Featured Reviews

Drew Jackson – Touch the Earth [Feature Review]

Touch the EarthPoetry of Biblical Proportion

A Feature Review of

Touch the Earth: Poems on the Way
Drew Jackson

Paperback: InterVarsity Press, 2023
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Reviewed by Aarik Danielsen

Touch the Earth, Drew Jackson’s second collection, pounds stakes into a strange and weathered no-man’s land, then stretches its tent wide enough to welcome any and every man.

Certain readers avoid poetry because, in their experience or education, the words came cold to the touch. The poems they learned seemed distant and disconnected from fleshy life, higher or holier than thou. Some readers invoke similar reasons for sidestepping the Scriptures.

Where these readers meet, in the rocky middle of the Venn diagram, Jackson makes camp. He writes through, around and in dialogue with St. Luke’s gospel. Both like and unlike the midrash tradition, these poems permeate man-made membranes with imagination.

Jackson’s poetry arrives streaked with blood and loam; shot through with the sounds of storefront gospel choirs and mind-bending jazz combos; accompanied by tears of grief and tears of near-transfiguration. That is to say, he writes poetry of Biblical proportion.

And these poems keep remarkable company. Primarily through epigraphs, Jackson places his words—and, by extension, the Bible—in conversation with Langston Hughes and Arundhati Roy, Fred Hampton and Abraham Lincoln, Tupac Shakur and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Jackson doesn’t set Scripture on equal footing with these saints and sage troublemakers, but shows how Biblical messages bleed into every corner of life—and how the contours of these public lives project back onto the holy text.

In his recent novel A Minor Chorus, Billy-Ray Belcourt describes characters drawing their bodies into question marks. Here, Jackson’s poems become question marks, will themselves into semicolons and ellipses—anything to keep the conversation going, anything to express ache and wonder without seizing the final word.

“These poems are a wrestle. They do not offer answers,” Irish bard Pádraig Ó Tuama writes in the introduction, driving at the spirit of Jackson’s work.

If I might spoil the ending, Jackson sums this great project in “Ascension,” his final poem: “And this is what poetry does: / It carries us. / It invites us into a story, / unfinished, saying: / write the next stanza.” 

Poetry is a call to a witness, a presence, a benevolent inquisitor. “Its intent: / to get us to sit / with the questions again.”

Like the Scripture it engages, Touch the Earth is thorough yet possesses wide margins; it offers many paths, invites many interpretations. And like Scripture, these poems leave you facing certain realities—namely, that we live quite miraculously and tragically before the face of God.

Our capacity for faith as sight is voiced in poems such as “A Harvest of Dreamers,” written after Langston Hughes. “We are born with a proclivity / to visualize beyond the visible,” Jackson opines.

He models this vision, describing his world’s liminal spaces (“A Certain Place”); declaring “The line between / imagination and prayer / is as thin as air” (“Imagine, Or, Suppose”); showing how certainty becomes a coffin (“In the Age to Come”) and a better place, one reserved for the communion of the saints, awaits—even lives inside us (“Upper Room”).

Jackson’s poems make The Lord’s Prayer (“on Earth as it is in heaven”) seem more possible, but show Earth choking the heaven out of God’s beloved. Sin, especially sin committed against and around us, threatens to break our hearts and blur our vision.

History is told by “the winners” and “yet the ground bears witness” to the oppressed blood it soaks up, “A Lament For the Prophets We’ve Killed” notes. In “Romulus and Remus,” a narrator who looks like Jackson, Black and male, strains to make sense of being labeled a superpredator:

“I am no predator, I am prey—/ my body locked within the gaze / of those who have been raised / by wolves. I cannot conceive / of the day when we will lie down together.”

“Stumbling Blocks,” among the most staggering poems here, says its “Get thee behind me” to white Christian hypocrisy. Jackson testifies how the church assigns temptation to young women or rap music while racism’s gaze goes unchecked. A quietly harrowing encounter with an older white “saint” sends the poet reeling:
“I wonder if it was then that the thought grew in me that I / needed to shed my blackness in order to be seen by God—to receive the blood that was shed for me. White as snow.”

Our only hope is to fight for a fully embodied imagination. When readers need to borrow eyes to see and ears to hear, Jackson pens Mary Oliver-like assurances of the metaphysical breaking in (“What I say only sounds crazy / to those who have paid no attention,” he writes in “Crazy Talk”). Miracles might look plain—like people sharing until all are satisfied (“We Feed Each Other,” “Leftovers”)—but defy the status quo.

With renewed minds, we see parables aren’t just parables and Jesus’ lessons don’t just end with the people he faced. Jackson places the Good Samaritan in conversation with Dr. King (“Nobody Talks About the Road”), extends the holy act of sitting beyond Mary and Martha to Rosa Parks and his own mother (“For Those Who Choose to Sit”).

What passes between prodigal sons and jealous fathers is transposed into a new key in “Where the Road and Sky Shake Hands,” as Jackson pulls his mom into the narrative, “canvassing the neighborhood / interrogating my friends / as to where I might be” while his dad “sits, poised and waiting” for his return.

And a moral gleaned from the persistent widow of Luke 18 becomes a rallying cry for the neverending civil rights movement. “Annoyance is a virtue,” Jackson writes more than midway through the book. The holiness of pleading, beseeching, protesting comes through clearly in poems such as “The Sign of Jonah” (“We are partial to prayer meetings in the streets”).

Leaning into embodied imagination allows Jackson to see Jesus in a Jay-Z lyric and death row inmates, the people of God in the creative particularity of John Coltrane. In “This is My Body,” it teaches him to recognize the grain of God’s good table in all loaves of bread, the body of Christ in his own skin.

And this imagination overflows in rich, regenerating love. These poems constitute one long, unbroken act of love. Love for Jackson’s New York, for his parents, for the reader handling these pages.

When I say Touch the Earth contains poems of Biblical proportion, I mean they show us a God who still dirties his hands, a church tethered to the ministry of reconciliation and reparation, Blackness to herald and a presence that never stops troubling us with grace.

Jesus shares these elements with us through scribes like Luke. And if he still sends his disciples out to do even greater works, Jackson takes his place in line, using the spiritual gift of language to stir us toward a right-size gospel and God-size imagination.

Aarik Danielsen

Aarik Danielsen is the arts and entertainment editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune and an instructor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column, The (Dis)content, for Fathom Magazine. His work has been published in Image Journal, Think Christian, Christ and Pop Culture and more.

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