I’m ferociously cramming contemporary poetry into my head this semester in an attempt to force-feed my brain. Ostensibly, I’m a poet—but only because I’m taking a graduate-level poetry-writing workshop. I’m trying to figure this shit out, trying to figure out what I am and what I’m not by reading lots of stuff by poets who are.
I’ve taken recommendations from friends and classmates. I’ve browsed random collections at the bookstore. I’ve looked up names I’ve heard once upon a time and barely remembered. I’ve returned to old favorites.
Gary Jackson’s Missing You, Metropolis (Graywolf Press, 2010) caught my eye because it was about comic books. Or so I thought.
Like all of today’s best comic books, Missing You, Metropolis has a lot more going on in it than just action heroes. It’s sophisticated, witty, and thought-provoking—and it doesn’t require a fanboy’s sensibilities or background to appreciate.
Some of the poems capture what “real life” must be like for superhumans and the people around them. An old washed-up Juggernaut, riding out his retirement years, uses his super-strength to take on all-comers in arm-wrestling tournaments. Mary Jane Parker makes her husband, Peter, have sex with her while wearing his Spider-Man costume “because she likes to pretend Spider-Man is her other lover.” Lois Lane hopes Clark Kent, just once in the quiet of their kitchen over dinner, will bleed a little when he pretends to cut himself because she’s desperate for a glimpse of him as a non-super human.
Other poems capture the experience of reading comics, “the power to inhabit a world a page removed from our own.” For young kids, it’s about escape and adventure and wish fulfillment. As the boys get older, they adopt superhero names and chat with girls online while wishing they had real girls to talk to instead. Sexual awakening mixes in as part of their “diet of Snickers, comics, and porn.” They talk about which superheroine they’d like to screw. “Jim says Invisible Woman,” Jackson writes. “We imagine the feel of soft air like Kansas clouds in fall./But Jim claims seeing his own dick/inside her is a sight/he can’t afford to pass up.”
Many of the poems feature Jackson and his friend, Stuart. They read comics together and grow up together—and that’s how Jackson’s poems transcend mere fanboy pap. By experiencing comic books, Jackson explores darker themes of racism, death, and the strangling ordinariness of small-time life. Stuart’s story in particular provides a tragic undercurrent to the collection: his search for identity takes increasingly darker turns, heading eventually to self-mutilation and then suicide.
Memory, too, serves as a recurrent theme. “Memory’s so treacherous,” says The Joker in the Alan Moore graphic novel The Killing Joke, which Jackson epigrams for his poem “Origin of Memory.” “One moment you’re lost in a carnival of delights…the next it leads you somewhere you don’t want to go. Memories are what our reason is based upon. If we can’t face them we deny reason itself.”
Pulitzer-winning poet Yusef Komunyaka selected Missing You, Metropolis as the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, given to the best first collection by an African American poet. “This collection captures the anguish and pathos often associated with the complexity of today’s human existence, which seems to be doubly troublesome in an era of technological adroitness and fluency,” Komunyaka writes in the book’s introduction. “Playful, jaunty, rueful, and highly serious—sometimes within a singular poem—this persona has been forged in the cauldron of popular iconography….”
That makes the characters—costumed and not—recognizable to all of us, not just fanboys. That’s what makes Missing You, Metropolis such a success.
Honestly, I thought this would serve as nothing more than a light snack in the middle of my poetry gluttony. There’s more to Metropolis, though, than meets the eye.