Review of Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke

Adrian Matejka. The Big Smoke. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2013. 128pp. $18.00, paper.

Adrian Matejka’s third poetry collection, The Big Smoke, dramatizes the physically grueling, racially charged, and ethically complex boxing career of the first African American world champion, Jack Johnson. With the exception of the closing poem, the voices of Johnson and his supporting players tell their own stories. For Johnson, that act of gaining sovereignty over the literary representation of his life substantiates his masculinity and his contested humanity. Early on, the reader will notice the subtle accumulation of the phrase “they said” in various forms. Johnson recognizes that his image, constructed by hands other than his own, fuels a corrupt campaign. That fabricated image corroborates a racist ideology that refuses to identify people of color as intellectually sound and morally upright individuals. If Johnson is indeed an inherently deviant beast, then the world can devalue his greatness as a boxer and negate his human status; it does not have to undertake the mentally strenuous mission of examining its belief systems.

In the opening couplet of “Fisticuffs,” Johnson disputes claims of his moral and physical inferiority when he says, “Some reporters say I fight yellow, / but I don’t need to use the dirty tricks.” Johnson dismantles the common belief ingrained in the mind of Jim Crow America, which assumes that African Americans innately revert to their savage inclinations during moments of tragedy. Johnson destabilizes that prejudiced argument in “Cannibalism,” where he sets the record straight on the events that followed the Hurricane of 1900:

…After the Great
Storm hit, the Times called us “black
ghouls,” cannibals eating coloreds
& whites like Sunday chicken.
They said we left babies in the street
just so we could take a dead man’s
shoes. They said we sawed off
fingers at the fat meat for rings.
I was there, so I know what’s true:
whole families of coloreds shot
down by whites. “Protecting the dead,”
the sheriffs said, sending buckshot
at any colored in sight. Those
dead people didn’t need any more
protection than the mud & rocks
covering them.

In this piece, the tension between Johnson and those theys widens and encompasses not only Johnson’s personal struggle, but a global struggle as well. In revising his own history, Johnson revises American history and amends the assumed and problematic image of the black American. It is easy for the reader to be seduced by the early poems, especially the first two. In these pieces, Johnson seems to be quite the activist. The lines “Coloreds were here before these / United States were even dreamed / of” sounds fitting for a civil rights speech. In “Battle Royal,” he explains how black men replaced animals in the age-old bear-baiting spectacle and calls out the men who arranged these events as well as their sadistic appetites for violence.

…Once baiting

was against the law, some smart
somebody figured coloreds fight

just as hard if hungry enough.

Johnson not only calls attention to the inhumane audience who is pleasured by the grotesque destruction of the human body, but he also establishes himself as an educator who can trace the history of black people and their function within a country that consistently demonizes blackness. By initially highlighting Johnson’s ability to uncover the power and consequences of race, Matejka creates a stimulating reading experience that underscores the perplexities of the human condition. Just when you get comfortable with admiring Johnson, he tells you about Clara, his first love.

Clara is the reason I don’t deal with

Colored women anymore. I never had
a colored girl that didn’t two-time me.

Johnson is able to revise the insulting image of black males, but he is unable to do that corrective work for the black female. While he is aware of racism’s ability to situate whiteness as the pinnacle of beauty, goodness, and power, he still falls victim to racism’s influence. After Clara, he quietly, but swiftly, erases black women from his narrative. Once the collection begins to examine Johnson’s relationships with his other women, we find that his employment of misogyny extends beyond race. His views of Clara sound noble compared to how he feels about Belle, one of the many women whom he’s quick to reprimand with his fists as well as his tongue:

Belle, I wouldn’t put
my hand on you if you’d do

what I say. If you’d just do
what you’re told, I wouldn’t

shake you that way.
I wouldn’t raise a hand.

Johnson’s relationship with Belle comes after he has secured a generous amount of fame, and he achieved that fame through violence. Up until now, Johnson’s only way to manipulate the world around him has been with his hands. The reader does not pardon Johnson’s actions, but she keeps Johnson’s unfortunate conditioning in mind while he recalls his turbulent relationship. She must also consider that Johnson’s upbringing leads him to believe that his abusive behavior is merely the result of a natural order.

Belle, a woman is still
a woman & the female mind

is much slower than a man’s.
You need reminding.

You need direction.

Matejka captures what is beautifully human about Johnson. Within one body, there exists a muscled courage, a spirit as vibrant as his Flyer’s engine, as well as a flawed value system and an unapologetic misogynistic attitude. This collection does not ask the reader to assign herself as an admirer or an opponent of Johnson. Instead, it asks her to conceive that a person is a gathering of contradictions. Johnson is eager to remind us about “the snappy left / that closed Kid’s / eye like a bank on // Saturday.” He arrogantly refers to the formidable Jim Jeffries as “The same man who retired immediately / after he saw me in action.” At the same time, he has no qualms with telling us about the epic whippings the Galveston dockworkers delivered. “[T]hose men gave me the kind / of beatings that made me want / to go back to the schoolhouse.” He employs that same wit and humbled nature when he narrates his meeting with Chrysanthemum Joe.

…The man pursued me
Like it was personal & I went down
in the third thanks to a hard left to my eye.
His fists were so fast I still looking
for them.

The only way Johnson validates his identity is through earning the heavyweight title, but Johnson can only attain his treasured championship title through the destruction of his body and at times, his soul. Perhaps the most stunning binary of the collection is Johnson’s Shadow. This sharp-tongued doppelganger is the righteous truth bearer locked away in Johnson’s conscience. When Johnson’s gold smile, expensive meals, and ever-growing supply of white women blind Johnson with a haze of luxury, Shadow reminds him that even exaggerated amounts of money cannot repair the unjust plight of black people.

…No matter how
carefully you enunciate,
Tiny was a slave
& the condition of the son
follows the condition
of the mother. Emancipation
didn’t change a thing.
Ask John L., ask Jeffries,
ask Gentleman Jim or any
of the other color-line-
calling white fighters.
Better yet, ask Tiny.
Your ex-chattel mama
will tell you all about
the unconditionalness
of blackness.

After my initial reading of The Big Smoke, viewing Shadow as Johnson’s redeeming quality was tempting; however, uncovering how the two survive in the same skin simultaneously became a more attractive site of investigation. In fact, the entire collection begs for further analysis. Matejka portrays Johnson’s larger-than-life persona so honestly that experiencing these poems is no passive act. Rather, it is a psychological journey that warrants intense study.

Ashley Warner is earning her M.A. in English and Creative Writing at the University of West Georgia. She has received scholarships to attend the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.