Holloway Poetry Series: Major Jackson + Allison Neal

The Holloway Poetry Series hosted a reading by Major Jackson on Tuesday, February 19. This was Holloway’s second event of the Spring semester, and around 40 professors, graduate students, undergraduates, and Berkeley residents showed up to make it a success.

First to read was graduate student poet Allison Neal, a first-year in the English department who also did her undergraduate work here. Neal, who studies modern and contemporary poetry, presented a series of poems exploring the subtle traces of disharmony that persist in the supposedly harmonious process of falling in love. The following excerpt from one of Neal’s poems captures both the pathos and the humor in her theme: “I am like a teenage boy playing violent video games. You are like the carpet and his mother.” This image vividly illustrates tensely simultaneous feelings of distance and intimacy in a relationship between two specific people, but it also touches on a much more universal problem with consciousness: we can never know, truly, what another mind is thinking, intending, desiring. Neal’s poems constantly do this: utilizing seemingly small, insignificant moments in individual lives to demonstrate aspects of the broader patterns of life itself.

Major Jackson took the stage next, reading a selection of new and old material, including work from his most recent book, Holding Company. Jackson’s poems, like Neal’s, put pressure on seemingly negligible aspects of everyday life (a couple of Jackson’s examples: saying “dumbfuck” too many time, or feeling “my lips moisten when I listen to Mingus”). Jackson does this in order to reveal how these moments link together into chains that form an individual’s experience of the world and, ultimately, how an individual’s experience comes to participate (socially, culturally, historically) with the experiences of others. Graduate student Ismail Muhammad, who introduced Jackson, put this idea best when he said of Jackson’s poetry that it makes apparent “the frequencies at which individuals can coalesce into something more than their mere selves.” Jackson’s first few poems at the reading enacted this coalescing through various forms of what Jackson called “procedural poetry,” meaning a kind of poetry that works through some kind of artificial set of rules. In Jackson’s case, this often took the form of repeating linking words. One poem, entitled “Why I Write Poetry,” linked together dozens of images solely with the word “because”; another, a new poem called “OK Cupid,” did a similar thing with “like.” Here are the first lines from “Why I Write Poetry”:

Because my son is as old as the stars
Because I have no blessings
Because I hold tangerines like orange tennis balls
Because I sit alone and welcome morning across
the unshaved jaws of my lawn
Because the houses on my street sleep like turtles

These lines do not announce why they belong together. Instead, they are simply juxtaposed, with little attention to their interrelation. Parataxis, which means placing side by side, is the dominant mode for the images here; Jackson himself, later in the same poem, who theorizes the way that his use of parataxis actually works to make connections, rather than break them: “Because parataxis is just another way of making ends meet.” The meeting of ends, drawn out across all of a poem’s images, constitutes the most profound way in which Jackson’s poems, to use Ismail’s word again, coalesce into something larger their their individual parts.

Post written by Jeffrey Blevins