Book Review

The first thing Gary Jackson does in origin story is confide in us. Some poems in this book, he says in an introductory note, are based off taped interviews with his mother, poems whose titles all start “Interview with. . .” He shares how he gathered the conversations, then manipulated them to remove some of the fact, leaving behind essential truths, which are easier to understand when you take out the extra noise of a verbatim chat.

After lulling us into a sense of familiarity, Jackson then gently, gently, slides his hands over our collar, as though he’s merely adjusting the fabric, lulling us in a sense of I’m being cared for with a prose poem written as dictionary definition, complete with pronunciation key, taking care to assure we’re not lost. And we follow him because, after all, he just confided in us. Then, without warning, he slides a sharp thumbnail into our skin with the word retarded, which I considered calling the R-word, but Jackson is talking of a sister who died in his youth; the switch to first-lettering that word is a relatively recent one. Using accurate terminology for that time is a way to honor an experience. By the end of origin story’s proem, titled “holoprosencephaly,” we’re covered with thumbnail slices from all the details Jackson shares so matter-of-factly. Our breathing is raw, and our heart and lungs have merged into an ache we wish we didn’t understand.

origin story is Jackson’s second poetry collection, which focuses on family history: both a geography of family and members’ biographies. His poetry explores how the personality traits and diagnoses of those we love inform the people we become, in youth and as adults; and he organizes this collection in a book that becomes like a family album, snapshots turned to poems to give readers a glimpse at the extended Jackson clan.

There’s his grandfather, separated from his grandmother. We glimpse this separation in “Storyteller,” a poem in the book’s early pages where Jackson writes, “My grandfather says we should all visit my grandmother—but never will. My grandmother laughs: He’s still in Kansas? Good.” Jackson leaves the details of this separation vague, but one of the final poems in the book, “Reunion,” gives a glimpse into the final years of the relationship. The poem is written in second person, which serves to slow the reader down a mite, to give them time to realize that the “you” is not the reader, and it is not the author: It’s the author’s mother.

there’s nothing
you can say
to get her
to remember
your name
until you show
the photo
of your father
in uniform
her in her white
gown and she calls
his name
so you call him
and put her
on the phone
and she tells him
she misses him
and when is he
going to come
and take her
away? And what
can he say except
I’m on my way

This half of the poem forgoes punctuation, giving the tone an urgency missing from its first half. The short lines add to the urgency, saying Hurry up. Visit grandma. She doesn’t have long, a message that that doesn’t need to be shared in the verbiage of the poem because it’s conveyed by the form.

There are uncles and cousins and aunts, but the most persistent presence in origin story is Jackson’s mother, whose father was Black and mother, Korean. Each chapter of this photo album in poems is devoted to a different theme, all surrounding identity. In chapter two, Jackson visits Korea. Chapter three is one brief poem, “Seoul,” spread across seven pages, about being Black in Korea. He uses metaphor to locate his identity in this foreign country: “Both drinks are cheap, but makgeolli is eight- / percent alcohol, soju is twenty: / similar to my ethnic real estate. / What’s the going rate for Black blood/Korean?”

In one of the most haunting poems of the collection—as in this poem stays with the reader like a ghost you can’t shake—Jackson tells a story about racism and about a group of white women’s cluelessness:

a woman walked up and asked how

the young Black poet the month before
could shake with such anger during

his reading. Is it really
that bad? It can’t be that bad,
can it?

. . .

here in Charleston
a nice Black man held the door open
for me and my friends
because people respect each other here
and those things you write about
don’t happen anymore.

            . . .

Then another woman
tried to help, said,

It doesn’t matter what color anyone is
as long as you’re willing to listen
to one another’s experience—
but those young people who identify
as different genders are beyond me.

In the almost two years since the murder of George Floyd, The New York Times’ best-seller list has been packed with books on racism: how to identify it, how to fight it, how to do better, why it still exists. And those hundreds of thousands of words written about the topic can’t get to the heart of the problem like “After the Reading.” It distils racism to a two-page poem. Jackson doesn’t have to say “This is a problem.” The problem is clear in the telling, leaving the reader to cover her face like she’s watching a horror movie.

The book’s four chapters are connected by the aforementioned “Interview with. . .” poems, which further detail why origin story is a verbal photo album. Through these series of erasure poems, a dozen of which are presented at each chapter’s conclusion, we learn about Jackson’s mother. We learn her opinions and how she spoke, and we feel her through the structure of the poetry: To preserve the integrity of each poem, Jackson explains in the introductory note, he condensed the space of erasures, which could sometimes cover a single word or even pages of text. The resulting work is airy and minimal, a ghost on the page that contrasts surprisingly with the meat of the poems. Consider the full text for “Interview featuring marriage advice,” which looks very different than this on the page:

mama say
this is what I want you to say
I’m looking for an American man a tall man
his retirement like six thousand a month
an old
man to get me the keys to his nice house
a good churchgoing man
that would pass and leave
but the man

Though the poem is without punctuation or capitalization, Jackson uses the full page to space out his words and create pauses. The short lines in these “Interview with. . .” free verse poems benefit from the inherent advantages of the structure. Writes poet Edward Hirsch, “The short line often gives a feeling that something has been taken away, which has proved suitable for poems of loss.” The nostalgia of viewing old photos is braided with loss, with a longing for something that can’t be anymore due to death or the simple passage of time. Hirsch continues, “It can also give the feeling of clearing away the clutter. . .” Jackson’s erasure poems are literally without clutter, as Jackson has removed it.

Though origin story is a story of family and past, it is, of course, a story about the poet. Jackson tells the reader as much in an epigraph by Lucille Clifton: “they want me to remember / their memories / and I keep on remembering / mine.”

About the Reviewer

Jaclyn Youhana Garver is a freelance writer and editor from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her poetry has appeared in Prometheus Dreaming, Poets Reading the News, Narrow Road, the Superstition Review blog, and trampset, and is forthcoming in The Oakland Review. She has also written book reviews for Entropy, The Literary Review, Poetry International Online,, and Green Mountains Review. She was a scholarship recipient and attendee at Tupelo Press’s Perfecting the Book workshop in January. She is working on her first poetry book and a novel.