By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, April 2, 2006
Tending a garden, holding a pen: two symbols of civilization. Cultivation and writing, skills developed by previous generations, imply hope that in the future someone will be present to consume the produce or to read the writing.
In his book Hoops , Major Jackson emphasizes a garden's hopeful and civilizing qualities by depicting two generations at work on a patch of earth. The grandfather resists the decay of his neighborhood and responds to a crime by planting a garden. The grandson vows to continue the work with a pen:Urban Renewal
The backyard garden wall is mossy green
and flakes a craggy mound of chips. Nearby
my grandfather kneels between a row of beans
and stabs his shears into earth. I squint an eye,--
a comma grows at his feet. The stucco's
an atlas, meshed-wire continents with leaders
who augured hate, hence ruins, which further sow
discontent. We are weeding, marking borders,
a million taproots stacked in shock. Forty years
from a three-story, he has watched the neighborhood,--
postwar marble steps, a scrubbed frontier
of Pontiacs lining the curb, fade to a hood.
Pasture of wind-driven litter swirls among greasy
bags of takeouts. Panicles of nightblasts
cap the air, a corner lot of broken TVs empties
and spills from a suitcase of hurt. Life amassed,
meaningless as a trampled box of Cornflakes.
When a beggar cupped for change outside
a check-cashing place then snatched his wallet,
he cleaned a .22 revolver & launched this plot. Tidal
layers of cement harden men born gentle as the root
crops tended south, the city its own bitter shrine.
We crouch by watering cans. He pulls a paradise of kale
and shakes root-dirt that snaps like a shadow lost in time.
Tomato vines coil by a plot of herbs. Far from the maddening
caravan of fistfights, jacked-rides, drunkards,
my pen takes aim from the thumbnail of his yard.
It may be that Jackson at the end of this poem deliberately echoes Seamus Heaney's "Digging," which is mostly a description of the poet's father digging potatoes or cutting turf with a spade. Heaney's closing lines are,
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
Whether these lines by the Irish poet are alluded to or not, they are more evidence that Jackson is invoking a traditional, deep relation between the two kinds of work. Digging and writing break the surface to sustain life, and they foster the growth of something new out of the old richness. In "we crouch by watering cans" and in the cleaned revolver, there is a prudent courage, unsentimentally stubborn and protective. Since "XIII" is the first poem in the sequence, I take it to indicate the poet's age at the time, with subsequent poems for each year through "XX." The severity of the Roman numerals throughout the teenage years suggests a tribute to the inspiring, resolute and serious work of the grandfather.
(Major Jackson's poem "Urban Renewal" is from his book "Hoops." Norton. Copyright © 2006 by Major Jackson.)