There is a body at the center of Zion, T. J. Jarrett’s new collection of poems, winner of the 2013 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry open competition. To whom this body belongs and who bears responsibility for its care, griefs, loves, and ultimately its passing, are the questions which trouble these poems. Jarrett propels us through a lyric narrative as irresistible in its music as it is eviscerating in its examination of the lasting and continuing effects of America’s segregationist history and the Civil Rights Movement on one family and on society as a whole. We begin with the voice of Jarrett’s grandmother, matriarch of the family, as she lies dying in “My Grandmother Describes the Radiance.” She addresses a “Dark Girl” who is both Jarrett’s mother and the poet herself, reassuring her that
has always been
more waiting room
The image of a “waiting room” is key. In poem after poem, Jarrett and the many voices she invites to speak with her seem suspended in a past that would prevent us from opening the door into the promised “radiance” of “Zion,” a place in which we might move forward and away from the “cage” of the slave ship’s hold and all of the violence and injustice it has engendered.
Jarrett’s mother’s family is from Meridian, Mississippi, and the poet spent all of her summers there growing up. Meridian served as one of the headquarters for the voter registration drives run by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) during what became known as the Freedom Summer of 1964. The city and neighboring Nashoba County came into national focus after the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, as Jarrett recounts in “Meridian, MS 1964: They Moaned So Much They Called It Song.” The poem is in the voice of this same grandmother, who has now become a bulwark against terror for her daughter (Jarrett’s mother). “Do you remember the night we counted our missing,” the grandmother asks:
how after the house emptied of men, I took you to the back room,
turned on the radio and we danced? Remember how they found
the bodies, stacked like lumber beneath the earthdam? Did you know
I came to you in the night, watched you in your sleep, reached out
to stroke your hair? I went from room to room in the dark—counting
and recounting my children. Dark Girl, those boys were stripped
of their bark, huddled together as if from cold.
I can’t help but hear Seamus Heaney in the lyricism of Jarrett’s imagery and metaphor here: the “barked sapling” and “oak-bone, brain-firkin” of his prehistoric sacrificed teenage girl found in the bog in the poem “Punishment” from his collection North. Like Zion, North explores civil unrest and racial violence. Unlike Heaney’s “little adulteress,” however, the buried “boys” in Jarrett’s poem are identified only tangentially by the year and location in the poem’s title. It illuminates the arbitrary nature of the violence experienced by blacks and their allies in the South (during the initial search for the missing civil rights workers, the bodies of at least eight lynched black men and boys were also discovered). And in the directness of her diction, Jarrett leaves no room for romanticizing the event.
The “bodies” are “stacked like lumber”—utilitarian and everyday. They are “stripped,” “huddled,” and “cold” in contrast to the children who the grandmother watches over, obsessively “counting/and recounting” them. And while Heaney admits complicity, which implies at least some measure of power, in understanding the “exact/and tribal intimate revenge” inherent in the racist brutality of the Irish civil war, the only guilt evident in Jarrett’s poem is the grandmother’s “joy” that she and her children have survived the horror of their circumstance, uncertain as that survival may yet be: “I sat in the chair in the parlor, sang songs of praise,/watched the street from the inside, rocked myself to and fro.”
Lest we become too caught in the particulars of her own family’s struggle, Jarrett widens the lens, invoking syntax as proof of social policy in the masterfully minimalist “How a Question Becomes a Lie.” The poem is a series of questions in couplets, voiced by an unidentified figure and left unanswered. They progress from a tone of near mourning—“Why must it/come to this?”—to atrocity:
Will you take
the bullet or
will you choose
The absurdity of the verbs “take” and “choose” here underscore the vicious hypocrisy of the speaker without need of further detail. But it is in the repetition, building a crescendo, within the final stanza—
Why do you make me
do this to you?
Why do you make me
do this to you?
—that we despair, the box of hatred slamming closed in the omitted stanza break and locking us within it. Impossible to read these words without seeing the all-too-contemporary images of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and far too many other young men and women victimized by a system of authority predicated on racial hatred, a resonance all the more heartbreaking when we read the poem’s epigraph, “Riot in Memphis, May 1, 1866,” and must acknowledge how far we have not come.
Jarrett addresses the roots of contemporary strife and their connection to the personal in a series of poems woven throughout the book in which she speaks with Theodore Bilbo, twice elected Governor of Mississippi (in 1915 and 1927) and serving as U.S. Senator from 1934 until his death in 1947. An ardent segregationist, white supremacist, and admitted member of the Ku Klux Klan, Bilbo once proposed an amendment to FDR’s New Deal legislation that sought to relieve unemployment by deporting twelve million blacks to Liberia at the expense of the U.S. government. An easy villain for these poems, one might think—but Jarrett chooses instead to imagine Bilbo as an uneasy spirit, part cautionary tale and part beloved, who reckons his past through a series of private confrontations with Jarrett that belie his very public memory.
