"New Cartography"

introduction for a reading by Major Jackson

Herman Beavers, Associate Professor of English & Director of the Afro-American Studies Program
April 24, 2002

It's my great pleasure to introduce to you, a poet of incredible distinction, and one whom I'm honored to be sharing the podium with this evening. Major Jackson, lately from New Orleans—or as they say down there "N'Awlins"—is yet and still North Philadelphia's native son returned. And, reading his work, one cannot help but notice his great concern for departures and arrivals, his awareness of leaving's inherent costs.

Reading his work—with all the pleasure that entails—I was struck by the tenderness one finds suffused in his work. At the same time, make no mistake that Jackson understands that we discover tenderness only after we have come through the fire, after we have experienced an apocalypse of the self. Without a doubt, Major Jackson is a singer of great power, but upon reading his poems, I felt myself carried on a wave of a different sort: the music running through his poems is as much hip/hop—as it is jazz-inflected, as aware of the music to be found in Cezanne's landscapes, as he is of the blasted strains to be found in a North Philadelphia housing project.

All this is to say that what was most striking to me about Major Jackson's work is its compelling engagement of those things dangerous. Though we have had the blues to help us navigate the treacherous waters of the urban sea, Jackson has looked into himself and found a new cartography; his poems are in themselves acts of mapmaking—from North Philadelphia to Oregon, from 2nd and Vine to Center City, Philadelphia, from the scarification that is life in the projects to the inner beauty no tenement can deny. To paraphrase one of his poems, Major Jackson has been called—no small or insignificant thing in our community; one is both blessed and charged-and what we find is that he lights our way to a new way to think about the costs of being black and male in this all-too-lonely place.

If a dying Robert Hayden could call upon Huck and Jim to protect his grandson, Major Jackson poems speak to his decision to live. His poems call upon the spirits, break free of their earthly bonds to ponder time and time again what it means to enter into ourselves and walk in space. Please join me in welcoming Major Jackson to the Kelly Writers House.