NEA Literature Fellowships

Major Jackson

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(2015 - Poetry)

"On Disappearing"

I have not disappeared.
The boulevard is full of my steps. The sky is
full of my thinking.  An archbishop
prays for my soul, even though
we met only once, and even then, he was
busy waving at a congregation.
The ticking clocks in Vermont sway

back and forth as though sweeping
up my eyes and my tattoos and my metaphors,
and what comes up are the great paragraphs
of dust, which also carry motes
of my existence.  I have not disappeared.
My wife quivers inside a kiss.
My pulse was given to her many times,

in many countries. The chunks of bread we dip
in olive oil is communion with our ancestors,
who also have not disappeared.  Their delicate songs
I wear on my eyelids. Their smiles have
given me freedom which is a crater
I keep falling in. When I bite into the two halves
of an orange whose cross-section resembles my lungs,

a delta of juices burst down my chin, and like magic,
makes me appear to those who think I've
disappeared.  It's too bad war makes people
disappear like chess pieces, and that prisons
turn prisoners into movie endings. When I fade
into the mountains on a forest trail,
I still have not disappeared, even though its green facade
turns my arms and legs into branches of oak. 
It is then I belong to a southerly wind,
which by now you have mistaken as me nodding back
and forth like a Hasid in prayer or a mother who has just
lost her son to gunfire in Detroit. I have not disappeared.

In my children, I see my bulging face
pressing further into the mysteries.

In a library in Tucson, on a plane above
Buenos Aires, on a field where nearby burns
a controlled fire, I am held by a professor,
a General, and a photographer.
One burns a finely wrapped cigar, then sniffs
the scented pages of my books, scouring
for the bitter smell of control.
I hold him in my mind like a chalice.
I have not disappeared. I swish the amber
hue of lager on my tongue and ponder the drilling
rigs in the Gulf of Alaska and all the oil-painted plovers.

When we talk about limits, we disappear.
In Jasper, TX you can disappear on a strip of gravel.

I am a life in sacred language.
Termites toil over a grave,
and my mind is a ravine of yesterdays.
At a glance from across the room, I wear
September on my face,
which is eternal, and does not disappear
even if you close your eyes once and for all
simultaneously like two coffins.

Major Jackson is the author of four collections of poetry: Roll Deep (2015, Norton), Holding Company (2010, Norton); Hoops (2006, Norton); and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. He is the editor of Countee Cullen: Collected Poems (2013: Library of America). He has published poems and essays in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Callaloo, The New Yorker, Poetry, Tin House, and other literary publications. Jackson is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Writers' Award and has been honored by the Pew Fellowship in the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation in conjunction with the Library of Congress. He served as a creative arts fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He lives in South Burlington, Vermont, where he is the Richard Dennis University Professor at the University of Vermont. He serves as the Poetry Editor of The Harvard Review.

Photo courtesy of Major Jackson

Author's Statement

Beyond the obvious affirmation and financial support, to me, something in the fellowship award from the NEA that summons a kind of negation of all that I pile up before me as reasons to abandon writing, which is difficult because writing, for the most part, is as natural as lifting my eyes and asking the visible world, the finch and the evergreens, my fellow morning commuters alongside me stuck in traffic: What does it all mean?; Why are we here?; and then, to the invisible land of the ancestors: What exists on the other side?; Is there turmoil there, too?  How easy to avoid the terror of not knowing and the terror of questing towards infinitesimal insights or putting language in the service of non-utilitarian pleasures, either through exhibitions of private doubt or by spending an extra hour dithering here or there or excusing myself from such work because of the demands of the wack-a-whirl.  An NEA fellowship makes me accountable, once again, to the artist in me, to the gifts, joys, and pleasures of making language into art, which frankly rival my greatest moments of happiness. With the assistance of an NEA, my year will be spent journeying towards a better understanding of race, history, violence, and art – themes to which I have consistently returned, not necessarily all at once, but poem to poem.