We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Like Robert Frost, Rodney Jack (1964–2008) could easily be classified as a nature poet, as the central arenas for the conflicts that arise in his poems are more often than not settings most “natural.” Yet also entirely unnatural: out of doors and in the woods, yes, but deeply complicated by the philosophical and psychological conundrums that beset the speaker. Perhaps the question that most preoccupies his speaker concerns what lies between the accidental and the intentional.
It’s clear that in his poems Jack adhered to the belief that poetry would itself bear out the truth, however haphazard the path. Is not the task of poetry to reverse the accident, render it intentional, and therefore understandable? It’s no accident that the squirrel (a totemic figure in his life’s work) “scamper[s] down from hemlock” to find its death beneath the wheels of the car Jack drives, as recounted in “Upon Seeing a Squirrel, Dead, By Natural Causes.” The animal is an emblem, and the means of its demise is most unnatural, as Jack well knew. The “natural cause” is the author himself, as he admits the creature is “roadkilled” by him. Or, as he explains in “Waving Off the Path,” “Nature’s gift is decomposition, accepting a thing whole.”
In reading these poems, one experiences a most peculiar marriage of brutality and generosity, for Jack’s work is at once direly intimate, intellectually rigorous, and emotionally devastating. At the time of his death by his own hand at the age of 43, Jack’s poems had appeared in a number of journals, but he had yet to publish a collection. These poems were selected from among the three unpublished manuscripts he left behind.
—Cate Marvin and Wayne Johns
The Who, the You, and I
By order of taxonomy and cosmology,
on the road to Insignificance from Inception,
when I find myself raising my voice to you,
I admit, I don’t know who I’m dealing with.
Mutant and colorful what can substantiate
the facts about us, in art, in nature,
for example, in math the formula’s rudimentary:
the product, or the quotient of opposites is always
expressed in the negative. As proof I submit
the following equation:
I could call you on the phone, you would understand
every word, but you prefer I hand-deliver the transcript.
Can’t say I’d blame you, should you choose to hold
the hard copy for yourself, in the flesh.
Upon Seeing a Squirrel, Dead, by Natural Causes
Scampering down from the hemlock,
over the snowbed, light as snow
itself uncompacted. Discretion
in such dire matters I admire.
Roadkilled by me, speeding
on my made way, causing this display—
the body in dishonor of a higher pact
to hold one’s self in mind
agile and fast.
Couldn’t it have just died in the nest,
the elements carrying the body and spirit off?
Or have a raptor do the work?
I ask questions I don’t care
to learn the truth about.
I love to hear myself
talk, exhibit my terminal illnesses
for family and friends to remember me by.
Instead of falling in the out of doors,
in clear view of the world.
Because it wants
so desperately to be
out of the situation
the discomfort over-
rides clear thought,
its purpose is purely sensual,
and a deprivation of the senses
In that it wants out
and it wants in
The Third Child
begins when winter begins,
ends only when
God knows when.
It remembers a memory
of himself—for sure.
The day can be clear as day,
and always any old mockingbird
singing the same old song:
where you are is not where
you belong; and where you live
is not what you want by far.
Pull out the bright red book.
Flip through the leaves barefoot.
Take note of the squirrel,
who takes note of you?
Since we’re mostly alone
most of the time
in our dreams, or lack thereof,
our oneliness peopled by phantom figures,
none of them tactile, within reproach,
does it stand
to reason one’s reliance on I?
For example, driving alone,
in another’s truck,
I am on my way
(having passed it twice or more)
to the convenience store.
Window frame and corners of a dresser
star in a situation comedy cast by the outside light source.
In the inaudible room, alone with the body
I find unattractive, the graphic appears
spectacular. On the screen: the total offering
afforded by the disposition of the hip’s
sequence in a slide show, how could I
deny such a thing? Only afterwards
does the once hot skin chill, instantly then,
as from a fever slung backwards.
What it takes to procreate, all that shoulder-work wasted,
what we’ve done, we did together.
Yet, with a prisoner’s flawless hindsight,
to say I’m sorry would be like adding salt.
Though my feelings are inconclusive,
nevermind, “Don’t look back,” how about looking ahead?
I might find what I got rid of there, letting go
what I’ve learned to live with instead.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
in your carpeted office you lay my life down / and say open up to that small room in my sternum.
In his new book, the former Fed chair cuts through economic orthodoxy on central banking. But he fails to reckon deeply with its political consequences.