Poetry Porch: Poetics


Blue Front by Martha Collins. Graywolf, 2006. $14.00 ISBN 155597449 (paper).

Reviewed by Joyce Wilson

Martha Collins has written a book length poem titled Blue Front that addresses the lynching of a black man in Cairo, Illinois, 1909, an incident witnessed by her father when he was five years old. On the surface, the poem succeeds as a narrative, using the elements of suspense, character, setting, and time, to present them as a story with the sense of a beginning, middle, and an end. Also, in a novelistic sense, the sequence of poems reaches far beyond the telling of the crime to the climate of the times and its relation to our time. In addition, Collins relies primarily on the tradition of lyric poetry for focus, to explore what happened, to ask what it meant to her father, and to determine what it meant to her.

       This collage poem gathers a great variety of factual material—newspaper accounts, biographical profiles, a comparison of dates, profiles of cities, a census report, material from interviews, statements from postcards sold as souvenirs. The sources are quoted directly, partially, repeated out of order and in parallel, and juxtaposed against more recognizable poetic traditions, such as first person expressions, meditations on the multiple meanings of a single word, imagery, and metaphor. This variety creates the impression that only a broad unschematic amalgamation of forms will adequately convey the topic in all its complexity.

       Why write a poem exploring such a horrific chapter in our nation’s history that was experienced by a child too young to understand what he witnessed? Why not write a biography of her father and the times in which he lived? Or why not write about the life of the man who was wrongfully murdered? The reliability of sources the first problem. Collins’s father never discussed the incident with her. The newspaper reports are conflicting. To cope, Collins replicates the sense of disorder in stanzas that follow no particular set order but take on many different shapes—couplets, tercets, quatrains, cinquains, paragraphs, lists—depending on the topic. The tone is rushed and impatient and conveys the emotional urgency of the author’s search. We are introduced to Collins’s father in the following set of free verse couplets.

    He was five, He sold
    fruit on the street in front

    He sold fruit. People came
    He made change

    came to see him
    make change. (3)
This brief glimpse in a series of short sentences, some whole, some fragmented, creates a sense of panic through repetition of words and phrases and leaving clauses unfinished. Gradually we learn that the boy was stationed outside his uncle’s restaurant, called Blue Front, where he had shown himself capable of giving customers accurate change when they bought fruit. We see other brief glimpses of the father at ages ten, seventeen, twenty-three, forty, in various scenes of a seemingly ordinary life, with friends, at pharmacy school, in marriage, embarking on a career in his own business. The simple facts about his age and work are repeated throughout the book and give the impression of his steady work ethic and unflappable personality. But in the frenzied manner of the presentation, Collins also emphasizes the way facts can elude a solid place in the memory:
    A girl he could have known found the woman.
    Later they could have gone to the same school
    She was three. Or she was seven. He was five. (10)
Later another stanza appears confirming the confusion about what the father might, could have, seen.
    was five would not have seen he could
    have know the little girl who found
    the body she was seven or three but that
    would not have been till the next day. (19)
These stanzas raise questions about the effect of the knowledge of death on a child and a community, as well as the use of children as reliable witnesses, the role of children in society at the time, and the way the truth can be determined through distortion of word of mouth, rumor, and faulty memory.

       The portrait of the accused is also minimal. A driver of a wagon for Cairo Ice and Coal, he was especially culpable because he was known by more than one name, Will James, Froggie, Will Frog. Little additional information is available about him beyond the facts on the death certificate, which state that he was born in Tennessee and had no next of kin, and the photograph published on one of the postcards. Yet this dearth of information about him provokes the reader to ask about the criteria society uses to define the value and the rights of a person.

       By juxtaposing dates of specific days, Collins leads us through the events that led up to the lynching. She also discusses specific years in parallel, from the Civil War to the present, to review Civil Rights history. In a similar vein, sections on specific cities—Cairo, Birmingham, Montgomery—give another vantage point to compare patterns of racism and integration. But Collins emphasizes that the very nature of reportage is a problem that cannot be avoided. In a section titled “Montgomery,” which focuses on the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, she weaves sentences about her visit to the church with excerpts from a speech by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

    the historians will pause and say:

    who graciously took me with them to the parsonage that was bombed

    There lived a great people—a black people—

    and one of them said ‘I hope you don’t mind my asking but why
    would a white person want’

    who injected meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization
Thus Collins shows the persistence of racism in casual speech which occurs when someone asks “why would a white person want, after which the reader might fill in the rest of the sentence “to know about the tragedy of a black race.” Where facts cannot be trusted in isolation, context is open to interpretation, interpretations change with the times, and the truth might be found on the periphery, the poet must choreograph a flexibility of means and attitude.

       Collins also addresses the fluidity of the English language as another problem. Fourteen-line sections of unrhymed stanzas focus on the multiple ways of looking single verbs, such as drag, hang, shoot. These hybridized “sonnets,” with unconventional punctuation and shifts in focus, raise questions about the ability of a word to convey the full impact of an action. In our domestic interiors, objects like mirrors and a dress “hang.” Yet a person can hang his head in shame. And a person can be put to death by hanging.

                          …so the act of doing it
    changes the verb, tense with not
    quite right, with rope, like a swing
    from a tree. from a pole, like a flag,
    or holidays, from an arch lit bright
    with lights. in the night, in the air
    like a shirt. without, or with only
    a shirt, without, like an empty sleeve. (38)
The associations of rope with flag, which both hang from a pole, show the narrow distance between an object of respect and derision. The lines about the shirt raise associations about the close relationship between the body clothed and unclothed.

       The fragmented phrases, the urgent voice, and the parallels establish continuity amid the plethora of information. The gradual accrual of knowledge about the rape, arrest, trial, and lynching, also creates a suspense out of chaos of events, suspense that is stimulated and appeased. It is interesting to note how the story culminates with material taken from souvenir postcards which provide solid evidence of the sequence of events and the horrific mistreatment of James’s body. The body was taken down, the head severed, the heart cut out, the fingers and toes removed and sold as souvenirs. After the beheading, the body parts were burned and the charred head displayed on a pole. The text of these details appears in a visual design that replicates the rectangular size and shape of the original post cards. Free verse passages work closely with the sources, quoting and including publication dates, describe images on the postcards, give information about the addressee, the photographic print and gallery, the US Postal Laws and Regulations banning the mailing of material that might incite arson, murder, or assassination (57). All of this material has been carefully manipulated by the poet as proof of what happened and who was there.

       The positioning of material and the horrific story gleaned from it create intense emotional reactions and explosions in the mind. Collins assembles the collage of facts and insights without explaining or resorting to abstract discourse. However, this is not to say that the author’s view is completely absent. Resuming the lyric voice of the urgent narrator, Collins evaluates the audience at the hanging:

    Thus they made the infamous parts their own.

    Thus like an X-rated movie they enjoyed.

    And why this X-rated writing should it be read.

    Children were often there they were being taught. (59)
A lesson is embedded in these lines that stimulate inquiries into the intolerance of a people of their times, the imminence of change, and the need for change.