martha collins takes on the personal and the political with a poet's eye

    by Beth Anne Cooke-Cornell

My first reaction to Martha Collins' newest collection, Admit One: An American Scrapbook, was "I'm doing this all wrong."  Collins' subject matter -- the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, the eugenics movement, Asian Exclusion, The Birth of a Nation and the KKK -- is the stuff of a Humanities elective I teach called The American Dream.  We slog through.  For most students it is an education, as they say, to see the ways in which science, politics, and media collaborated in an attempt to create a nation free of racial and intellectual "defectives."  An education in injustice, but I must admit, perhaps not one that fully considers the human cost of that injustice.  

Like Carrie Buck, labeled feebleminded and sterilized without her consent.  Or the Mbuti pygmy Ota Benga, purchased and enslaved in the Bronx Zoo by an American businessman.

I've been doing it wrong.  Collins' collection might be the way in.   

Admit One is a pastiche of news headlines: "Board May Take Baby from Its Insane Mother;" stark quotes from prominent American eugenicists: "The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit;" and of course, Collins' historically precise, yet achingly resonant verse:

once we were immigrants
given to thought we were
given the right to be
taking what wasn't our
making what wasn't
who wasn't us were
(from "Once We Were")

It's difficult to isolate one poem in Admit One because, like most scrapbooks, its scattered bits of memory construct a singular narrative, in this case of a nation's sinister preoccupation with racial purity.  Collins urges us to reassemble those discarded bits in "Scrap/Scrap/Scraps":  

him     her     fragments     save
as in paper     words     unlike
waste     can have     significant
something     out of     something

To create something out of something.  To resurrect the things we too often forget.  

Throughout the collection Collins writes with a reporter's respect for detail, listing World's Fair exhibits, the conditions of the Bronx Zoo where Ota Benga was held, the characteristics of the unfit. And while a first person narrator introduces his/her "mother" and "father" in the opening poem of the collection, they are themselves observers, divorced from the machinations of eugenicists, anthropologists, and politicians.  But in "What They Were Doing/What They Did," Collins exposes the intersection of the personal and the political, counting father and mother among the many ordinary and sometimes passive agents of the purification project.  

The poem begins with benign detail (because our shameful entanglements are nearly always masked in the benign detail): "My mother and father were twenty. /She was teaching second grade/in the (all-white) John B. Ward School."  Parentheses.  Need one even note the school is "all-white" in -- as the poem's opening note reveals -- "Du Quoin, Illinois, 1924"?

But Collins mines further, coupling the benign with the sinister:

He was working in Jones Drugstore
and joining/had joined/would (briefly) join

the Ku Klux Klan, which was appearing that year
in local churches with gifts and commendations.

The starkness of Collins' verse perfectly illuminates the ordinariness of the detail.  The Klan may be as much a part of the fabric of one's community as one's drugstore.  As one's church.  As one's father.  

And "What They Were Doing/What They Did" is an intergenerational one: the mother's father,

[...] was cited for contempt of court
for criticizing, in his newspaper, the release

of a white man and a Negro woman convicted of
a brazen violation of the laws...and of common decency.

The narrator's is a heritage shaped by racism, a bloodline celebrated in an earlier poem, "Fitter Families," when the narrator recalls, "Yea, I have a goodly heritage my mother/said her sister said the Bible said/and it does and they did we do but [...]".  The final lines of "What They Were Doing/What They Did" remind the reader that the political realm protected white bloodlines.  The same day that the local paper reported on the grandfather's citation, it "announced that the President/had signed into law the new immigration bill."

The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the National Origins Act or The Asian Exclusion Act.

Like any scrapbooker, Collins collects and assembles, and largely lets the scraps do the talking.  But when she reveals to us the collector's hand, injecting the personal like handwritten notes in the margins ("went with my mother/ my father my first/ zoo when I was seven"), she reminds us that we are not merely witnesses to history.  We are its participants, inheritors, and bloodline.  

This is what I want my students to feel, to have the historical brought to life and made personal.  I may have been doing it wrong, but Collins' poetry offers a path in the right direction.

Beth Anne Cooke-Cornell is an Associate Professor of Humanities at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston where she teaches The American Dream, The History of Sex and Gender in America, and Standup Comedy in American History and Culture.  A part-time poet, her most recent work can be read in Drunk Monkeys. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts with her husband and three children.