What Yellow Sounds Like

What Yellow Sounds Like by Linda Susan Jackson.
Tia Chucha Press, 2007 (80 pages)
ISBN: 978-1882688333.

The title of this debut book by Linda Susan Jackson does not lie. The sound of color is no problem for this painterly and musical poet. She grabs all our senses--her language creaks and smiles, swings, jitterbugs, roars, feels like velvet or that chair sticking to the back of your thighs on a hot day, smells like burnt hair, sweat, ironed shirts or grandma's parlor as the occasion demands.

Each poem gives us a particular camera angle, a memory scrap. Bright and enticing, the scraps seem random, but as the bits and patches juxtapose, our minds start filling in the gaps and the invisible body; the landscape underneath is revealed. And by getting us to participate, Jackson invites us in.

Using real and imagined letters, memories, family stories, Jackson weaves personal history with a richly imagined history of others. Her unflinching observation, vivid empathic response, pain, joy, and humor metamorphose into an open-hearted family geography.

The book's prologue sets the stage, gives the core cast of characters: newborn daughter, mother, father, and a question. In supporting roles aunts and uncles, grandparents, brothers and children appear around the corners of the poems to come, but the prologue anchors us in Jackson’s territory--an impasto of the observed and the questions that follow, questions whose fissures spread out through the whole span of the work.

The book is staged in four parts, which tend to group half and half. Part I opens with a girl's letter and Part II gets book-ended with a response (more on that later). The tone seems to change as we move into III and IV. It took me a while to figure out why the second half felt different; it was so subtle. But Jackson has such a sure hand with persona; there is almost a literal shift in stature. In the first half, Jackson writes with a girl's mask on. She is good at this. Reading some of these poems I physically felt small, as though seeing from about three feet off the ground. In the second half, the terrain changes because the mask changes. Jackson shifts us to full size: teenager to young womanhood to looking back on a life. She still paints her canvas with family and period and history, but the viewpoint is wryer, more knowing. Relationship to mother is no longer from the 5 or 6 year old, but the 16, maybe 20 year old and beyond.

Part I opens with a letter, touching and delightful, "Dear Miss Etta James." We feel what this young girl feels--the wild womanhood, how it's taboo in her family, and how much she yearns for some wildness in her own life. And right away Jackson establishes the musicality of her language. Forbidden to listen to Etta James records, the poet tells us:

. . . I learned
about waiting until
I was alone.
About sneaking into
my aunt's hiding places.
About ritualizing scarlet
lipstick. Pepsi on ice. Bare
feet. Crossed legs. Eyes
closed. Head back.

Between cackle and crack
as the needle scratched,
your scream and moan
rose from the wax, seized
me with feelings, no words.
From here we join a bright young girl with a questioning eye who understands more than she can articulate--fertile ground for poetry. Jackson lets us in on where she's from:

Mother told me I'm from a line
of technicolor women with mountains

of breasts and wide laps that held nursing children
or steel bowls filled with June peas . . .

("A History of Beauty")
She groups this with two family/memory oriented poems. But just as we're settling in, thinking we might smother in family stories, she skews us round to ancient Greece and Iphigenia, a completely unexpected turn. This dogleg sits as a surprise between a mother, daughter and hair processing and a girl with her brother surviving a mother in crisis. In the absence of father and daughter scenes, Jackson lets Menelaus stand in:

How Much for the Little Girl

On a dock, the day still with
anticipation, Agamemnon's
appetite draws the press
of his pride. His speech
reeks of deceit as he entreats
his daughter, Come, my lamb,
Walk with me (the distance
between a smile and a lie).

