In my college classroom this past spring, I taught Adrian Matejka’s THE BIG SMOKE, a collection of persona poems in the voice of Jack Johnson, the early 20th century African American boxer. Johnson had a colorful and complicated legacy. For many, he was a symbol of liberation, a chance for black masculinity to be perceived as something mythological in the humiliating wake of the Jim Crow era. Yet for those who knew him well, he was horrific in his physical and verbal abuse against women. He proved to be unpredictable in his moods and portrayed by Matejka as quickly shifting from desperation to rage.
For any good writer, this portrait is an impossible task. And yet, Matejka manages to capture, in what I will call one of the top ten best books of poetry I have read in the past five years, the complex, dynamic mosaic of a brutal fabulist, an unreliable storyteller, a man who was the son of emancipated slaves, a man who could only really be the circulation of his own image. In one of Matejka’s poems, he writes about the battle royal matches, violent unregulated fights where multiple African American men would be blindfolded and forced to fight for entertainment until one man was left standing. Matejka describes the experience through Johnson stating:
I didn’t know where
those punches came from, but I swung
so hard my shoulder hasn’t been right
since because the man said only
the last darky on his feet gets a meal.