Sunday, August 12, 2007

Poem of the Week

Here's Major Jackson, from his first book, Leaving Saturn (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002). What fascinates me about this poem is how the ending blatantly risks the purely sentimental and, in my opinion anyway, gets away with it. As someone whose natural tendency is towards the sentimental, I'm fascinated by this, by how Jackson structures the poem's trajectory in such a way as to make this happen. I think it has something to do with how he opens with the descriptive, takes you inside a room so that you believe you're there, and then moves from the narrator's observer-perspective into imagining what it would be like to be Mr. Pate, and thus into a space where the narrator isn't even there -- the poem begins as a first-person personal narrative of sorts, but ends as almost a persona poem. And so the ending works, I think, partly because it comes rom the barber's perspective, but also because that perspective is reached through the narrator's -- compassion, I want to say; nowhere does the narrator tromp right into the barber's point of view like he has every right to be there, but instead he eases into it by first describing the barber's world in concrete, observable detail, then building an understanding of the barber's internal landscape based on the knowable, the observable, the recorded events of his life. And so when the poem says "someone has to cherish these tiny little heads" they are specific tiny little heads, and the someone is a specific someone we've gotten to know a little bit, and I think that's at least partly why the tenderness of that line works without falling over into the morass of excess sentimentality.

So -- concrete detail, and specificity, and sneaking up on one's subject methodically, as a way to risk sentimentality and get away with it. Or something like that anyway.

Also (I just noticed this) -- look how long that last sentence is! The poem is full of long sentences, actually, except for the statement "He forgot / everything & would never be the same." The poem hinges on those lines, takes a turn right there into its ultimate direction. And after those lines, the whole rest of the poem -- almost the second half of the poem -- is all one long sentence, starting with "I remember" and slowly working its way into Mr. Pate's experience. And after the short sentence that says Pate "forgot / everything" -- that long final sentence comes to a place where he does remember something, "never forgetting" what is in the end most important, to "cherish these tiny little heads." Again, the poem sneaks up on its conclusion, circles around it, eases towards the ending until it feels inevitable -- like the boxer's knockout punch that at first seems to come out of nowhere but then you realize he's been setting it up all along, circling and circling with footwork that didn't seem to be going anywhere in particular at first. (Okay, the boxer thing is maybe stretching it a little.)

Anyway, here's the poem.

Mr. Pate's Barbershop

I remember the room in which he held
a blade to my neck & scraped the dark
hairs foresting a jawline: stacks of Ebonys
& Jets, clippings of black boxers --
Joe Frazier, Jimmy Young, Jack Johnson --
the color television bolted to
a ceiling like the one I watched all night
in a waiting room at St. Joseph's
while my cousin recovered from gunshots.
I remember the old Coke machine, a water
fountain by the door, how I drank
the summer of '88 over & over from a paper
cone cup & still could not quench my thirst,
for this was the year funeral homes boomed,
the year Mr. Pate swept his own shop
for he had lost his best little helper Squeaky
to cross fire. He suffered like most barbers
suffered, quietly, his clippers humming so loud
he forgot Ali's lightning left jab, his love
for angles, for carpentry, for baseball. He forgot
everything & would never be the same.
I remember the way the blade gleamed
fierce in the fading light of dusk & a reflection
of myself panned inside the razor's edge
wondering if I could lay down my pen, close up
my ledgers & my journals, if I could undo
my tie & take up barbering where
months on end a child's head would darken
at my feet & bring with it the uncertainty
of tomorrow, or like Mr. Pate gathering
clumps of fallen hair, at the end of a day,
in short, delicate whisks as though
they were the fine findings of gold dust
he'd deposit in a jar & place on a shelf, only
to return Saturdays, collecting, as an antique dealer
collects, growing tired, but never forgetting
someone has to cherish these tiny little heads.

--Major Jackson

1 comment:

Valerie Loveland said...

Beautiful poem!