2015 PEN Open Book Award Finalist
Angela Jackson’s latest collection of poetry borrows its title from a lyric in Barbara Lewis’s 1963 hit single “Hello Stranger,” recorded at Chess Records in Chicago. Like the song, Jackson’s poems are a melodic ode to the African American experience, informed by both individual lives and community history, from the arrival of the first African slave in Virginia in 1619 to post-Obama America.
It Seems Like a Mighty Long Time reflects the maturity of Jackson’s poetic vision. The Great Migration, the American South, and Chicago all serve as signposts, but it is the complexity of individual livesboth her own and those who have gone before, walk beside, and come afterthat invigorate this collection. Upon surveying so vast a landscape, Jackson finds that sorrow meets delight, and joy lifts up anger and despair. And for all this time, love is the agent, the wise and just rule and guide.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Angela Jackson is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Voo Doo/Love Magic (1974); Dark Legs and Silk Kisses (TriQuarterly, 1993), which won the Carl Sandburg Award; and And All These Roads Be Luminous (TriQuarterly, 1998). She has also written several plays, including Witness! (1978), Shango Diaspora: An African-American Myth of Womanhood and Love (1980), and When the Wind Blows (1984). Her novel Where I Must Go (TriQuarterly, 2009) won the American Book Award. Jackson’s honors include a Pushcart Prize, TriQuarterlys Daniel Curley Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, the Academy of American Poets Prize, and grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council. Jackson lives in Chicago.
Read an Excerpt
It Seems Like a Mighty Long Time
By Angela Jackson
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 2015 Angela Jackson
All rights reserved.
The Fabric of Our Lives
The streets had a cushion then
And streetlights shone like satin.
The wind gave us lashes
our parents wore
on their backs.
Mothers, fathers made velvet; saw by satin
sounds of dreamers. Medium brown
in touch with spirits, rejected
just enough to be tough
Enough to be proud.
Everyone remembered cotton, the bolls of it,
their backs still holding the bow,
arms, hands still holding the pick,
the toil of it.
Our cushioned streets
so many beats from cotton.
Wearing the wind's warp and woof.
The trees so bright, each leaf
I was crowning marble-Mary with bright
colored flowers. I, in pastel silk,
quiet, closed as a girl-queen, not light
as those girls like butter, milk.
He worked three-leven, the post office,
from lifting sacks, to punching in zip codes.
She cooked, scrubbed, till she felt it in her wrist.
Did it for us to walk new aisles, roads.
Me, among rows and rows of brown-black grads
in full white wedding dresses, so white they
shine in a church of arches, sublime, sad
windows that tell each of us to pray.
I walk the aisle this day and memory.
Flowers, now, for the ones who really love me.
My father nibbled our cheeks
like a king nibbling pears, one at a time,
holding each perfectly still. Our mouths shaped O
in infant ecstasy.
A love so fierce and tender!
His mustache brushed like livid breath
upon our new skin. We loved that too.
He turned his right leg into a horse
and let us ride, bumping along through
a safe life.
At the post office, a king among men,
carrying the heavy sacks of letters, swollen
urgent shapes, did he dream of the hard
pears in his father's yard on that tree
pears turned ripe and sweet?
Later, what an imperfect king, prone
to temper, he whipped us into lineage.
Tolerating nothing he deemed outside
the rule of his kingdom.
A love so fierce and fearsome!
Like any king he offered us protection.
We were arrogant beggars who accepted
his food, his shelter, and conspired
against him in whispers, until we
at distance learned to love him like pears
Now my sister has a pear tree in her front yard.
Pears rain down onto her porch, bruise and bleed
on concrete, or gray squirrely squirrels high in branches
cast down pears they've ruined
with their mean teeth.
My Father's Prayers
Every morning my father prayed on his knees
at the side of his marriage bed. He bowed
his head and poured his prayers into two loose fists
over his mouth. We watched in wonder
as the one who could give a whipping
and scald us with his tongue turned
into a penitent child; obedient and
intense, petitioner. We lurked around his doorway
like cowardly debtors observing his
rich rite of passage into the working day
or weekend that worked also, except
for Sunday when he got up, dressed
in his best, put on his hat and went
calling on relatives, our Aunt Tumpy
who had a piano. He could make it
talk; the keys jangling an entrance
to Paradise. Blue fire in his fingers. He threw his head back
and let his hands go with his relaxed, ecstatic body.
And with each sound he threw away or burned
away everything that hurt a man or
brought him to his knees.
I rouse her and she looks at the clock.
I could not sleep in the noisy dark. We dress.
We go down to the basement together.
It is the hour between midnight and one
o'clock. Upstairs the radiators are singing, raw
without lubricant, grinding without protection.
My mother turns the key
in the padlock.
I hold the light, a circle around her.
walk over the wet, concrete floors.
