Review of White Papers by Martha Collins

Martha Collins. White Papers. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2012. 80 pp. $15.95, paperback.

Writing Somewhat More Free

“As I learn from you,/I guess you learn from me—/although you’re older—and white—/
and somewhat more free.”
from Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B”

In his essay “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black” (APR, Sept/Oct 2007), Major Jackson exhorts his white counterparts to “begin to pen a body of poems that go beyond our fears and surface projections of each other to a fuller account of the challenges and reaches of an ever-evolving democracy.” Martha Collins’ White Papers is, in part, response to Jackson’s call. This series of numbered, untitled poems charts the intersection of Collins’ personal life with issues of race and equality, beginning with the précis of a “white paper” written in her youth: “Because a few years after Brown v. Board of Education I wrote a paper / that took the position Yes but not yet.” The forty-three poems or “papers” that fill this collection follow her—and our—education in and about a world of white privilege. Collins deftly lifts and prods, unearthing suspicions, stereotypes, and powerplays that have existed through centuries of systematic racial oppression. Her focus on race in America, nurtured in her semi-biographical Blue Front (Graywolf), now opens into a growing awareness of her place in the racial context of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Only in the last few pages, in a tiny section entitled “November 4, 2008,” does the Civil Rights Movement surface, and with it the changes that led to what, in Collins’ childhood, would have seemed an impossibility: the election of an African-American president. The poems move linearly but seem to flow backwards to that final moment, to the “learning this un / learning untying the knot” leading to the final revision: “Yes Yes.” White Papers investigates the ever-evolving racial relations experienced by one white writer in an ever-evolving democracy, steeped in its history of white brutality and exclusion.

While Collins’ poems work individually, the book functions as a poetic slideshow, covering vast distances across American space and time: from the white section of a small Midwestern town, to the home of an African-American scholar in Cambridge, MA, to the seat of US government; from the first frontier of colonial New England to the post-Civil War South. This is not, however, a book embroiled in the legacy of a racist, divided South (although it includes poems that tackle violent incidents such as those surrounding the White Tree in Jena, Mississippi). Her perspective is one of growing up in an almost exclusively white area. She writes out of an experience in which ideas of superiority are inviolable; in which the Other is viewed a mysterious or suspect anomaly; in which, in an enveloping whiteness, the Other is known to exist yet individual and story seem to disappear: “Nor, I think, did my parents hear stories of southern chain/gangs and other post-Reconstruction re-enslavements.” This history is one in which ignorance and segregation are perpetrators of American racism (as compared to learned hatred). Collins exposes sins of omission, the ability to submerge questions of race where “my parents lived in not-quite-all-whiteness,” the cool “logic” of Plessy v. Ferguson reflected in the documentation of white distance.

White Papers catalogues which ingredients go into the pot when children of any color (in Collins’ case, white) form ideas about their racial identity. How race was understood in Collins’ childhood (assuming children learn about race differently today) is forefront:

They lived in the colored
section of town, as if the White
Pages map had been crayoned,
little squares, inside the lines

The phrase “in the colored section of town” repeats in other poems, clearly etched in early consciousness. Clipped syntax and thought mimics a state of feeling over reason, childishness over adulthood. White Papers blends her memories with American history, even when dealing with a relatively recent past (“November 4, 2008”). In that one section titled only by date, the book reaches its apex, transforming truncated line and syntax into fluid energy. She describes Obama’s election and inauguration:

On his way to the Capitol largely built by slaves
who baked bricks, cut, laid stone—
on his way
to stand before the Mall where slaves were held
in pens and sold—
on his way to the White
House partly built by slaves, where another
resident, after his Proclamation, wrote:
If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong

Collins moves from invocation of Abraham Lincoln to invocation of Martin Luther King, Jr:

One hundred years later King said
Now is the time    We can never
be satisfied as long as he

dreamed:   every valley
exalted all these years until
not an end they said  a beginning

In these lines, Collins encapsulates a final victory and astonishment; she celebrates the achievement of personal history and political moment. Her repetition of Yes is a breath of relief; however, on the heels of poems tracing the depth of family and country’s participation in racism, the final affirmative serves to bolster and push against the great weight of what precedes it.

Valerie Duff-Strautmann is the author of To the New World (Salmon Poetry). Her reviews have appeared in PN Review, Post Road, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere.