Boxer Jack Johnson, who lived from 1878 to 1946. (International Poetry Gallery )
The Big Smoke
Penguin: 128 pp., $18 paper
Boxing may be a brutal blood sport, but its devotees range from ringside brawlers to ringside literary gentility such as Joyce Carol Oates. Boxing's history offers not only opportunities for poetry (Muhammad Ali's "Float like a butterfly/ sting like a bee") but also for a shocking chronicle of America's racism -- in and out of the ring.
Adrian Matejka's new collection, "The Big Smoke," is a series of dramatis personae poems: swift uppercuts, fast hard-hitting insights. The chief "speaking voice" in this chorus is that of the legendary prizefighter Jack Johnson (1878-1946), the first African American heavyweight world champion. The child of slaves who refused to bow to rules that initially barred him from an all-white boxing ring, Johnson challenged the gatekeepers, the reigning champions, the boxing profession itself, then went on to defy society's extreme prejudice, concurrent with that of the Feds, who monitored his personal life, including his relationships with white women, searching for grounds for prosecution.
Through it all, Matejka goes round after round on the steely music of Johnson's authentic-poetic voice. If the reader is confused in identifying the other voices (a contextualizing introduction would help, the end notes are not so clear), Johnson's basso profundo is unmistakable:
... I'm going
to make a whole lot of money betting on
myself. I'm so fast I only got my shadow
to spar with & most times, it don't keep
Nightboat: 66 pp., $15.95 paper
Christina Davis' off-putting title, "An Ethic," is immediately "justified" in opening epigraphs from Jean Cocteau ("The poem is an ethic") and George Oppen's free-associative riff on the word -- which ends by equating "ethic" with "awe."
"Ethic" as awe, awe seen as wonder, shocked and searching questions rather than the narrow answers of a moral "compass" -- that's the governing trope here. The death of a parent inspires what has been called "minimalist intimacy" on Davis' part, but I see her intense inquiry as "maximum." She says, "It is hard to keep remaining whole." And:
It is hard and, therefore, a task to keep remaining
here, a kind of continuous
creature like a lawn…
... "I am law" say the trees
of their felled
selves, the pages.
These are remarkable, ambitious poems that refuse, in grief, the easy way out: predictable religious or received knowledge responses to death -- but dive into philosophical and moral "re-definition." What we witness, in syntax, in stress, is the known self coming apart, an old word, "ethic" coming apart. The world is re-made in this bright disassociation: a new look at what lives and dies:
I say "bird" and watch
as the word
makes its way to you.
Graywolf Press: 88 pp., $15 paper
Joy is new each time it happens -- and it happens a lot in these poems of Stephen Burt's "Belmont." By nature, poets identify with wonder, with a child's eye, but these poems pull out all the joy-stops. Like Blake on a sugar-high -- what joy-addict could resist the titles of these poems: "A Sock Is Not a Human Being," "Fictitious Girl Raised by Cats," "Little Lament for the Legion of Super-Heroes," "Self-Portrait as Muppet," "Butterfly with Parachute"?
This volume could have used a little editing, there are too many poems here -- but this is nitpicking, clearly, when the reader, midbook, comes upon this:
We meerkats are all smiles
As we stand again on thin feet
Taking a break from the sand
... Scratch that:
Who doesn't love a smiling meerkat? But scratch that: These "excessive" poems are, in fact, serious (though in no way earnest). They work in a manner similar to (but in a very different style from) the poems in "An Ethic." This is a world in which authority figures pull strings but are mostly irrelevant: Burt dismantles all cultural, psychological and literary idée recue pertaining to childhood, identity, gender.
Frank O'Hara's "poet orphan" smiles down on the poems here, though many are inspired by new fatherhood. One epigraph here notes that children can indeed distinguish between real and imaginary worlds -- they just don't see the preference for the real one. In Burt's "Belmont," the real and imaginary flow together harmoniously, in "elliptical" (to use his own term) poems that come at you spinning in indie-pop and "high" culture flights ("Keats to Lady Gaga"). Only once or twice does the vivacity of such literary "hope" dim, as he contemplates an outdated "ethic":
I do not believe that art is a form of religion
an unforgivable selfishness that takes
the time I always owe to other people
I do not quite believe it but I have come close
So this is a super-hero who loves sweet limits, loves to rhyme, who writes in the literary tradition, seamlessly setting a praise-worthy translation of Sappho's fragment, "Some Say," into an idyllic hymn to a view from a rooftop bar:
Some say that the thing most beautiful
in this world is a fleet of trim sailing ships,
... or a phalanx in close formation, whose flashing spears
make the sun brighter as it sets,
now say the most beautiful thing is the whole of the view
from the stucco roof of a hotel
in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico
Muske-Dukes is the author of several books of poems, novels, essays and editor of anthologies. She is professor of English/creative writing at USC and founder of the PhD program in Literature and Creative Writing there.