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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Christopher Janke reviews

Heartwall by Richard Jackson. University of Massachusetts Press, $12.95

This piece is 700 words or about two printed pages long.

One might describe Richard Jackson’s latest book of poems, Heartwall, as his meditation on the conflicts of history. But what at first seems like a meditation becomes more like an act of history later; it is as if Jackson is not content to watch or discuss but must kick his own heart into the bloody fray. In fact, the book seems dedicated to exploring the conflict within the heart as it peers at the action going down on the proscenium. There is a kind of survivor’s guilt at work, so Jackson’s risk is obvious: looking within factual tragedy for personal resonance can easily become victim-y by overstating one’s own troubles, or it can be a move that reveals the speaker’s self-congratulation at having fooled some worse fate. But Jackson never falls into these traps, partly because he incorporates a discussion of this very risk into the poems. He flails and talks about his flailing, and we discover that his struggle with history is also our own.

This is why ‘victim’ is not the right word here; in spite of the atrocities directly mentioned in the poems, Jackson does not declare history to be a wash. And though his ‘Black Madonna’ will not ‘do something about’ the conditions in Prague — or anywhere else — and though when ‘Someone else steps into the cab Destiny had hailed,’ it seems to be bad luck compounding itself, Jackson is more concerned with the conflict between the lucky and the luckless than he is with declaring himself to be one or the other. If he is a victim, it is due to the simple, dumb, blind hope that comes from being in love, which makes him dumbfounded. Jackson asks, How does one come to terms with the despicable world in any honest way, let alone try to do it while suddenly finding one’s own inexplicable love-wrought raison d’être ?

Whether using the strategy of argument, narrative, or plea, and whether the voice is campy and full of showmanship as in ‘No Turn on Red,’ or sincere and straightforward (‘Sonata of Love’s History’), or bleak and surreal (‘Objects in This Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear’), Jackson is engaging in a dialectic with himself. He tries to reconcile his anticipation of a glass of chardonnay when there are snipers, literally, in the next town over. He imagines those who feel despair and desolation; he empathizes, and then cannot conceive of a justification for these feelings whatsoever. He says, ‘this is the way it always is’ where ‘Death juggles our hearts like a bad circus performer,’ but he cannot help but find solace in ‘some small act / of kindness from our wars, some simple gesture that fools me / into thinking we can still fall, in times like this, in love.’

Jackson uses the stage the way a great monologuist does: by continually  breaking down the fourth wall and confronting the audience with the bare conflictions of an honest man speaking to us about his genuine angst. If he has a flaw, it is that he seems sometimes to get caught up in a showy his performance when we would rather sit back and watch him ruminate. When he peels back the curtain and lets us see his struggle, when the performance is more that of an actor’s pre-show preparations and internal struggles, the large and small converge. In these moments, Jackson shines; history’s movements seem to include his current obsessions and absurdities over history, and at times it seems that the notion of grand movements includes even the reader’s small action of reading the poems themselves. Jackson is able to be forthright and heartfelt, and the hope he feels — and reveals — remains unexplained, as does the tragedy he sees; somehow the tragedy does not stop the hope, and somehow the hope does not prevent the tragedy from being as deep and ugly and despondent as it is: ‘There is no end to desire, which means no end to regret, / no end to our need for an ending, so that even the sky refuses / our touch, that sky which, at its bluest, is the most empty.’

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