The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka

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I have something of an anxiety regarding project books of poetry, simply because the risks seem, somehow, even greater than the risk of just plain old poetry. Take something like Kiki Petrosino’s Fort Red Border, a book which anagrams Robert Redford’s name for its title and which features Redford himself as a character. That stunning book’s easy to bring up and say hey, not so bad, but the dangers of books like that seem huge, to whit: what if Petrosino hadn’t been successful in Fort Red Border? It wouldn’t merely have been that she’d written a crappy book; it’d’ve been not just bad but silly, somehow almost embarrassing (a dumb book of poetry centering around Robert Redford? Come on). I can’t imagine I’m the only one who feels or thinks this way.

I bring this up because when I first got The Big Smoke, Adrian Matejka’s phenomenal third book, I was…nervous, I guess. Maybe intimidated. The book centers around Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion of boxing but, more than that, a larger-than-life figure—a man who married three white women and who was viewed as such a threat to society, white culture, boxing, America, etc. that, when he won his championship, the white establishment actually reached out, as if broadcasting some APB, for a Great White Hope (there’s a movie of the same name; it’s based on him).

Thankfully (for me, for all of us), Matejka’s book is so wildly great that all concerns regarding possible project-level failures are moot (you may, for instance, have noticed that The Big Smoke is, as I write this, on the short list for the National Book Award). What makes the book great is, of course, sort of simple: the poetry is wonderful, at a word-level, at a work-level, all of it—this book’s one you can flip through and find lines like “Horses smell like what // it means to be fast : sweat & gravel / kicked up on early morning runs” (“Prize Fighter”) or “They call teeth dent in France, & the name / makes sense the way teeth do what they do / to bacon & shoulders & cakes.” (“Gold Smile”). But glorious lines are of course not enough (though I should be clear: Matejka’s lines are working-man-direct and unfussy, almost Philip-Levine-ish: there’s a deep music going on, and it’s more often [to nod toward THayes] muscular than anything else, emotional or logical, whatever) to sustain a book, and what Matejka’s invented to offer the book its oomph is The Shadow.

Think of shadow boxing, that solo movements of a fighter imagining an opponent and choreographing his way through the necessary moves. Easy enough. What Matejka does, however, is double or triple or quadruple the notion of shadow by having—in each of the book’s four main sections (there’s a fifth section which consists of a single poem)—poems featuring Shadow. Here’s the first one in the book, “The Shadow Knows”:

From day one, we aspire
to more than the average

Negro. None of that yassah,
boss & watermelon rind

smile for us. We want quail
cooked in butter. We want

gold where that gap tooth
should be. Clarity for Negro

caricature. We want high-
styling clothing, gold rings

on our fingers like Greek
architecture, & gold pocket

watches in our vest coats.
More women than coats.

White women in our architecture.
We want peculiar & instinctive

satisfactions. We want to be
prize fighting’s main attraction:

the Heavyweight Champion
of the World. When we rise up,

the whole Negro race rises up
with us. When we get to the top

it’s just us. No use for Negroes
then, not even ourselves.

One’d be hard pressed to nail precisely what voice this shadow is for Johnson (some internal voice of his, but also separate, or at least bifurcated [note the use of first person plural pronouns in talking about Johnson]), and yet the specifics almost hardly matter. The Shadow poems all share titles: there’s “Shadow Boxing” and “The Shadow Knows,” and three of the four sections have one of each. It gets confusing to try to articulate, but the significance of the poems can’t really be overstated: Johnson was a driven, hunted, haunted man, and Matejka imagines a way into the man’s whirling, jockeying hungers through the Shadow poems that makes the entire book come crackling alive.

Not, for the record, that it wasn’t already alive: from the first poem to the last Johnson’s story is given poetic flesh. Here’s the first lines from the first poem [“Battle Royal”] from the first section [Hurt Business] “Back then, they’d chain a bear / in the middle of the bear garden // & let the dogs loose.” That scrappiness, the danger of the scene, the need to fight your way out: the whole book’s cascading with just such beauty and energy. The Big Smoke is just like the best art: something you hadn’t even realized how desperately you needed till you got it. Get it.

Weston Cutter is from Minnesota and is the author of All Black Everything and You'd Be a Stranger, Too. He's an assistant professor at the University of St Francis and runs the book review website Corduroy Books. More from this author →