University of Vermont professor and poet Major Jackson comes from the streets of Philadelphia. Read one of his poems and you will not forget that fact. To Jackson, every bombed-out building there is mythic, every housing project a thing of beauty. In his award-winning 2002 debut, Leaving Saturn, Jackson announced he would sing the body electric of this place:
a mother straddle a stoop of brushes, combs,
a jar of ROYAL CROWN. She was fingering rows
dark as alleys on a young girl's head cocked
to one side like a MODIGLIANI. I pledged
my life right then to braiding her lines to mine,
To anointing streets I love with all my mind's wit.
This is not just an ars poetica, but a call to arms. Something is missing from the map of contemporary poetry, Jackson declares, and he will put it back. Hoops continues this cartographic project, calling on the ghost of playground basketball stars, childhood memories and the inspiration of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks to guide his hand.
Brooks' influence can be felt straight out of the gate. In "Moose," Jackson shears fat and scissors out short stanzas, emerging with a poem as streamlined as a drive to the basket. Basketball clichés work easily into the mix, setting up for a magnificent image:
But we drove the lane --
Soared on our tippy
Toes, entered a rhythm
Of Pick & Roll.
Give & Go & he'd
Run to his favorite spot,
Off alone, out, our
The title poem has been brought over from Leaving Saturn, as has "Urban Renewal," which Jackson expands upon. Like Seamus Heaney in his great poem "Digging," Jackson unleashes his entire vocabulary on the landscape of his past, ripping up its roots, raking its soil.
The backyard garden wall is mossy green
and flakes a craggy mound of chips. Nearby
my grandfather kneels between a row of beans
and stabs his shears into the earth. I squint an eye, --
a comma grows at his feet. The stucco's
an atlas, meshed-wire continents with leaders
who augured hate, hence ruins, which further sow
Heaney bragged his grandfather could "cut more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner's bog." It appears Jackson's grandfather was a tough old feller too. "When a beggar cupped for change outside / a check-cashing place," Jackson writes, "then snatched his wallet, / he cleaned a .22 revolver & launched this plot."
Throughout Hoops Jackson looks up at the world from a child's waist-high perspective. Everyone is a giant. One poem remembers a teacher who gave his students the names of French painters, recalling Brooks' "According to my Teachers, / I am now African-American." Another poem recreates a preacher's embrace, before he lays a hand on the poet and whispers, "Fall back, my son / Fall."
Halfway into the book, Jackson abruptly shifts focus and launches into a long epistolary poem to Brooks, whom Jackson met at an impressionable age. Bouncing from one city to the next, he reads her verse like scripture. Sitting in a pub in Ireland, Jackson marvels to himself, "I would have felt as alien in Sierra Leone. / What was I doing so far from home?" He continues:
I recalled at once your well-spun phrase:
"Puzzled wreckage / Of the middle passage."
Bewilderment bores, true -- still, amazing:
Your lines give weight to baggage.
Art's doing is to lift the sheet off the cage;
The psychic wound within rendered bite-size,
Pertinent, grave: our selves no longer disguised.
Unlike many poets, who write down the page to their last line, Jackson writes laterally, slowing us down with alliteration -- speeding us up with a backbeat of braggadocio. Occasionally, he missteps and installs a final rhyming couplet to rescue a poem as it collapses under the weight of its dense corrugation. Other poems bounce from rhyme to rhyme.
Which reminds me, -- no adequate Thank You
Conveys the perennial debt I owe,
That morning you chose to forgo the choo-
Choo to Manhattan. Instead, my stereo
VW played Kravitz's "Flowers for Zoe"
On cruise control as we schlepped up I-95 --
The weight of your fate in part kept us alive.
It's a shame Jackson's poem about Brooks takes up so much of this book, for it is not very good work. The rhythm is stutter-stepped, overburdened by nostalgia, the rhymes facile. But it's understandable why Jackson would falter here. Hoops is not just a book about basketball, but about the loop of tradition -- African-American traditions in particular, as they are passed from grandfather to grandson, poetic granddames to their admiring no ones. "Truth be told," Jackson writes, regarding Brooks' generosity,
. . . I've come to believe such deeds
Define as much the black tradition and seed
The garden Clarence Major speaks. If it thrives,
Scores bend on hand and knee keeping it alive.
Jackson's homage to his elders is admirable. But his best poems proceed from a deeper, more personal kind of devotion -- a plot of the past, which is the size of a backyard garden but, as he has shown before, and sometimes here, contains all the living world.