Thus we first find Bilbo at her sickbed whispering “I await our reckoning,” that “our” a signal of fellowship in loss. In “Theodore Bilbo Begins His Confession,” he admits romantic, or at least erotic, obsession with Jarrett as she plays the part of a domestic in his household (a familiar story of the pre and post-Civil War South). “Sometimes, I would watch you/wading through the marshes,” he recounts,
…you would not take notice
of my gaze. You would dry yourself,
button up your dress, braid
your hair still wet with river water…
Later, the two are “drunk on the veranda,” where they “twine [their] limbs” and Jarrett allows Bilbo to make excuses—“There was the war./Remember? We lost”—before she turns the tables, reminding him “I abandoned you” and “I couldn’t stay, Teddy…I had to live” as she leaves him. The complexity of this encounter acknowledges the tangled past and genealogies of the South without ever losing sight of their terrible cost: “the many eyes of our dead.” In still another scene on the same veranda, this time over tea (“Theodore Bilbo and I Take Tea on the Veranda”), the two argue, Jarrett confessing “Quite out of order” (perhaps a nod to the diction of governance and Bilbo’s notorious reputation in the Senate for flouting diplomacy) that “I cannot be this angry for so long. It’s become exhausting.” This last statement may be the most direct. Jarrett allows herself to explain the need to engage Bilbo—a figure so symbolic of injustice and unrelenting hatred—to fuck him, abandon him, and argue with him, remaking this historical monster as trivial human.
One of Jarrett’s many strengths as a writer is the authority of her voice. This allows her to observe and, at times, even argue with herself within her poems. In “The Peonies at the Bodega,” for instance, Jarrett is frank regarding the difference between writing about the loss of love and actually experiencing it: “Were this a poem, and I were just arranging sound,/we would be standing in rain and not snow.” In drawing back, or at least pointing to, the curtain of metaphor (“Peonies would stand in for something else.”), Jarrett seems to question the making of art from life, essential though it is (the poem exists, in spite of her doubts). In giving us both the poem she “would” write and the one she actually does write, she acknowledges the danger of diluting or manipulating an experience in the sharing of it.
The Bilbo poems, however, display none of this nervousness of process, perhaps because they chronicle an imagined rather than actual relationship. In them, Jarrett seems to be following a thread laid out for her by history, effortlessly sewing a connection between the personal and universal. The truths and ironies she discovers arise without effort—they are hers for the taking—as in her recounting of Bilbo’s actual death from oral cancer at the age of 69, which Jarrett presents as both retribution—“You must have known the words were poisoned,/after they cancered your mouth,/overtook the lips, a cheek, the jaw”—and a moment of self-revelation, as she looks on him and has “nothing but mercy left to give.” There is also anger here; we feel it in “The Burgomaster Said I Could Do Whatever I Wanted to You:”
…I thought of forgiveness.
Which is to say: I thought of myself. I stood
without a word to offer. Then I remembered fire,
the fires we fled, the night after day after night
in darkness, and the girl’s screams in her dying…
This near apocalyptic scene would seem to undermine any imagined reconciliation with, or rehabilitation of, Bilbo as manifestation of the most vicious elements of the segregationist South. But Jarrett provides an unexpected turn in the last two lines of the poem (a sonnet): “I can look away. I can choose/to give you nothing. I can save myself, save myself.” And it is with Bilbo, after all, that Jarrett enters the “devastatingly/familiar” Zion of the collection’s title in “Theodore Bilbo and I Survey the Contours of Zion:”
No version of
have we imagined
with the other.
The tone rueful here, we can almost hear her suppress a chuckle as she adds “there is nothing/either of us/can do.” And of course there isn’t; seen within that widest of historical vistas—death—divisions and hatreds fall away as mere pettiness.
Down here on earth, such relinquishment of the past is easier said than done, of course, but Jarrett’s wrestling with Bilbo leads her (and us) to understand the necessity of acknowledgement as a means of reparation. “Mississippi, place of my greatest sorrow,” she begins the poem “How to Love the Country of Your Birth,” going on to “offer the murder of crows roosting” in her throat to whomever will “grab” them. “Love me,” these crows sing, “love me back, love me always, love me still.” When we consider the hatreds and losses that gave rise to so many of the events in these poems and with which our country still struggles, perhaps Jarrett’s clear-sighted insistence on remaining (“The song says, stay”) is more powerful than leaving, even if the destination is paradise. Leaving, after all, is what Theodore Bilbo would have wanted Jarrett and her family to do. More concretely, it is those people whom we love—Jarrett’s “mother, her mother, the mother of her mother,” (“This is How I Love Her”)—and their memories that tie us to a place.
None of this rationalization of anger and injury is a foregone conclusion, however, and it is telling that Jarrett and Bilbo can only acknowledge each other, in the book’s final poem, in the past tense (“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.
That this “forgiveness” occurs in the present tense provides hope, although the peace associated with the image of “doves” does not come without “shock.” What will follow this forgiveness, and whether it is sufficient to free us from the “spiraling inward gaze” that separates us from one another, is a question Jarrett’s poems, wise and without illusion though they are, cannot answer for us.
Anna Ross is the author of If a Storm (winner of the Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry). Her poems have recently appeared in Salamander, Tupelo Quarterly, and The American Reader. A recipient of fellowships and scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and Grub Street, she teaches at Emerson College and at Stonehill College, where she is Poet in Residence.