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The Real Issue: Gary Jackson’s Origin Story

KS Keeney

I read Gary Jackson’s first book, Missing You Metropolis, when I was twenty-one, still getting my feet under me as an adult and poet, and was awed at the idea that you could mix poetry and pop culture at all, let alone with actual poetic skill. The book is an exploration of Jackson’s midwestern childhood and the fundamental role the tales of heroes like the Flash and Superman played in it. Looking back on the book, and myself, there is certainly an immaturity, not solely because of the subject matter, but in the voice of the speaker attempting to bury the questions surrounding the reality of his language and experience within the fictional landscape. Now, a decade after Jackson wrote Metropolis, and five years after I read it, Jackson has released Origin Story, where he seeks to explore many of the questions that Metropolis overlooked.

Framed around a series of poems crafted as erasures of conversations Jackson recorded with his mother, Origin Story focuses on the clash of cultures within his family, from his Korean grandmother, to his mixed-race mother, to his own childhood growing up in the primarily white midwest. His mother’s life, and no small amount of her personality, unfolds from these interview poems, each feeling like it reveals a new aspect of this woman, but never her whole self. The poems are as evenly constructed as they are natural, his mother’s syntax preserved. It often feels like she is haunting this book, with multiple poems dedicated to or titled after her, and the poetically reworked interviews reveal in her a sadness and melancholy that endures throughout the book. 

The heroic preoccupations of Metropolis still persist in this second work: an epigraph from Incredible Hulk #1, a poem named after a Star Trek film, and trawls through bars in Korea. However, the poems demonstrate an evolution and maturity of language, deftly moving between perspectives and tones, imbuing each with a unique voice. In “Cry Uncle” (6), we are focused on the death of Jackson’s uncle and the ways he and his cousin used fantasy to escape the difficult men in their lives. The poem ends: 

we knew men only through 
stories instead of breath or 
touch or trembling hands.

Here, we see the child Jackson mourning, both with his cousin and for his own missing experiences. The lines flow together, with rounded vowels and soft T’s quieting the violence of the rest of the poem. 

Origin Story is not a perfect book. The organization of many of the poems is confounding and the line work isn’t as clean as it could be, but it is a personal book, a processing of generations of trauma delivered in a confident series of poems. I can’t help but see hope for my own poetic future in the development between these two books, watching Jackson deftly weave his interests into these complex topics in a way that feels mature and considered. The texts our poetry relies on do not always have to be high art, but Origin Story demonstrates that they can be used in a way that does not seek to disguise a lack of depth, rather to bring a reflection of the personal in books struggling with the gravity of their material. Origin Story may have been a long time in the works, but Jackson has carefully crafted this book into a moving exploration of race, gender, diaspora, and family.

Gary Jackson

is a Topeka, Kansas-born poet and an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the College of Charleston. His first collection, Missing You, Metropolis, received the 2009 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. He was featured in the 2013 New American Poetry Series by the Poetry Society of America, and has received fellowships from Cave Canem and Bread Loaf. Origin Story, his second book, was released by the University of New Mexico Press in 2021, and is available here

KS Keeney

is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at George Mason University, where they serve as webmaster for phoebe and poetry editor for So To Speak. They also received an MA in Film Studies from Ohio University. She has been previously published in deComp, Quaker, Tishman Review, and Roanoake Review, among others. Currently, she is working on her thesis, an exploration of fashion, desire, and the body. Find her on Instagram.

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