Vitality and Vulnerability

Richard Jackson leans over the balcony of desire.

On its silver anniversary, the Juniper Prize went to Richard Jackson's richly-textured fifth collection of poems, Heartwall. Offered by the University of Massachusetts Press, the Juniper Prize has catapulted the careers of some of America's most individual poetic voices. Titled after a poem by Paul Celan, Heartwall is an intelligent collection that fuses a postmodern pastiche of imagery, the poetry of witness, an aorta of passion, Swiftian satire and compelling vision.

Opening the book, "Antigone Today" is an age-old quest for love and truth, a quest electrified by Jackson's breathtaking language and his imagistic leaps back and forth between Greek myth and contemporary events, a technique that reverberates throughout the collection.

It turns out we all drink from history's footprints ...
Even now I can count every barb in the wire ...
Sophocles kept seeing me as a bird
whose nest is robbed, screeching hysterically.
... What I dug up was a new word for justice,
a whole new dictionary for love ... What I tried
to cover with dust was the past, was anger, was revenge.
You can see it in the torture chambers,
the broken mosques and churches, the sniper scopes.
You can see it in the women raped by the thousand.

The poem ends with one of Jackson's most essential questions:

Who is any of us in all that?
Who was I? I've become someone's idea of me.
You can no longer read the wax seal of the sun.
... we are all buried alive
in the chambers of someone else's heart.

In poem after poem, the reader is infused by an expanding world of imagery that pulls him or her flying down the page. Jackson reminds me of Garcia Lorca or a juju man throwing word bones to plumb the early 21st-century heart. Exploring overlapping themes of love and its lack, of destruction as evinced in the ethnic wars of Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda, of death, greed, vanity and grace, Jackson looks unflinchingly at the heartbreak and nobility of contemporary humanity.

In "No Turn on Red" and "Decaf Zombies of the Heart," Jackson courageously takes on what he sees as the vultures of contemporary American poetry:

It's enough to make the moon turn its face
the way these poets take a bubble bath
in other people's pain
... Truth is too often the last line of defense.

With searing humor, Jackson hones his indictment.

Everyone wants me to stick
to a few simple points, or maybe no point at all,
like the tepid broth those new formalists ladle into their
demitasse ...

Deftly wielding his verbal sword, Jackson delivers a final blow to those poets who exploit human suffering in order to further their own literary careers.

... In Sarajevo,
Dedran Smailovic plays Albinoni's Adagio outside
the bakery for 22 days where mortars killed 22 ...
... You can already see the poets lined up on
poetry's drag strip revving up their 22 line elegies
in time for the New Yorker's deadline ...
Vision means how far down the road of your
career you can see. And numbers not what Pope meant
by rhythm, but $5 line ...

Even in the most sardonic poems, there is an intense yearning for love, for truth. In "The Sentimental Poem I Almost Didn't Write," Jackson is naked and vulnerable as a baby mockingbird wobbling in the ruin of its shell: "It would be crazy to love you / as much as I do. It is 3:03 and by now the whole universe is / attracted to you so that I feel gobbled up like the ice in a comet."

In an age of political and economic upheaval, sound bites, online dating and separation, Jackson's senses are fully engaged. His images click like bullets into the chamber of truth. Jackson's fresh voice is as self-deprecatory as it is scathing. His poems invite us to "lean out over the balcony of desire" while they resurrect our world-weary hearts.

Heartwall is a prize of a book. Give it to someone you respect, someone you love.

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