Review of Major Jackson’s Roll Deep

by Amanda Huynh

In his fourth poetry collection, Major Jackson’s poems stretch from intimate urban settings to child soldiers at war in Kenya. His poems capture the essence of humanity, the minuscule to the grand, in vivid details. Jackson takes his reader across borders and shows us how distance does not mean difference, and how we are all trying to survive.

His book is arranged into five sections; the first surprisingly short compared to the second. In the second section, Jackson takes his readers through Greece, Spain, Brazil, Kenya, and Italy. These poems are very lyrical and the majority of them are formatted into series. Every single one follows a similar pattern in line length, stanza length, and series embedded within. There were a handful of line breaks that happened in the middle of the sentence (like the one below) as well as lines beginning in the middle of the page. However, there were only a few of these scattered throughout these poems. They were visually pleasing, and helped the reader breathe while reading this very dense section, not just in content but with context as well.

Jackson strategically handles difficult situations, and presents them effectively to his readers. He knows when simple diction and brief sentences will cut deeper than embellished lines. The following snippet, from “XXIV: Kenya: The Dadaab Suite,” builds upon the preceding series, but delivers a heartbreaking story with simple lines:


We kicked for the same team. We prayed

next to each other on sajjada during salat.

Shabaab saw this an gave me a new gun and said

I must shoot Kassim. Now and then, they do this

to test our trust.

I see him in my dreams.

He talks! Wonders why. I killed him for

nothing. I sleep. I cry.

While most readers may not be familiar with a few of these words (“sajjada,” “salat,” “Shabaab,” “Kassim”), Jackson still brings in emotion by what he creates around this moment. He continues to create these levels of emotional engagement in the succeeding sections as well.

Section three involves issues of class and race, and focuses in on the Section Eight areas, the homeless, and poor. The poem, “On Disappearing,” is beautifully crafted as it centers itself on the fear of disappearing. The fear of disappearing connects readers and people of all backgrounds, and I believe this allows for the poem to resonate. It wraps the reader around the idea of not being gone just yet, by the narrator comparing himself with people dying in war, children dying in Detroit, and so on. In this poem, Jackson writes: “It’s too bad war makes people/disappear like chess pieces.” The levels, in which the images reside, are executed well.

The variation of his poems takes off from the third section to the end of the book. On first read, there was a fear that the whole collection would be formatted like the second section, however, the breath of fresh air was thoroughly welcomed. The book transitions from section two to section three with a drastic variation in form. While section two had very visually similar poems, section three begins to alternate between poem size and shape.

In addition, the tone shifts drastically in the fourth section. While the previous sections bolster a more serious and bleak atmosphere, a more lighthearted and humorous tone starts to peek its way through. The first poem presented, “Ok Cupid,” sings with repetition and odd images placed side by side. The language is crisp with moments of humor, but alive. In “On Cocoa Beach,” the repetition of “I am revisiting,” and the music of internal rhyme can be found in “I am revisiting the idea of light and laughter and skin,/half-transported by wind” brings color to the poem.

Overall, the collection is a wonderful read and a delight to review. From the variation of tone, poetic form, subjects, and more, it really does explore and depict the meaning behind being human.

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