My mother holds the tiny oil can.
I hold the heavy light.
She squeezes oil into the furnace pipe;
the place where oil goes
The basement was my father's
Behind us is a dark, grimy counter where he worked.
He knew what he was doing
and he did it
In the darkness I see him, ghost-light, moving, working
at his workbench. His shoulders a study of what it means
to hold together a house with wife and children inside.
In the darkness he is a youngish man, then old,
holding together promises made in centuries of unremunerated toil,
in the hustle and rustle of the city.
His is uncharted territory to me. The masculine wonder
and defeat. The victory.
Now, after midnight,
the loneliness of this territory
cries out to us.
We hurry back up the stairs.
Stumbling through the light.
My mother could not understand how it happened
That her brother's son died in his car on the railroad tracks
When it was struck by a train.
She could not understand that grim bewitching hope
That clung to the tips of his fingers stubborn as calluses
As he turned the key in the ignition.
The motor turned over and went back to sleep like a grouchy husband
Who will not listen when the wife shakes him awake
Because the house is on fire; the engine died
In its sleep,
They were dreaming then, my cousin and his friend,
Of a grand escape with the hot breath of the train on the side
Of their fear sweaty faces (steel had never split ribs and splashed blood
Past split skin, and their skulls had not been left crushed and leaking).
They were dreaming of being old men in slippers
Telling the story of how they got away just
Mama in Blue, White, and Love
Was this in your blue
print? That I be tempted by blue
devils to cry instead of laugh thunderously?
Is this the song (not blues)
you planned for me?
When did you map it out meticulously
in the midnight
house in a country of white as dead bones
laws that would have struck you blind
instead of right to witness winning blue sky
for your honest dream
for me? You kept dreaming.
Do you recall how white
people could do anything
to people of our hue or genes?
Once your family fled north
to avoid the twisted gray rope.
Were you working on the print for me
then when you returned?
Or were you born with it as a fingerprint?
Or a footnote?
Did you walk your map for me
and daughters in blue
stockings and uniforms
or bare legs who write with soft
palms what you wrote with hard
caress and powerful grip against hot
trouble, hot blue
water in a tub in an open
yard in a closed land.
The parts of your life I cannot
consider, did you?
The short order courses of the hotel kitchen
where your coworker spit
in nasty whites' food,
did you serve the blue
Weren't you special
who brought everything good you could
home to us? Did you draw a daughter in blue
jeans off to a wide dream amid blue
books, African-American blue
blood with no register beyond the reckoning
of my life and yours?
Was I in your blue
print: a blues
note amid blue
racers weaving? Is it once in a blue
moon I kiss your blue
collar and pin your blue
ribbon in your gray-white hair?
In My Father's House Are Many Stories
For George "Sunni Man" Jackson, 1921–1993
My father made a garden by an expressway; the topsoil was grime, and neglected foot steps. My mother could not wash the exhausted soil from her windows for longer than the time it took her hands to heal from the hot vinegar solution. (They did not quit bending this mother, this father, bending from deep in the back. They did not quit straightening things contrived in crookedness.)
Every day is a form of trying. Every day in my memory is a gesture beyond acquiescence, though the whole city, the weight of it, suffocated and stunted portions of the self, clipped the wings of the dance, garbled some poem. I do not remember the blues as simple defeat. Every time I open my mouth is a form of trying.
If all word of me be used up and lost like newspapers rolling over and over on the way to the blind slam against a building, all my rolling a gesture beyond acquiescence. The earth will love me. Or I will wiggle through the cracks contrived to break my mother's back and I will blossom in the memory of footsteps in the way they did not quit.
My father returned to Mississippi to build a second story to the single story frame house where I was born after five others. He made space for daughters and sons of daughters, safe under one roof definite as blues sky he would lift into place with his hands that trembled a little with agitations sometimes when he could not call a piece of memory or story as fast as once.
He lifted that house on blocks and opened the roof to a wide dream too unfinished for him to stay inside. He moved around his mother's house amid dust and mice, to feast on dreams prepared in the monotony of the post office factory he hates to the death of every day. He nods to the boarded mouth of his father's house, to the pear tree, to the pecan, to the torn swing swaying air, no body cooling on the cooling boards. No story waiting for audience there.
Once, come Chicago-home from Home, he stood in the kitchen doorway, frightened still by the shining ghost who stood at the foot of his mother's high bed, speechless, both of them ghost and fleshed-out ghost, my father, nervous and certain of the visitation Mama disputed with reason crafted to quell his excitement. The northern sun crowded us together into the kitchen of that yellow frame house. My father's memory grew wider, open to fancies, fluencies.
Remember Germany. Where women and children called him "swartze" and king. Benevolent despot of nylons and candies. All the hero he ever was crooning out and in through black skin, turned barbed wire like the fences across the river where American Japanese waited in embrace throughout the war. Swartze king came home to barbed wire. He remembers Germany.
