Festival Headliner Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke

 by Jennifer Jean
This is the ninth in a series of stories on headliners of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (May 1-3).
Attend Adrian Matejka's event at the festival.

Adrian Matejka’s third book The Big Smoke (Penguin Books 2013) was nominated for a Pulitzer and was a finalist for the National Book Award; as well, it won numerous other accolades. I had the same visceral reaction to the book as I’ve had to riveting suspense films because of its taut pacing and violent lyric bursts. Critical response to this verse-biography has centered mainly on his depiction of the ambiguities and hypocrisies of fame and of race relations in early twentieth-century America. Jack “Papa” Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, is the axis and primary voice of the book, which Matejka researched over eight years.

In his interview with the National Book Foundation, Matejka says: “The first version of the collection was made up of dramatic monologues exclusively in Johnson’s voice.” The final version also includes a smattering of persona poems in the voice of Johnson’s “Shadow” self, and in the voices of Johnson’s lovers at the time:  Belle, Hattie, and Etta. His “Shadow Knows” series has gotten a lot of analytic attention because these works not only riff on a boxer’s use of his actual shadow in sparring-workouts, but the poems manifest the socially unacceptable—and therefore unspoken and unlit—aspects of Johnson’s character. Shining a light on and so giving shape to Johnson’s (possible—since we’re dealing with persona) underlife, is harrowing given the boxer is revered for his triumphs as the son of emancipated slaves, and for his place in sports history. For instance, the Shadow tells Johnson: “When we get to the top,/ it's just us. No use for Negroes/ then, not even ourselves.”

However, more harrowing—more telling and compelling—were the poems voiced by Johnson’s lovers. Those poems do not hold up out-of-context as well as the “Shadow Knows” poems—nevertheless, they’re incredibly integral to the totality of the book. In fact, these persona poems are also “Shadow” poems. Hattie, Belle, and Etta gaze—though adoringly and hungrily—at Johnson just as much as his knowing Shadow self. Here’s a poem in the voice of Johnson’s white wife Etta Duryea, which has hints of the Shadow as regards both race and fame:


Etta Duryea 

There’s no understanding colored
& white. There’s no understanding
why your anvil cheeks say trust
me when you smile. Del sole 

un raggio brilla piu vivido nel tuo
bicchiere. How sunburned your
smile, filled to the top with gold
like Rockefeller’s watch pocket. 

I met him once. He was old & thirsty.
How sitting with you in the Flyer
feels like butterflying in sunshine.
Mi amore, they will all learn: 

a man is a man if he is a man.

by Adrian Matejka, from The Big Smoke (Penguin)

As Etta proves: if one gazes long enough, one knows her object. This must have unnerved the boxer. Concentrated observation can mess with myth; and, as Matejka says, Johnson was a consummate “fabulist” and very particular about his public image. We see this in poems like “A Great Maltese Cat Toying with a White Mouse.” Johnson had to parry the media’s (and society’s) nasty verbiage when he was called names like “Texas Watermelon Picaninny” and more—we get the litany in Matejka’s poem “Alias.” In a world often out of his control, Johnson could control these women. No matter how much he went after his demon-side he couldn’t get at it—but he could get at those women; he could and did beat them up. Matejka told the NBF that he “wanted to create a more three-dimensional version of Johnson, one beyond his version of himself.” But Johnson himself resists three-dimensionality—such a presentation would make him vulnerable and is therefore contrary to his goals:  to be World Champion and citizen of “The Elite.” Smashing these women meant smashing at an intrusive gaze, at mirrors; when fist hits flesh there’s release. And vulnerability seems to disappear.

One could say The Big Smoke fails the “Bechdal Test” (wherein a work shows gender bias by virtue of having women only talking about a man or men—usually to each other—when they do get to speak). Here’s an example: 


Dear Belle,

           You will not talk to me and I have things I need
to tell you Papa enjoys my company and I am not
going anywhere. I do not mind sharing his attentions
with you We both know the business. (He has enough
money for both of us.) Let us be civil and enjoy. Papa’s
company while we have it.
            Cordially yours,

by Adrian Matejka, from The Big Smoke (Penguin)

Hattie, Belle, and Etta only talk about Johnson—but this tactic serves this project. It is in no way indicative of bias because it is believable that Johnson, as Matejka has fashioned his character, would surround himself with mirrors, with undistracted others, with living fans to his flame. Yet, this tactic left me wondering if Johnson could have thrived without reflected, strong-arm narcissism? Especially given the particular, the absolute racism he contended with in early twentieth-century America.

Matejka has promised to write a sequel to The Big Smoke, though it may be in essay or hybrid form—I’m looking forward to that work. Matejka is a fantastic writer and growing talent. Be sure to check out his other books: Mixology (Penguin 2009), and The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books 2003).

Jennifer Jean’s books of poetry include: The Fool, The Archivist, and In the War; her work appears in Drunken Boat, Tidal Basin, & The Mom Egg. She co-directs the Morning Garden Artist Retreats, blogs forAmirah (a sex-trafficking survivor advocacy group) and is the Administrative Editor at Talking/Writing Magazine. For more about Jennifer, visit: www.fishwifetales.com