As a rule based on experience, I tend to be skeptical and cautious toward any book that has won an award or come out of a press that sees itself as some kind of virtuous enclave; whether this is based upon race, gender, aesthetic or whatever else, more often than not I encounter such books and feel disappointed. Disappointed because as an admitted cynic, it can be very difficult to sort out of the question of how much the editor(s) found the book of genuinely powerful artistic merit and how much it served the camp to which they are clearly invested in.
This is certainly not to say all such books are artistically disappointing; there are a great many that leave absolutely no room for such questioning by way of their seemingly intrinsic momentum. ‘Missing You, Metropolis’ by Gary Jackson, unfortunately, is not such a book.
Winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, selected by Yusef Komunyakaa, this new book of poetry left me asking another question: ‘Really, Yusef?’ Yusef Komunyakaa is a poet whose work I’ve been absolutely leveled by in the past. To see his name as an endorsement on this book leaves me doubly disappointed. There’s more eloquence and imagination in Yusef’s introduction to this collection than in any of the poems that follow.
The weaknesses of the poetry are myriad and taxingly repetitive as the book drags on. Gary Jackson doesn’t so much blend the world of comic books and his own autobiographical bits as he awkwardly sets them on a stage together, hoping some of it sticks.
Along with being a cynic, I’m also an admitted graphic-novel geek, which made the stunning lack of imagination in these elements all the more strange. Pardon the pun, but on paper such motifs should really fly, should really be elevating the collection as a whole in very vibrant, action-filled ways. Sadly it remains interesting only in potential, not execution. If I were to judge these poems by the titles alone (as we all sometimes do, staring at the table of contents) I’d be frothing at the mouth with the combination of comic-book fanboy geekcitement and poetic enthusiasm, but I can say with no exaggeration that every single one fell flat, Jackson apparently kryptonite to his own alluring premise. To quote from Komunyakaa’s introduction, ‘Anything is possible in such created time and space … The funny-book world is a perfect landscape for innuendo and signification…’. While he completes this last thought by saying Jackson does so ‘aptly’, I can only agree with the former claims. Anything was indeed possible here, the landscape certainly perfect for such things, if only Jackson had shown the creative ambition to do so instead of leaning on the potentiality and hoping no one checked back up later to see if he had at all capitalized.
Past that, the allusions and plays on the elements of race-as-real-life-X-men-style-discrimination and race in general are telegraphed from so far out and laid out so simply one has to be left wondering what Jackson thought he was getting away with here. There’s no complexity, no ambiguity, no richness at all to be had in the way any of these themes play out. Nothing sets these poems apart or anchors them in any unique way to Jackson’s ideas or experiences.
This is all without elaborating in detail about his work with metaphors and imagery, often so simple as to be nonsensical and the strange section breaks which seem to this reader to be entirely arbitrary, much like the rest of the collection.
I cannot recommend this book to anyone; I however would recommend following up on Gary Jackson’s next book, to see if he decides to push himself toward finding where the road can lead once he’s discovered it’s there.