Iphigenia peers into her father's
eyes. Tears flood their cheeks
as she seeks an answer to the
question of her worth. The only
sound now is the sudden breeze
as it slaps and whips waves on all
sides of the ships, for she knows
she is the price of a favorable wind.
As I said, I felt utter girlhood during this part of the book. Even when the characters are grownups, the poems conjure meaning from observed events the way children do--they know things are important but they don’t have the prefabricated adult descriptors to tell us what they see. A wonderful example of this is "Answers May Vary"--a child's locution, a riff on rhyming word games, right to the layout on the page that rides us over some rough edges and sharp questions:

All I know is
before I turned four is
the day my father
left my mother because
he could no longer hold her is
the day my mother
packed and moved
us from their place because
it could no longer hold her is
she could no longer hold him is
the day she left me because
although a daughter I am him
You see?
The title poem launches Part II. "What Yellow Sounds Like" keystones the first half of the book and lays out a biography of Etta James as only an innately musical poet could:

That January day back in '38
somebody picked up a rainbow
and broke the sky in two,
releasing Jamesetta Hawkins . . .
It feels like the hot core of the book--the life, the explosion, the earth deep soaring rip. Jackson gives us sound and fury; she paints and skewers:

All the while, Etta stomped
barefoot on stage,
platinum hair authentically blending
with the yolk yellow scream
she hurled from the marrow of her voice
scorched and scared,

jaundiced by the freedom
of surviving a rage
simmering somewhere
between heaven and heat.
Jackson spins wonderful variations--she evokes Etta's life or mentions Etta in passing or we hear Etta's music in the background of a poem about something else. In and around Etta, Jackson leavens the mix, skillfully surprising us just when we think we know what's next. Many scenes could be old movie reels, so delicious and period is their atmosphere. There is even a poem "At Last"--our expectations tweaked; it is not a treatment of the song or even an Etta James poem per se (although she is mentioned). We step instead into another richly observed, richly period piece: "Six strapless peau de soie dresses/hung over different doors" with violins, bacon frying, percolated coffee hissing as it spills on the stove. Another slice we can't resist. Finally, to close the first half of the book, Etta writes back to the girl of Part I in a gleefully imagined letter poem, "Chile." The closing lines: "Yours forever/Miss Etta James//P.S. If you ever hit L.A., look me up." Connecting us to the girl's letter at the opening, this makes a charmed circle.

Parts III and IV shift us. We begin to see the woman working to become a poet, bringing her tools to bear on the cauldron of material she has stored up. Now the poet has her own children, her own love affairs, husband, visits to Europe and to art museums. The reflections are more rueful: the body is aging, we witness death and mourn it, dreams are in a different tone. We leave Etta behind, but Jackson weaves in yellow in all sorts of ways, subtle or shining, through to the end. The theme of yellow holds layers of charge that will resonate differently with different audiences, but she welcomes everybody along.

Underlying all Jackson's poems is deep music and musical play with language. There are sections when the caroming and play of internal rhymes and alliterations creates as much pleasure as watching a stone skipping over the surface of water, ping ping ping more times than seem possible. And despite the many disappointments, Jackson writes of emotional bonds, deep bonds, daughter mother sister brother, bonds that hold hurt but are unbreakable.

By the end, we are in deep womanhood and Jackson has another surprise. The expected trope is to open a book by invoking the muse. Jackson instead sees us out with her invocation of the muse as a culmination of her journey. "The Muse Speaks" and she has quite a bit to say. It is a long poem, in four numbered parts. This muse is knowing (as muses should be) and funny (which they aren't always) -- she and Jackson are a match for each other:

you will spill onto the lined
yellow pad, the tight skin

of your language rescues
me from damp silence.

then in 2:

You give me
a new name,
coaxing my weathered
body onto the page.
All of us who write from inside weathered bodies know whereof Jackson speaks. "Wide/words spread so thin./You've said everything."

Closing the book after this journey, I thought of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird telling Scout “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... 'til you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." On top of the stellar tactility of her language, Jackson's generosity in sharing her world is remarkable in a first book. A younger, maybe just a different poet might have hung his or her work on issues and boundaries, letting some readers in, others not, stirring the anger and guilt pots. There is a place for that, but I loved feeling welcome. It takes courage and groundedness to be that vulnerable. The work shines with it and I, for one, thank Jackson, a gifted poet with an open heart. Personally, I really look forward to the next course.

Diane Schenker has lived on the East Coast, in the Bay Area, Seattle and Paris. She currently lives and works in New York City. Her reviews have appeared in Coldfront Magazine.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761