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Poet's Choice

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

XIII.

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.)

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