We Are Soldiers in the Army of the Lord
The old gods are falling. So are we all.
Citizen, they will not tell you that falling
can be forward motion, or that freedom is less
being broken than will to rise. Go, my dark sweet girl.
Praise our fresh dead. Raise them up—
Call each by rightful name.
Have they called you animal, Citizen?
You are bone and spirit too.
Rise, girl, for we are soldiers.
This earth is littered with our fallen.
Weep not. The ground shifts
with the ghosts of the fallen. Rise.
Theodore Bilbo & I Consider the End of Days
The world we knew has fallen,
its head lolling like the dying
sunflowers of the field—
retires after its long day &
leaves Teddy & me alone
& drunk on the veranda.
drink all night,
& no one will care
where we have gone.
Under the stars & fireflies
twine our limbs
until all their light blurs into
one great weight upon us
& we'll finally untwine
this patch of earth. He'll be
just drunk enough to apologize,
say: There was the war.
We lost & I’ll say:
There was war, & a war, then
another & another &
the wind will pool
in the swelling distance between us
& he’ll grope for a word
in the dark. Abandon.
I’ll say. I abandoned you.
It could neither go on nor last.
We’ll embrace—my arms around
his back and I’ll feel something
like his heart knocking
against my opened hand &
I can’t say that I won't love him
then as now, nor that I haven’t
loved him like I love myself.
I couldn’t stay, Teddy, I’ll say.
I had to live
& he’ll watch the hills
& the cotton will pace the distance &
he’ll take in the still
he won't look me in the eye after that.
We will grieve. Our grief will blot
the light left
in the surrounding night &
the wisteria blooms will roll like
the many eyes of our dead.
grieve. We will be done with it.
At the Repast
When we gathered at the house, while the men all looked at their shoes and
the women whispered, baby, baby, baby, she sat down with a fist full of paper napkins and folded them into birds.
When she filled her hands, she crossed the room to the hearth and threw a bird into the flames, then another, then another
until she had destroyed all she created. Years later when I asked her what she meant, she couldn’t remember.
The worst has already happened to us, she said. What good is metaphor now?
TJ Jarrett is a writer and
software developer in Nashville, Tennessee. Her recent work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry, African American
Review, Boston Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Callaloo, DIAGRAM, Third Coast, VQR, West Branch and others.
has earned scholarships from Colrain Manuscript Conference and Vermont Studio Center; fellowships from Sewanee
Writer’s Conference 2014 and the Summer Literary Seminars 2012 and 2014; winner of VQR’s Emily Clark
Balch Prize for Poetry 2014; a runner up for the 2012 Marsh Hawk Poetry Prize
and 2012 New Issues Poetry Prize; and her collection The Moon Looks Down and Laughs was selected as a finalist
for the 2010 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry.
Her debut collection Ain’t No Grave (finalist
for the 2013 Balcones Prize) was published with New Issues Press (2013).
Her second collection Zion (winner
of the Crab Orchard Open Competition 2013) was published by Southern Illinois University Press in the fall of 2014.
A Review of TJ Jarrett's Zion by
Maria Browning, first published at Nashville Scene
In a recent interview at The Atlantic, Nashville poet TJ Jarrett had some fascinating things to say
about the parallels between her writing and her work as a software designer. But perhaps her most interesting comments
came in response to a question about the spirituality in her poems. "I believe in redemption," she said. "I
believe some poems are really prayer." Those beliefs are clearly evident in Jarrett's remarkable second collection,
Zion. These poems are shaped by a passionate desire to summon mercy and forgiveness in the face of terrible wrong,
and they celebrate, without a trace of sentimentality, the sustaining power of love.
There are multiple delicate narrative threads
running through Zion involving the death of Jarrett's grandmother and events in Meridian, Miss., which was a
notable battleground in the struggle for civil rights. Theodore Bilbo (1877-1947), a Mississippi politician who was famous
in his day for a particularly flamboyant brand of white-supremacist demagoguery, appears in a series of poems as a sort
of embodied spirit of American racism. He engages in an oblique dialogue with a nameless "I" who, we are led
to infer, is black and female.
