In the very first poem in A. Van Jordan’s new collection, The Cineaste, the poet describes a moment during a showing of the old German expressionist film Metropolis at the Michigan Theater in 2010:
Movies provide my last safe playground.
Tonight, for instance, when the organist descends to play,
and the lights expire, and the projection whirrs to action,
I’m as excited as a boy again.
In case the title of the book hadn’t let us know where he stands, he’s immediately made it clear that he is in love with the movies–the whole wide range of them, from popular contemporary movies to the silent classics to the whole library of foreign films. In other poems, he lets his imagination move through these films, summarizing them, learning from them, or simply getting lost in the splendor of them. In The Cineaste Jordan’s art rises from his ability to give himself completely to another artistic medium.
But the films also become something more important, more central to the poet’s understanding of the world. In a poem shaped and inspired by Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou and its famous, troubling image of the eye slit by the razor, Jordan writes, “as if anyone could interpret the colliding / images, again and again, dragging / my imagination behind me, / I begin assembling.”
The first and last sections of the book collect poems that respond to a range of films, to Last Year at Marienbad and Blazing Saddles, Westworld, American Gigolo, and Ikiru, among others. But the long center section of The Cineaste does something else. In this section of loose sonnets, Jordan tries to understand the lost 1919 silent film The Homesteader and its director, the early African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux often tried to show African Americans moving into jobs and positions where they had previously been excluded. His film Within Our Gates is sometimes considered the black response to D.W. Griffith’s racist Birth of a Nation. Micheaux claimed that wasn’t the case, but, as Jordan tells us in the beautifully clear notes that accompany this book, “like most artists, [Micheaux’s] life informed his art.” Micheaux was also obsessed with the case of Leo Frank, a Jewish plant manager in the South who was charged with killing one of his employees, a young white woman, then was lynched by a Klan-led mob. Black witnesses were coerced by the Klan to testify against Frank. If all of this is getting to sound like a complicated plot, I should simply reassure you that Jordan brings all of these strands together into their own kind of movie, which also happens to be an unusual sonnet sequence. The poet writes in the voice of the long-dead filmmaker, “Image / After image comes down to bringing art / To those in need.” All true, of course, and a lovely way to understand much of this powerfully moving book of poems. But Jordan is just a bit too realistic to leave us there. He gives Micheaux another sentence, ripe with irony: “And I need their money.”
A. Van Jordan reads from The Cineaste at Nicola’s Books April 9 at 7 p.m.