TJ Jarrett, Zion

TJ Jarrett
Southern Illinois University Press, $15.95 (paper)

While elegies frequently riff on song and séance, homage and hallucination, it is rare to encounter an elegiac storyline as startling in its juxtapositions as America itself. TJ Jarrett’s second collection, Zion, memorializes her African American grandmother, exploring her (real or imagined) intimacy with Theodore Bilbo, the legendarily racist Mississippi governor and U.S. senator. Writing from multiple perspectives, Jarrett tells a stereoscopic story of improbable love and matrilineal mortmain, exploring how “daughters // need the bodies of our mothers to know time and its measure” and to “stand guard”—during the figurative seizures of girlhood—“to hold the tongue, to save it.” The poet’s identification with the mother tongue tracks Bilbo’s frustration that his beloved is ultimately beyond his erotic reconnaissance and, by extension, beyond his linguistic apprehension and political control. Thus Bilbo meditates on the matriarch’s naked body, bathing in a river, admitting that “there // were places I could still not enter, / a peace inside I could not reach.” In reclaiming this unassailable “interior / life, for trees or myself,” the poet imagines her grandmother’s colloquy with Bilbo as a dialectic, a contest of moral and romantic antagonism that continues in the afterlife. In Jarrett’s version of Zion—neither a conventional heaven nor a deterministic Hades—the aged matriarch absolves Bilbo of his earthly wrongdoings, a radical act of forgiveness that renders her “as surprised as anyone.” In the democracy of that incredulity, the poet rests her case.