It would be a disservice to Zion to say that race is one of its chief concerns, if saying so gives the
impression that this collection aspires to be social commentary, or that it is primarily focused on the personal wounds
that racism inflicts. Jarrett's poems are doing a different, deeper sort of work. They do engage personal suffering, and
many of them are about race — unquestionably and overtly so — but they are also about everything
that transcends our individual lives, our easy categories and reflexive responses. They present a spiritual or existential
inquiry into the primal challenges to our humanity.
This inquiry is especially acute and daring in the Bilbo
poems, which depict a relationship between victimizer and victimized that is freighted not only with history but also
with what can only be called love. There's a kind of moral passion at work between the two protagonists; the desire to
be forgiven is met with an equally powerful, though conflicted, desire to forgive. In "Theodore Bilbo and I Begin
Our Crossing," the initial journey toward reconciliation is indistinguishable from exile:
farther and farther out
Onto that river when a great fog
Descended upon us so that we could see
Neither the shore we left nor the shore ahead
The absolution that ultimately occurs in "Theodore Bilbo and I at Last Turn Face to Face" is a revelation to
the giver, as well as to the recipient:
But there is this:
once there was me and there was you
and from my mouth like a shock of doves
comes forgiveness. Believe me,
I am as surprised as anyone.
The Meridian poems meditate more explicitly
on the injuries of the past, and they contain an element of personal nostalgia, but like the Bilbo poems, they approach
memory obliquely, and often, through metaphor. In "Meridian, Last Night," memory is a "house still standing
and in ruin. / As it always was. As always." The resolution found in the Bilbo poems, however, is more elusive here:
The past is both retribution and reward
Now that it has been endured.
And it is right that we stand in its ruin,
Among all this longing and decay.
Seeming to stand apart from the Bilbo and Meridian poems, and yet delivered in the same uncompromising voice,
are deeply personal poems about love. Jarrett conveys the ferocious bond between mother and daughter in "1973: My
Mother Cleaves Herself in Two": "She will split / herself in two, shear the thorax, cast off the shell of herself
/ and consume what-she-was as afterbirth so that she may live." The bittersweet aftermath of romantic love gets wry
treatment in "Everything Men Know About Women":
grows heavy with all the things left unsaid
so I say: I am very happy
to fill the silence.
Jarrett has a deft but forceful style that
combines with potent subject matter to create poems of great intensity. She makes masterful and subtle use of imagery,
but the power of these poems lies more in her gift for conveying directly some of the most elusive truths of the human
heart. Many of these poems are like flashes of lightning, offering sudden, violent illumination of the kind of dangerous
feelings that often go unexpressed and unacknowledged. The collection as a whole captures something essential about the
human ability to seek love in defiance of hate and grievous injury. Jarrett's vision for our redemption is as fierce and
hard-edged as our history is brutal, and it is a stunning thing to encounter.
Click here to read a review of Zion and Ain't No Grave at The Rumpus
Click here to read
a review of Zion at Boston Review
An Interview with TJ Jarrett
by Win Bassett, first published at The Atlantic
Win Bassett: You were born in Nashville, did some “wandering,” and came back. Tell me
about your wanderings.
TJ Jarrett: I
went to school in Boston and then worked for Greenpeace in Nashville for a summer and then in Boulder, Colorado. Then,
I moved to Denver for a while and did a lot of odd jobs. I came back to Nashville after being busted broke and worked
at Vanderbilt’s orthopedic department filling out purchase orders. Then, I moved back to Boston. I worked in logistics
and operations for a medical transportation company for four years and then worked in IT in earnest ever since. It’s
secure, and it keeps my mind occupied. I describe it as solving puzzles every day.
