" of African Americans. Like mutants, black people in America are alien too. This theme is made explicit in a furious poem, "Magneto Eyes Strange Fruit":
Out for a midnight flight, I see
two children on the playground --
the rust of blood crusting
over holes in their heads.
In contrast, the more elegiac "Xorn" (another character, like the aforementioned Magneto, derived from X-Men
comics) envisions the Other as both healing angel and monster.
Throughout the book, the author employs effective persona poems and narrative poems to explore friendship, violence, the grief of a sister's early death, the racial isolation of a Kansan childhood, adolescent seduction, and the forlorn waste of pornography. In both "Emergency" and "Fade," Jackson bravely confronts the emotional costs of suicide.
For all its disarming charm and surface breeziness, as well as the deliberate use of couplets and quatrains to mimic the formal borders that contain a comic's narrative, this book sounds profound depths of rage, lust, sorrow, and estrangement. In "How to Get Lynched on the Job," the poet acknowledges an ever-present racial fear, evoking the memory of Emmett Till, who was beaten to death in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Simultaneously, in "The Family Solid," the speaker acknowledges a hardy resilience:
I know, but black kids
find a way out without
getting locked up or put down.
And poems like "Nightcrawler Buys a Woman a Drink" and "Home from Work, I Face My Newborn Mutant Son" -- the former an outright seduction, the latter a meditation on strangeness -- show how much range the author can get out of his comic book tropes.
But if comic books function as virtual or alternative worlds, Jackson doesn't surrender uncritically to the fantasy. "Luke Cage Tells It Like It Is" exposes the racial fiction often present in this pulp literature:
No matter how three-dimensional he seems,
know that behind every jive turkey uttered
there is not a black mouth, but a white one,
one that dictates who he calls Nigger,
to temper the perfect tone of black.
Early on, Leslie Fiedler noted a similar paradox when he observed that two Jewish youth from Cleveland invented Superman, a super-goyische
hero, in response to beatings they received during the 1930s. But there's more than mere deconstruction going on here. The poet also addresses male silence: "We don't / talk about ourselves" ("Emergency"). In "The Silver Age," he points to the homoerotic relationship between male adolescent readers and their beloved superheroes:
There is always a time, dear reader,
when you're the other lover --
the new partner with young skin
and an impressionable mind.
In the end, comic books represent an escape, a remove, a deferral from "Topeka, Kansas, / the whole goddamn world" that "bears down / like a freight train" ("Reading Comic Books in the Rain"). Missing You, Metropolis
heralds a new voice unafraid to embrace pop culture, and to discover in it a world at once paradoxical, desired, and cruel.