December 10, 2010

Review by Richard VargasMissing You, Metropolis by Gary Jackson

MISSING YOU, METROPOLIS
by Gary Jackson

Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401
ISBN 978-1-55597-572-2
2010, 85 pp., $15.00
www.graywolfpress.org

Gary Jackson’s collection, Missing You, Metropolis, (selected by Yusef Komunyakaa as winner of the 2009 Cave Canem Poetry Prize) explores the impact pop culture, as defined by the rise in stature of the comic book superhero, had on individual and generational development in the United States during the years following the Vietnam war. The world of the superhero is the cultural component many male adolescents turned to as they attempted to reconstruct new icons to fill the void left by those erased or radically altered after the war. (Think John Wayne in The Green Berets before the military escalation, being replaced in the aftermath by Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter.)

Although DC superheroes Superman and Batman had been around since the late 1930s, it was the introduction in the 1960s of Marvel’s comic book anti-heroes Spider-man, Iron Man, the Hulk, etc. (all plagued with enough personal and psychological baggage to make them appear just as dysfunctional as the rest of us), that raised the bar on character development, introducing a complexity unheard of in what would gradually evolve into the graphic novel. Suddenly the good guys had girl troubles, struggles with dual identities, addictions, regrets and guilt…a lot of times they didn’t like who they had become.

Gary Jackson’s poems incorporate the mythology of the contemporary superheroes and illustrate for the reader how it became integrated in his search for self-identity, thus provided a coping mechanism that helped define the ever-changing boundaries of adolescence and even adulthood.

The inability to influence or direct the events in our lives, the realization of being powerless, is a major theme of this collection.

The book opens with a poem titled “The Secret Art of Reading a Comic,” which begins:

The old comics were never wrong.
Right always defended
by the hero—polished like Adonis.

Jackson acknowledges the naive “good vs. evil” maxim that established our simplistic view of the world and the global tensions within it during the years leading up to the country’s involvement in Vietnam. But his tone changes in the second half of the poem, as he conveys how the comic book superhero has evolved into a tragic figure, subject to failure; and even death.

But what we don’t see
before the miraculous resurrection
is Cap losing his grip on the plane,
falling and helpless
to watch Bucky
fragment into pieces.

The great fall does lead to “the miraculous resurrection,” and Captain America’s fate becomes the metaphor that blurs the line separating man from entity and sets the scene as the subjects of these poems wrestle with their humanity and what sets them apart from it. The superhero does not become what he is by choice, but by circumstance. The poet successfully cultivates the reader’s empathy by employing a universal theme shared by many, if not everyone, at some point in our lives.

The feeling of being powerless is further expressed from the narrator’s personal experience in the poem “After the Green.” He describes his young sister’s disability as:

                                                         Her body ticked

like a broken watch, arms moving staccato,
muscles jerking limbs to their own order.

And after her death, he writes:

                                                         Even now

when I think of her, I am filled
with a hollow rage. When all you can do
is watch a body fail,
what words are there?

The narrator grapples with his own helplessness as he watches the physical demise of a sibling and questions perhaps the only sense of power he has available to him at his young age: the power of language, which cannot begin to make sense of what he has witnessed.

The struggle to establish a sense of self-determination throughout this collection is most powerful when the poet addresses the politics of race inherent in the world of the comic book superhero.
The narrator’s voice of the poem “Luke Cage Tells It Like It Is” belongs to Marvel’s first black superhero. But appearances on and just below the surface are two different things:

Sometimes, you want to be him,
…………………………………………………
Crave his brand of desire,
his form of righteousness,
bringing a little black to the world
one motherfucker at a time.

But the ironic twist reveals who is really in control when the narrator goes on to say:

No matter how three-dimensional he seems,
know that behind every jive turkey uttered
there is not a black mouth, but a white one,
one that dictates who he calls Nigger

The first line of the last stanza of this poem immediately follows: “This is the cruelest trick.” The narrator has no control over how he is portrayed as an outsider among outsiders. The thing that makes him truly different from the other superheroes, the color of his skin, is created and manipulated by the white world. The mannerisms, the speech, his very essence is an extension of stereotype. The poet’s calculated maneuver of having the persona speak in the third person creates the illusion of distance between the narrator’s voice and his self-observation, creating a psychological split that can only be described as unhealthy for Luke Cage. When he utters, “I’m not as black as you dream,” there is a sense of self-loathing in his admission.

Jackson continues this thread with the poem “Storm on Display,” again employing a rich sense of irony as he describes Marvel Comics’ first black, female mutant, a member of the very popular X-Men series. The diction of a carnival barker comes to mind with the opening line, “Step right up, ladies and gents, come witness the marvelous/wonder of a woman genetically confused.” Her “almond skin,” “furious blue eyes,” and “silken white hair,” ad up to a statement about being black in a race-conscious society that controls the standards of beauty for women of color. The poet makes it clear who has the upper hand, ending the poem with the following lines:

We’ve brought her here, all the way from her home,
just to show you folks a true and authentic

African Goddess. For a small price, take her
home, show your friends this ebony beaut of a creature.

“Storm” has been turned into a commodity, put on display and offered to the public with the intent to make a profit. With one powerful image, Jackson puts a focus on how pop culture influences and perpetrates perceptions of race, sex and class.

The book draws to an end with poems of reflection that brings the poet’s journey full circle.

The poem “The Silver Age” tells of the poet’s final, bittersweet farewell with the Amazing Spider-Man. While meeting his hero over drinks at a local bar, the narrator realizes:

But as years pass you find
it’s only you growing
old. Your beloved hero is still
in his twenties, despite the decades
spent together.

On the surface, Missing You, Metropolis is a nostalgic trip back into the sanctuary the world of comics provided for several generations as they searched to make sense of where and how they fitted into the scheme of things. But it is also a richly layered commentary about the positive and the negative effects inherent within the ever-changing beast we call “pop culture,” and the importance of knowing the difference between being entertained and being manipulated.

____________

Richard Vargas is the author of two books of poetry:  McLife, Main Street Rag Press, 2005; and American Jesus, Tia Chucha Press, 2007. He currently edits/publishes The Más Tequila Review and received his MFA in Dec. 2010, from the Creative Writing program at University of New Mexico.