My 20s were a little crazy (like everyone’s),
and I dated a guy who said that I should probably work with data because I’m good at it, and because the way we
deal with data moves a little slower than more operational programming languages like C or Java. He was right about that
and wrong for me. Everything happens for a reason.
WB: What does a “Senior Integration Engineer”
TJB: I move data from one place to another. The specific toolset involves doing ETL (extract,
transform, and load) for data in source systems to various data warehouses. The point is to move data in such a way that
end users can discover correlations between systems. For example, let’s say that you sell widgets. You have an ordering
system and a delivery system, but they’re not housed in the same application. Maybe you want to see how soon you
ship an item after you book a PO (purchase order), or how your inventory supply and demand affect how people purchase items
or which items they purchase. I specifically work on a pharmaceutical and a medical/surgical equipment decision system
that analyzes how facilities purchase these items to determine how they can best save money.
WB: Which came first: poems or software code?
TJB: Poems. I wrote them almost
every day when I was 12 until my early 20s. My mom worked at Hampton University with Paula Rankin, who was an awesome poet.
After seeing me writing every day after school, she asked to look at it. She read a few, declared them awful, and gave
me a reading list and some assignments. If she had to read them, she said, they should at least be good. I was young enough
to not know how good she was or how generous she was. When I was 16, she talked my mother into letting me attend her seminar.
She really nurtured and loved me into being a poet.
She did all of this even though I told her that I was going to be a lawyer.
She shook her head and told me, “No, that’s not going to happen at all.” I ran off to college in a fit
of rebellion and then realized that I couldn’t be a lawyer if I tried. It’s not in my nature.
What is your nature, and how does it correspond to that of a developer and poet?
TJB: In regards to being a
lawyer, I’m not terribly combative. Or to be clearer, I don’t have the patience to argue. I don’t know
how people live like that. I know that it would exhaust me. I am forever questioning, and I do more than enough arguing
with myself. And I have an artist’s temperament: I’m so sensitive sometimes that I astonish myself.
it a crisis of empathy. All poems have an element of rhetoric, but I find it best to approach this humbly so that your reader
doesn’t feel bludgeoned. I’m always putting myself in someone else’s shoes and trying to see the world
as they see it. I see the world as a system, many parts coming together to make the whole work. To troubleshoot code or
to ask the question of “how did we live under Jim Crow?” means that you have to watch the parts coming together
like gears and ask good questions. How did it come to be like this? How can we make this better without dismantling
the whole? If we are going to replace it all, how does this one part function within the whole? What were our fundamental
WB: How does writing
lines of computer code relate to your writing lines of verse?
TJB: I tend to break things up into functions.
If I were building a cash register, I’d build the “add” and “subtract” and “running
total” functions. If I were building a book about lynching, I build “how the crowd gathers” function;
“how fear works” function; the “grieving” function; the “questioning if this is the best way”
function. If a poem is a tiny machine, then a volume of poetry is a car or a plane—a bunch of parts that come together
to perform a larger action.WB: Have you
held any other jobs while writing poems?
TJB: I stopped writing poems from about 20 until 33, but I would always tell a friend of mine
that my dream would be to go to Columbia’s MFA program. Finally, my friend got tired of my saying this and said that
I could write anywhere and asked what was stopping me. This is a long way of saying that I’ve only written poems
“professionally” while working in IT.
WB: Does this mean you have a trove of poems prior to your
life in IT?
TJB: I wish it did. I lost most of them (my mother claims to have some), and I burned some of
them. I don’t have much early work. Sometimes I run across attempts to write before this time period, and I cringe.
I think I was very clever but not very wise. The sound is there, and some stylistic tics remain, but the clarity of thought
and the sincere reaching to a reader are absent. I think being unconcerned about your reader is selfish.
How do you they think these earlier poems differ from the poems of your life in IT now?
TJB: When I was younger, I
wanted to hear myself speak for my own sake. I’m not sure if it’s because working in IT is a team sport, but
I am always worried about the reader and how they will interpret what I’m saying. Right now, I think I’m one
of two Americans on my work team, and it greatly colors how I say things, not just in tone but culturally. I’m more
concise. I’m more measured. I go for meaning more than rhetorical flourish.
