Nearly 40 years before baseball great Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, boxer Jack Johnson became the first black man to hold the world heavyweight championship, a title he kept from 1908 to 1915. Boxing fans still consider him one of the best counter-punchers of all time. Johnson, a son of former slaves, was born in Texas in 1878 and rose to boxing legend during the Jim Crow era. During the height of his career he was "the most famous and most notorious African-American on Earth," according to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
Poet Adrian Matejka explores this complicated man and the world in which he lived through a collection of poetry titled "The Big Smoke." While the individual poems are quite powerful, what makes this collection special is that each poem acts as a chapter in a narrative that tells Johnson's story. The book reads like a novel, set against the backdrop of a particularly ugly era in American history, with rich images and clear, sharp language.
"The Big Smoke," is made up of persona poems, written in the voice of a person other than the poet. The primary speaker is the flamboyant and tough-as-nails Johnson. Other narrators are the women in his life and Johnson's own shadow. Each poem moves Johnson's story forward or broadens our understanding of the man and the America that created him. The women talk of the joys of loving a larger-than-life figure, their encounters with racism (three of his wives were white) and physical and mental abuse. Though there is admiration for Johnson's heroism and strength, there is also a frank understanding of his flaws and demons in these poems.
Matejka articulates a lot of Johnson's unspoken thoughts through the voice of his shadow. In the poem "The Shadow Knows," the shadow speaks of Johnson's fears and ambitions: "From day one, we aspire to be more than the average Negro. None of that yassah, boss & watermelon rind smile/We want quail cooked in butter/ "¦.Clarity for negro caricature."
The shadow also guides Johnson, reminding him as he rises to fame and fortune that "You can change clothes / five times a day while / speaking Italian & playing / the violin that fancy / classical way, but you / can't change your skin." In Matejka's hands, Johnson's voice is smart and intuitive, an expert on human behavior and survival in a world that both celebrates and despises him.
Johnson was a man who literally had to fight for food in his youth, who challenged the boxing establishment and a resistant public. Not only did people take issue with his conspicuous spending, but at one point the state of Texas threatened to prosecute him if he crossed into the state with his white bride. Johnson spent his life fighting the status quo both in and out of the ring, and fighting to conduct his life in a manner that white America was not fully prepared for.
Each poem is a snapshot of Johnson, but "The Big Smoke" tells more than just one man's story. Through Johnson, Matejka explores racism, the brutality of the boxing world and America's fickle love of celebrity. The collection is rich with cinematic scenes of violence, hatred, crushing poverty and equally crushing wealth and fame. Whether you're a poetry fan or not, the book is a page-turner.
Matejka has a brilliance for storytelling and building suspense, something one doesn't often associate with poetry. My sole quibble with the book is that I wish the end notes had more information. I wanted to know more about this complicated figure and the people who loved him. There were moments when I was uncertain as to which woman was speaking in certain poems. The poems in Johnson's voice, however, are loud and clear. It's the voice of a vulnerable champion in a frightening time, articulated beautifully by a talented writer.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at email@example.com.