Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues, 2013. 91 pages. $15.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
“Don’t do it!” shouts the narrator of Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Watching his parents’ courtship unfold on a giant movie screen, he begins arguing against his own existence. “Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.” He wakes from what is soon revealed to be a dream, his vocation set: to tell his family’s story.
In her debut collection, Ain’t No Grave, T. J. Jarrett begins where Schwartz left off, considering not just the drama within the home but also the racially charged history outside it. Slavery’s legacy and its effect on those she loves form the crux of this wide-ranging book. An ambitious mix of poems that shimmy and ricochet down the page, Ain’t No Grave is united around those pieces that look back on the atrocities of Jim Crow. Like the song from which the book gets its title—“Ain’t no grave can hold my body down”—Jarrett’s speaker will not be silenced. Her stories are going to rise up and be heard.
Whom should you speak to when the Klan marches through your sleep? Jarrett’s speaker decides on the dead. After enduring the details of their harp lessons and their laughter at her expense, she gets down to business. She asks them what to do about the people throwing “themselves / headlong into the pageant, their burning hands destroying / all they touched until there was nothing left in the world / but you and ash.” They have no easy answer, so in a series of poems addressed to the victims of lynching mobs, Jarrett promises to “find / words for it, and whisper // them to the leaves.” She won’t let Gabriel blow his trumpet until she carries them out of the dark.
In contrast to these direct addresses are Jarrett’s easy-going childhood narratives, infused with a gentle, teasing humor. She begins “How to Hear Music with Your Whole Body” with a comic portrayal of her father. After learning his five-year-old daughter spent her entire allowance on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, he clenches his hands and says with some difficulty, “white folks have gone too far.” Fleetwood Mac is not the Captain and Teneille, but in the context of the book, Rumours becomes a symbol of the culture that has sought to erase her father’s family. He promptly puts Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life on the stereo, the joyous horns of “Sir Duke” come through the speakers, and he lifts her in the air. Her grandmother, whose childhood farm we learned in the previous poem was torched by whites, swings her cane. “This is what happiness is […] Everyone you love / housed in one room and dancing” to music that pays homage to giants.
Ain’t No Grave offers a great gift, poems in which adults talk to children about racial injustice. In “Silk” Jarrett relays an episode about an aging neighbor with the same joking warmth used in the poem about her father. Making corn dolls with Miss Polly, she asks about white people’s hair and Miss Polly proceeds to answer with “everything wrong with white people / since 1862 when her slave grandmamma was born.” In swoops Jarrett’s grandmother, who reminds Miss Polly that she is speaking to a little girl “and it’s 1981. / Already.” Jarrett’s grandmother may not want to dwell on bygone pain—let alone speak to a child about it—but her neighbor disagrees and continues to share. In “My Father Explains the History of Sugar, the Middle Passage and Slavery to My Brother, Age 5, over Breakfast,” a poem not much longer than its title, Jarrett’s father asks his son if he would trade his own body for milk (a necessity) or sugar (a luxury). He complicates Miss Polly’s lesson:
How about someone
else, your sister, another body?
Say you wouldn’t.
Know you would.
Jarrett creates a sense of anguish and resolve by combining the awkward line-break between “someone / else” with the imperative voice in the following stanza, as if someone were swallowing but determined to go on.
Ultimately, the weight of white violence strains the speaker’s religious belief. As a way to make sense of suffering she reimagines stories from the Bible and questions its binaries. She swaps images of light and dark so many times that any connection light had to good and dark to evil are gone. She seems to want to remain a believer in some higher power, but in order to do so, she must reconfigure her relationship with God and the world.
If you asked the stars what they saw—
Do you see what happens here on earth?
They would tell you quite plainly
they were blinded by the light of heaven.
It’s a weak excuse that implicates God himself—what kind of god distracts those he made to watch over us? Jarrett will take on the job they have shirked and bear witness to the past. To do otherwise, she deadpans in “When the Sun Nears the Earth in the West,” would be “unwriterly,” “worse—irresponsible. Uncharitable.”
Forgive, then, the ghosts you carry. Touch them
on the cheek tenderly, each one, and send them on ahead
of you. Forgive the stars their disinterested twinkling. Forgive the
air and the trees. Forgive the gravity that held you. You will
experience weightlessness. Behold the spinning earth. Choose.
Jarrett’s speaker decides to confront the ghosts that haunt her dreams—white people gathered around a tree, black men forced to use their bodies to dam a breaking levee, women raped and hung for train riders to see. As a writer, she may not have even had a choice. It’s not easy, as the jarring breaks between “the // air” and “will / experience” show. A friend tells her in another poem, “Do you yet understand that / you can’t run from this poem or the hand that makes it?” It is her duty. She chooses to embrace it. Like her grandfather cutting sugar cane, Jarrett’s eye is on “each / sweet row” of history.