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
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:
fruit on the street in front
He sold fruit. People came
He made change
came to see him
make change. (3)
A girl he could have known found the woman.
Later another stanza appears confirming the confusion about what the father might, could have, seen.
Later they could have gone to the same school
She was three. Or she was seven. He was five. (10)
was five would not have seen he could
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.
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)
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:
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.
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 (40-41)
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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)