Angela Jackson: The Novel as Luminous Web

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

It is not uncommon for writers to use many genres to provoke thought about historical time. It is unusual, however, to consider that the interplay of genres shapes our larger visions of time and life.

Reading a stanza from Angela Jackson’s poem “The Spider Tells Her Horror Stories”

Even I
have no sufficient howl.
Not enough thunder
in the cups of my eyes
To slit irises, let out
the barren spaces, the
besieged lives.

[[Dark Legs and Silk Kisses: The Beatitudes of the Spinners (Evanston, IL: Triquarterly Books, 1993), pp. 38-39]]

against, or in tandem with, her novel Where I Must Go, brings into being what Nathan A. Scott, Jr. described wonderfully in Visions of Presence in Modern American Poetry (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). Echoing H. D. Lewis, Scott argued that the end toward which poetic art is devoted is the apprehension and disclosure of “the character of particular things in the starkness and strangeness of their being what they are” (2). Along with the recognition that it is quintessentially “poetic,” I Must Go brings the mystery of presence into our line of vision. Jackson’s novel is a luminous web. Once you enter the poetic architectonics of the web, you are caught in remembering the seductive discord between the popular culture in the 1960’s and the life-serious activities of the Civil Rights Movement and integration in higher education, of the rise of Black Studies and Black Power and Afrocentricity, and of Time’s sweeping of us all into modes of the post-whatever. The quality of remembering, need it be said, is directly dependent on whether you were there in the 1960’s or only born into consciousness in the late 1990s.

The first-person narration Jackson uses in constructing a story about events at Eden University (substitute Northwestern University in your acts of discerning referentiality) obligates you to pay attention to the work of language in occasioning aesthetic experiences and in sponsoring perplexity about what you thought you understood about American and African American life in the last century. Jackson dislocates racially-marked certainty about the texture of urban experiences, education, and the properties of womanist thinking that has been baptized by Roman Catholic ideologies. Jackson is a poet and novelist who demands much of her readers. That fact may explain, in part, why Where I Must Go has not been anointed with rivers of praise and has received scant notice from those who canonize African American novels. Habitation in a luminous web requires labor and love.