What truly makes a home?
While this is a pretty common question literature has posed to its readers, oftentimes authors have a number of deeper considerations to make when writing about something so fundamental to who they are. How can a writer rebuild a home from words alone? How is that connection with the reader formed so that we can not only picture the sights, sounds, and smells of the writer’s upbringing in our own minds, but also perhaps receive another person’s nostalgia as something both new and familiar?
In her new collection, More Than Meat and Raiment, Angela Jackson crafts a complete home in verse and shows us the stitching that makes the self, in all its full beauty and pain.
To put it simply, More Than Meat and Raiment is the triumphant return of an iconic Chicagoan. Jackson, the current Illinois Poet Laureate and a former National Book Award nominee, has created a long list of poetry collections, plays, and novels that blend myth and memory. Her latest collection reads like a magnum opus on her experience growing up on the South Side of Chicago and highlights the breadth and grace of an author who has worked across multiple genres.
Jackson approaches her poetry like an oral storyteller or verse journalist, detailing childhood narratives of catching fireflies with her younger sister and racing through traffic with a mouthful of grape bubblegum on her way out of the corner store, as well as reflections on resilience in the face of violence and loss. Some poems clearly show the influence of her work in fiction through their structure and movement, while others, such as “Hero House,” mimic the way memories often return in uneven patterns when remembering someone from our past:
“9. He plants his eggplants
Grows an impure fruit of heart.
Withdraws in shadows.
10. Builds Delta for us.
Eleven tiny rooms wait.
He comes back. White hair.
11. Hero hard to breathe.
They move him. A bed of greens.
Where he goes we love.”
The collection is a patchwork of these memories, and the poet masterfully lays out her poems in a way that allows each moment to shine on its own while also building into a larger portrait. Jackson creates layers upon layers in her work, weaving together personal, city, and national histories, family legacies, and elements of the Black Arts Movement, Hausa folklore, food, religion, and more—which makes More Than Meat and Raiment a collection that rewards second and third reads with specific themes in mind. Even images that appear minor at first glance bloom in importance when one begins actively looking for them, such as the way nature and the city find a way to live harmoniously together. In “The Garden” for example, Jackson writes how “sweet blackberries breaking / on the sidewalk” grew on their own while her father planted “greens, beans, okra, peppers, / eggplant, onions, tomatoes” and her mother stored them in mason jars. But later we see how those same fruits and vegetables became the ingredients they used for holiday meals, which would ultimately become the memories she now holds.
It can be a joy to pull upon a thread of theme or imagery and see the ways they stitch throughout the work, but when taken together, the true weight of the project comes into full view. The home Jackson writes vividly about can’t be confined to simple physical descriptions or sensations, nor can it be defined by her own single experience, as she states “I am the memory borrower, brothers and sisters. / I will keep you safe and sacred. I am a keeper. / I can take up where you left off” in her poem “The Memory Borrower.” Instead, More Than Meat and Raiment shows us that the neighborhoods we hold most dear are worlds in and of themselves, built through generations of families, cultures, traditions, and stories. And while we may call them home for a time, we are also just one life among many, our memories too will be borrowed and kept alive when we’re gone.
Of course, Jackson says it best in her title poem:
“Who you are is who you are—a-blaze
Inside, a-bloom, a-risen, all the ages
You have ever been remember
All the stories you were ever told
All the stories you ever told
All the songs you ever heard sung
All the song you could barely hum
All of these winding around inside you
Like a choir of remembrance.”
More Than Meat and Raiment
By Angela Jackson
Published January 15, 2022
Michael Welch is a daily editor for the Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review Online, Iron Horse Literary Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. Find him at www.michaelbwelch.com and @MBWwelch.