Razzzle Dazzle: New and Selected Poems, 2002-2022
by Major Jackson
W.W. Norton & Company, 2023
266 pages
Reviewed by Beth Brown Preston

In this recent offering, Major Jackson has assembled work spanning two decades in a genre-defying, multi-layered, and vibrant collection. The poet opens the collection with a selection of thirty-eight newer poems, written and compiled last year, during 2022, and presented under the title “Lovesick.” The remainder of the volume is composed of poems selected from his five previous collections in a chronology: Leaving Saturn (2002) that won him the Cave Canem Prize for a first book of poetry; Hoops (2006); Holding Company (2010); Roll Deep (2015); and, Absurd Man (2020).

Jackson’s debut collection, Leaving Saturn (2002), captures the spirit of resilience characteristic in the Philadelphia neighborhoods of his youth. In Hoops (2006), the poet writes again about his younger days, his boyhood companions, and spirited youthful competition with confrontation on the basketball court and in the street. Holding Company (2010) describes the solemn occurrences of ordinary fives as universal. In Roll Deep (2015), the poet touches on themes of human intimacy and of travel. Finally, in Absurd Man (2020), he reveals a vulnerable and philosophical vision of life.

In a long poem titled “Letter to Brooks” (Hoops, 2006), Jackson acknowledges the influence of Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks on the earliest development of his aesthetic—heading up each poem with the name of a street located in his own native city of Philadelphia: “Fern Rock,” “Olney,” “Logan,” “Wyoming.” A reader familiar with the neighborhoods of Philadelphia Wiff recognize these titles. The poet’s yearnings for and memories of his home stand in contrast with images of the self-imposed exile of travel abroad—to Ireland, to France. He compares himself with other Afro-American writers who chose to seek their authentic selves in exile — James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Richard Wright, and Chester Himes.

However, as Gwendolyn Brooks influences Jackson’s aesthetic, his politics reflect the time he spent with a teacher, Sonia Sanchez at Temple University, to whom he dedicates Razzle Dazzle. In the poem “Hunting Park,” again named for a street in Philadelphia, the poet describes his political aspirations to encompass an art beyond the boundaries of class and race:


Those who would revoke my poet card, who
would charge me with class ascension,
Who would banish me to the stockyard
of   single-raced   anthologies   or
mention such asinine folly as, “His attention
To rhyme? — weak shot to procure a public.
It’s little wonder this will even publish.”
_____“Hunting Park” (p. 120)


As an avid reader of Major Jackson, I am ever so enthralled with the syntactic pyrotechnic of a series of poems presented from his volume Holding Company (2010). These are wondrously crafted verses, each stanza of ten lines, depicting urban vignettes, landscapes, scenes of war, and messages to a lover. Yet, even in these brief ten-line poetic spaces, Jackson assumes the role of the Universal Poet, a Poet of the State: “Plato knew the poem as a sword moonlighting/ as a mirror which correctly angled caught a surfeit/ of light and threatened to blind the Republic—” (from The Door I Open,” p. 154). And the poet’s expression of erotic love within these brief and highly contrived stanzas experiments with an imagery he claims from the legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks. Yet, his metaphorical stance also can be traced to the lineage of the Latin American poets such as Lorca, whom he imitates and acknowledges. He writes in the poem “Lorca in Eden”: “This moonlight is gruesome,/ so many hearts teased to a nakedness then bleached,/ frayed, deflated, flapping like scarves in nightwinds–/ their radiant mangling all over this meadow of silk” (p. 157).

Major Jackson expresses his landscapes as an extension of his own body, as in the initial poem taken from his 2015 collection — Roll Deep — a poem titled “Reverse Voyage.” Within this long poem, he tells the reader why he has departed from his native city of Philadelphia to “call a taxi or pack my rental/ and inaudibly say no,…”. Saying “no” to the very landscape that shaped his youth resulted in his living in books, as respite from the temptations of the street, turning to a life of “ambition,” his eyes traveling “elsewhere or nowhere, open and determined” (p. 167). A recurrent theme in this poetry is the fact that one never leaves home no matter where one wanders. He quotes Simone Weil: “We must be rooted in the absence of place” (p. 179) in his masterful “Urban Renewal” series in which he describes scenes from his travels around the globe: America, Greece, Spain, Brazil, and to the homeland of Kenya. He resided and taught in the state of Vermont — another landscape that plays an important role in his poetry. Yet, ultimately, Jackson’s work calls for a return to the home, both in body and in spirit.

Major Jackson’s badge of honor is his survival of the streets that sought to claim him in his youth. He has traveled extensively, both physically and spiritually. He points to his love of language as a means of overcoming so many trials in life, a love of language with which he has faced fear of his own mortality. He writes: “1 am a life in sacred language./ Termites toil over a grave,/ and my mind is a ravine of yesterdays./ At a glance from across the room. I wear/ September on my face,/ which is eternal, and does not disappear/ even if you close your eyes once and for all/ simultaneously like two coffins” (“On Disappearing,” p. 180).

Major Jackson’s collected poems represent a much-anticipated achievement for the poet; and, to the faithful followers of his poetry, lectures, and the podcast The Slowdown. He is poetry editor of the Harvard Review and holds the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. For readers new to his work, this volume offers an opportunity to become familiar with the poet’s finest.