Once as a boy riding with Uncle Sweet in their father's wagon, a star fell down in a field near the road and lit the earth, earth opened up, brightness blossoming to near blindness. His Papa stopped the wagon and waited for some word to call this wonder to pass between them. But everywhere was mean, so he hid this in some narrow corridor to the great chambers he would only learn to live in a song, momentary and wry.
A thousand-fold the shame-story told over and again disguised as trickery in my father's eye. Triumph told and told lest shame sit in his mouth, and rot his teeth, and sink his cheeks, and his face be skull. All those mouths to feed. And the mouth of a dream yawning like an emperor bored with the pain of the peasant. The be-ringed hand across the mouth of a city, a country that called him nigger and worse while he denied degradation. And we children sang our songs into fans of summer that flew back song like amplified angels, death-defying because he and she made it so. A long window to shout out to the streets of the naked emperor who would not remember our names.
We grew swift on his anger, my father deposed and eloquent. We learned flight and early reply graceful as the path of stars rising out of the earth in a twist of his grand memory.
This is the second story of my father's house.
Children, hewn from wood of the tree he tells about that waters itself. That story. Blues songs and lost harmonicas, house shoes we bought he would not wear. Walking on the sides of his feet tracing the shape of his mother's grave and the edge of his own in hers.
Stories told a thousand times. And wife as sharp angel had heard all the telling. Stories. Not enough building to hold all the children inside.
In his century-lived, gone mother's house did he see at night in the tree-thick dark a leaf of light at the foot of the bed? Did it rattle and reach to speak? What did he reply? What did he say as a boy when the star-swallowing earth grew a coat of bright color that blazed and blazes this moment he will not lose? And the story of his destiny is written more quietly than he wanted in this moment and that when the earth itself opened and light came out the center of the dark to meet the light that tumbled from sky giving my father voice for dream I give back to him now. His story amplified by a gift of tongues. A house sheltering wonder and shame.
House with sunroof, skylight, windows, and tree that waters itself inside the great and listening chambers where begins the beat of a blues he gave himself to singing on a cruise on the Mississippi River. That house solid, constructed of deliberate hands and intelligent will, many roomed, stories, blues he lives inside and beyond beyond oh, beyond acquiescence.CHAPTER 2
Hair brushed and bound. They
Sat up all night on the train.
Traveling between the wing of a Crow
And the sleeves of a moon white
As latrines in the South they were
Their shoes tied to calves, the laced legs
Hidden. They longed to help rouged
Pink ladies enough to send money home.
And live at Elam on their own—
Sunday tea and gentlemen callers.
After Elam, freedom, wedlock or not.
But what husband could save a woman
From a crow's wing of the South
Or crow's feet anywhere?
Or the moon's sleeves with anything
Up them to ruin girl's reputation
Or send her high on the rustle of doves?
Or shine on a bed in which she must lie
Listening to the grinding of teeth
Wondering: Is it me? Will I be happy
By and by?
She'd make her bed hard
And turn over often.
And he'd turn over with her.
And what was hard was hot.
If she had to burn for all her mistakes,
Why not then, with him,
If anyone smelled her burning
They could bring cold water.
Not a glass, but a bowl of porcelain
Perfect as the ubiquitous northern moon.
Excerpted from It Seems Like a Mighty Long Time by Angela Jackson. Copyright © 2015 Angela Jackson. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Mississippi Summer 3
The Fabric of Our Lives 7
Perfect Pears 9
My Father's Prayers 11
Mama in Blue, White, and Love 15
In My Father's House Are Many Stories 17
Elam House 23
The Day after All Saints Day Is All Souls Day 25
Her Memory Coming Home 26
Photograph: Circa 1960 28
A Thousand Pages 29
After Work 35
The Red Line Is the Soul Train 41
Notes above the Stream, a Part of the Stream 45
A Woman Was Being Raped 47
IV Suite: Ida
Ida Watches 51
Two Trains 52
Did Ida B. Wells Ever Pass Bessie Smith on the Boulevard? 53
Looking Back 59
Hot Pink Flamingoes 61
The Scarf 64
The Rape of Memory 66
American Justice 73
In These Times 75
Warm Weather 76
Beginner's Luck 77
Niger: No Exit 82
The Last Door 87
Glory Land 89
Haiti, It Has Been Thirty Years Since I Last Saw You 97
The Moment of Arrival 99
The Smoke Queen 103
The Good Neighbor Observes the Celebrity Next Door 107
You Do Not Know the Hour 109
Heaven Is No Recompense 110
For Gwen, On Her Passing 111
The Poem in the Pocket 113
Faith II 115
An African Reunion 116
The Ritual Calendar of Yes 118
April 6, 1991 123