One stereotypical image of a writer is a mysterious figure, sitting in a room that is darkened but for a desklamp, hunched over a notepad (or typewriter, or laptop…). The particulars of the scene may vary, but one thing remains constant: the writer is alone.
A. Van Jordan’s poetry seems to be written not by a lone wolf, but rather a gracious host and talented entertainer, ready for good conversation about anything from pop culture topics like superheroes and sports, to high-brow subjects such as history and physics. Jordan keeps good company, and he wears his inspiration on his sleeve. His poems are often told from the perspective of various personae, real figures and fictional alike, and his books therefore read like fantasy dinner parties that join the likes of Albert Einstein, Nat King Cole, The Flash, and Mel Brooks. Luckily for us, Jordan invites the reader to sit like a fly on the wall and watch the whole thing unfold.
M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, Jordan’s first book, takes as its inspiration MacNolia Cox, who, in 1936, became the first African American to reach the final round of the national spelling bee. Jordan does not stop at recounting MacNolia’s life, lingering on intimate details from first kisses to marital infidelity, but also looks at broader themes of racism and gender roles in the United States during MacNolia’s lifetime. Jordan also looks at the flexibility, malleability, structure and limitations of language. Throughout this book are several poems based on definitions of words, particularly interestingly prepositions like “to” and “with.” Below is a video of Jordan reading his poetic definition of the word “from”:
Jordan’s most recent book of poetry, The Cineaste, is inspired by some of his favorite films. This book beautifully enacts what seems to come so naturally to Jordan: fusing opposites and, in so doing, showing how they are not so opposite after all.
The Cineaste, like M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, tackles both the most intimate, personal moments in an individual life, and the most collective and public forces at work in the larger world. His poetry builds, then detonates dualities, showing us how boundaries, when closely studied, blur and bleed into each other. Take, for example, his poem “Nosferatu,” in which the speaker says, “Call me what you may– / Nosferatu, Dracula, A. Van,” and we feel the line between actor and audience, fiction and reality, writer and subject, begin to bend:
I am, caught between a woman and a sunrise;
as I see the hint of light rising
over the mountains, I choose to stay.
Instead of striking fear through
another night, I roll over into her
embrace, leaving–for all she will remember–
the scent of smoke from one of her dreams.”
Here, Nosferatu and A. Van are somehow one and the same, both antiheroes, darkly and tantalizingly smouldering in the sun, so consumed by desire that they forget about death. This poem raises the question of whetherwe watch films like Nosferatu to escape from our lives, to live vicariously, or to see our internal, subconscious desires and fears played out on the screen. Is this poem an act of fantasy, or a nightmare? Jordan might very possibly say that the answer is: both.
“Nosferatu” demonstrates that Jordan’s writing through personae is not an evasion of confession, but rather another means through which to create vulnerability and honesty. In assuming different perspectives, Jordan moves towards uncovering, understanding, and articulating the human experience. Whether he is giving voice to his own memories, or to the myths and histories of names we’ve read in books and seen on the big screen, Jordan’s poetry does not just enter into conversation with texts, but also interrogates and celebrates the world in a manner that is thoughtful, thought-provoking, complex, and joyous.The old films that Jordan loves are not really black and white at all, and neither is his poetry: both are layered in shades of gray, full of shadows, observing, imitating, enacting, and grasping at the universal.
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