The Algorithm of I by Jack Crocker

By John (Jianqing) Zheng
The Algorithm of I is Jack Crocker’s second collection of poems, but it is the first book proudly published by the newly established Mimbres Press at Western New Mexico University. It has a foreword, two poems titled and used as “Prologue” and “Offering” respectively, and seven subtitled sections. The foreword by Joseph Shepard offers a biographical sketch of the poet and points out that the collection is “a reflective journey of intellectual prowess that spins nostalgia with purpose and wonders about life, faith, and human evolution.” The prologue poem functions as a welcome doormat with eight questions about existential and temporal issues in stanza one and the recognition of nature as the source for thought and intuition in stanza two. “Offering” synthesizes the ideas conveyed in the seven sections: the quest about where the person is from:
the little big bang,
The atom dispersal that made me a singular
Universe, the quantum splash that set in
Motion the journey to entropy, the gravitational
Waves moving from the center of the generous
Brine to deliver me into the Mississippi Delta,
This quest especially echoes what the poet presents in the first section titled “Expatriate.” The title poem, “The Algorithm of I,” centers on the self. It has 18 tercets followed by 43 couplets or epigrams which function like a kaleidoscope of self-images or different roles played in society, community, and family. The tercet part asks a series of existential questions about the roles of the self. The last tercet shows the self who stands “mentally naked before / The mirror of I am, was, and cannot help but be.” So, the self sees the past and present of the “I” in roles indicated by the titles of each epigram, such as Athlete, Believer, Atheist, Musician, Rhetorician, Artist, Mississippian, Scholar, Philosopher, Poet, and Father. It is important to know that the poet believes that the birth of the self is through the marriage “to the universe in a union of senses / Until consciousness fell in love with itself.” This belief helps us understand why Crocker subtitles the first section “Expatriate”—poems about the Mississippi Delta, his birthplace—and why he states definitely “I left / before / I left” in “Exit.”
Many poems in “Expatriate” explore the sense of place. This sense can be a loss of place, a nostalgic moment, or a search for the self. It wrestles between attachment and detachment, as suggested by the house image in the beginning lines of “Home Place”:
The house has stood empty fifteen years.
I’ve returned each summer for the peace I feel
Watching it lean against the absence
Of those who brought it to life.
This wrestling is suggestive through the effective use of the figurative language, showing the poet’s craft of etching images:
I hear the sigh of nails ungrip, letting
The weary rafters and studs pull away
To gravity and the whims of wind.
A few snaggled posts remain,
Useless fangs weathered and veined
Like the final years of my father’s skin.
The abandoned house also symbolizes a lost place where the poet finds peace and embraces memories belonging to him alone. That’s why he does not rent the house out, preferring “its future unlived” so that no thoughtless breaths will foul the space and no strange footsteps will disturb the floors laid by his grandfather. Ironically, this sense of place moves like the ticking of a clock. Time loses itself, so does the self who stands like a headstone where the front steps were, and peace becomes memorial and “purified by fire” when the house burns down into memories.
“The Visit” is another poem about the loss of place with a feeling of attachment and detachment. Time has erased everything which remains fresh in the mind: the dying road to the birthplace, the rotting asphalt with gravel bones, and the neighbors long gone. There is nothing left in the area. “All welcome has vanished, even the banquet / Of pecan trees, and the oak’s summer shade.” It seems that nature or the Delta land has reclaimed the dwelling area once belonging to humans. What one sees is nothing but the plowed land, fallow and fertile with time. This vision extends the loss of place as the speaker says: “I am here where I once was, / Homeless and free to go.” This poem also suggests that memory of the birthplace cannot encage the bird of the mind from flying away. If the home place deserves a visit; it also deserves a farewell if one feels free to go to a new place.
The Mississippi Delta is the most southern place on earth. Its fertile alluvial flatland, its history and culture, and its influence on agricultural life also challenge the poet to dwell upon its social and racial issues. This sense of place reveals Crocker’s deep thinking and concerns about life, music, politics, faith, and race. He points out in “A Good Man” that “The Middle Passage never died, / Only turned into double chains.” He states in “Conversation with a Confederate Statue” that “I laid down arms long ago, / And live not in the shadow of was / But the light of letting go” and in “Upon the Removal of a Confederate Statue” that
Now malice spread from the Whitest House
Released the hemophilia of the lost cause—
Enslaved history is not the South’s alone,
But genetic repetition replayed in the course
Of our lives, a generation to generation clone.
Raised in the Mississippi Delta, Crocker learns as well to be a male, a musician, a thinker, a philosopher, and an expatriate. He acts against what he is told to follow. His disbelief in what “his bible-thumping cousins” try to sell makes them want to send him to hell (“Ancestry”); his desire to be part of nature helps him recognize that what “keeps us human” is “nature’s God” (“First Lust”); his vision as an expatriate offers an insight into the migration of the soul or the self that “…home is / Always someplace else” (“Migration”); and his interest in blues urges him to make a deal at a crossroads like Robert Johnson (“Delta Nights”).
The Algorithm of I explores a theme of where to posit the self and the human mind, revealing a sense of place through the loss of the birthplace, the resettlement of the self from place to place, and the human connection with nature, history, and environment. His poetry is both personal and universal, exploring for self-examination. This self comes alive in Crocker’s poems full of wit and poignancy, fresh images and figurative expressions, and loss and memory of the past because, as Robert Penn Warren says, “If there is no past, there can be no self.” Therefore, Crocker is a poet whose life is unique in connecting the self and the past.
You can find the book here: The Algorithm of I
John (Jianqing) Zheng published A Way of Looking and Conversations with Dana Gioia in 2021. His poetry has appeared in Hanging LooseMississippi ReviewPoetry SouthTar River among others. He is the editor of Journal of Ethnic American Literature.

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