WB: A pastor and a professor raised you. Tell me about your upbringing and how it affects your writing.
Oh, there were no words left un-interrogated in that house. My mom filled the house with books, and where she
left off, my dad continued. Funny fact—my dad still memorizes every sermon each week. He writes it out on Thursday
and Friday night and practices on Saturday. I can’t believe he still does it that way. Mom let me read anything.
There was no such thing as verboten books. There were times where she wondered if something were too mature for me, but
I absorbed only what I could understand.
WB: Have your father’s sermons’ pastoral, religious,
or spiritual themes ever found their way into your poetry?
TJB: Absolutely. I believe in redemption.
I believe some poems are really prayer. I believe one is called to write poems because God knows it’s not for money.
I believe the words move you and not the other way around. I believe that one should submit humbly to hearing what the soul
has to say. I’m not terribly religious, but I know some poems come, and I just stand by and attend their journey
into the world.
There are poems I’ve written that feel like I had very little to do with getting them on the page. I start
writing and get my ego out of the way. I don’t know if that’s spiritual, but Dad and I have often talked about
doing the reading and preparing only to have magic happen when we’re sitting down to write about it. I realized only
after the fact that all the Bible reading I did as a child (if you don’t want to be in church, no one ever raises
an eyebrow if you’re recreationally reading a Bible) comes through all the time. I can’t tell you how many times
I’ll hear a Bible verse attributed and hit my head and realize that I quoted it almost verbatim in a poem.
When do you do most of your writing?
TJB: After work. Late and in bars. Specifically at the
Red Door Saloon. I don’t know why that bar, but it’s my place, and it gets really loud. I
know I should leave around the time that Ronnie or Danny gets on shift at 8 or 8:30 p.m. If I stay longer, I’m really
only watching baseball or basketball. And drinking.
WB: How does your current work schedule
affect your writing schedule?
TJB: Christ. I don’t sleep. And I can really only write in bars. I need the ambient noise.
I tried cafes, but I can’t drink coffee after 3 p.m. I’d never sleep at all if I wrote there. This year, I plan
to write a little slower because I have tasked myself to re-certify on the BI (Microsoft’s Business Intelligence)
stack. It’s something that I’ve needed to do, but was too busy writing to get it accomplished. I’m striving
WB: What do your co-workers
think about your writing?
TJB: Some people know that I write, and others don’t. Because I’m the only American
developer on my team, I can’t be a “grammar Nazi” when I speak only one language fluently. I’m more
impressed with them and the myriad ways that English is spoken between them. It’s like being in a linguistic mixing
bowl. Sometimes (and I’ve never told them this), I sit back in meetings and listen to the musicality of them talking
back and forth about an issue. Then, I snap out of it and realize that there’s work to be done.
Have you ever written while on the job?
TJB: Not at my current job. Sometimes, I’ll get
an idea and write it down to work on later. Frankly, I’m much too busy to even start a poem at work. This, I’m
sure, will make my boss very happy, but it’s the honest answer. I have done some writing during lunch at other jobs
or while running a batch load that I had to watch too closely to actually start real work but not so closely that I can’t
tool around with a poem. The same thing might happen during long software installations. For the most part, writing and
working don’t mix. Most writing happens after work and before sleep. I get a lot less sleep than I should.
What would be your ideal job be?
TJB: I have moments when I realize that I’m working
at my dream job. I never have enough time to enjoy both as thoroughly as I’d like, but I really like my job. I love
writing, but there’s so much ebb and flow with it. I need things that are more stable, and I don’t have the
patience to teach on a regular basis.
to read an interview with TJ Jarrett at First Book Interviews
Click here to read an interview with TJ Jarrett
at Writer House
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
Click here to view
a reading by TJ Jarrett at Devil's Kitchen Literary Festival