TJ Jarrett. Zion. Crab Orchard Review & Southern Illinois Press, 2014. 73 pgs. $15.95.
Reviewed by Lynn Domina
What is it that makes TJ Jarrett’s Zion so compelling, I’ve asked myself in the weeks since I’ve read it. The voice, of course. Yes, but what is it about the voice? The collection consists of a series of poems in which the characters respond to, negotiate, live through, and forgive one another for their American culture of racism, particularly in the early-to-mid 20th century south. A prominent reference throughout the book is Theodore Bilbo, the viciously racist governor of Mississippi and U.S. senator. Given this content, we might expect a jeremiad, since rage is an appropriate response to racism—and I often associate the prophetic mode with a character like Jeremiah or a sermon title like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The voice of Zion is prophetic, for it is filled with truth, but it is also restrained, direct, quiet. Its restraint is enhanced by its form; although the collection contains some prose poems and free verse arranged into longer stanzas, most of the poems are written in couplets, the stanzaic choice whose appearance on the page most suggests control.
Although its title might suggest reassurance or healing or redemption, one of the most frightening poems in the collection is “Meridian, MS 1958: My Grandmother Meditates on the Miracles of the Christ.” Here it is in its entirety:
In the world we knew, what went blind stayed blind.
What was laid low, languished. The world we knew was dark
but manageable. The world we knew favored speed
or steel. Or both. We could run when they took up arms or
we could square the body against the pain we each would know.
The world revealed itself in this way, the choice it offered.
Hard then, to pray for more than this. But we did pray. Oh,
how we prayed. We prayed to the river to spare us flood. To the trees
and their turning. To the wind and its lamentation. If you know
nothing of prayer, know this: to pray is to ask—Lord, will we be delivered?
The world we knew said no. Said wait. Said no again. To pray is to ask—
Lord, have mercy. The world we knew said no, said wait, said wait.
And the Lord said unto us: You ask not for My mercy; go forth
and ask your brethren. And we were sore and right afraid.
In this poem, “the Lord” appears to refuse to intervene in history, to turn the minds of “your brethren” toward repentance or justice. Yet “the Lord” does respond to the speaker with clear if terrifying instructions. This representation of “the Lord” is Biblically consistent, for God is seldom presented there as relieving people of danger—though God does generally accompany Biblical characters through danger. This is how the title begins to make sense, for readers might reasonably ask what “Miracles of the Christ” appear in the poem. Most readers will be aware of the varieties of racial violence the speaker might have witnessed or experienced—“we could square the body against the pain we each would know”—but we also know that change came.
The success of this poem depends in part on the depth of its theme, but it also occurs through Jarrett’s skill with craft. The regularity of the couplets is balanced by the rhythmic variety in the lines. Only half of them are end-stopped, for instance, and most of the lines contain caesuras—sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes more, a few syllables into the line, or midway through it, or nearly at its break. These caesuras occur because Jarrett exploits her options in sentence length and grammar, layering the line upon the sentence rather than simply reproducing the sentence or other grammatical unit with the line. And the line breaks often reinforce the content, “To the trees / and their turning” for instance, or “The world we knew said no, said wait, said wait. // And the Lord said…” This poem is an excellent example of what a poet can accomplish by considering the effects of a sentence in relationship to the effects of a line.
A secondary motif of this collection has to do with the relationships between figurative language and that other language we believe is literal. In “Miss Polly Experiences the Consequences of Gravity,” the speaker asserts, “To be free of metaphor is a mercy.” Some titles draw insistent attention to language as language—“How a Question Becomes a Lie” and “How the Past Tense Turns a Whole Sentence Dark.” In a prose poem toward the end of the collection, the speaker describes a woman making paper birds out of napkins. Then, “she crossed the room to the hearth and threw a bird into the flames, then another, then another until she had destroyed all she created. Years later when I asked her what she meant, she couldn’t remember. The worst has already happened to us, she said. What good is metaphor now?” In a lengthier analysis, one could evaluate the relationships among the literal, the figurative, and racism. For language is a prominent technology of power—think of the number of nouns created to reinforce racial categories. As readers of poetry, however, we presumably value metaphor, not because it is decorative or because it can divert us from fact or even because it can sometimes be particularly memorable. We value metaphor because it can reveal a kind of truth that more literal language sometimes cannot. Consider, for example, the last lines of the book, from “Theodore Bilbo and I at Last Turn Face to Face”:
…But there is this:
once there was me and there was you
and from my mouth like a shock of doves
comes forgiveness. Believe me,
I am as surprised as anyone.
The simile in these lines, “like a shock of doves,” is part of the reason the speaker’s acknowledgment of forgiveness is persuasive. She opens her mouth and doves burst forth—not magic but miracle. Most of the miracles in the Bible are stories of healing, and that is the story here too.
I’m grateful to have come across TJ Jarrett’s work. I’m grateful for the time I was able to set aside to linger over her poems. And I’m grateful for the poems and their challenge—to write better, to live better.