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The Big Smoke (Poets, Penguin)by Adrian Matejka
Synopses & Reviews
A finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in Poetry—a collection that examines the myth and history of the prizefighter Jack Johnson
The legendary Jack Johnson (18781946) was a true American creation. The child of emancipated slaves, he overcame the violent segregationism of Jim Crow, challenging white boxers—and white America—to become the first African-American heavyweight world champion. The Big Smoke, Adrian Matejkas third work of poetry, follows the fighters journey from poverty to the most coveted title in sports through the multi-layered voices of Johnson and the white women he brazenly loved. Matejkas book is part historic reclamation and part interrogation of Johnsons complicated legacy, one that often misremembers the magnetic man behind the myth.
"The third book from Matejka (Mixology) covers the life of legendary heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, and like a fighter in the ring, these poems are fierce and fast on their feet: 'It's always better to whip than/ to be whipped, so I took the fight/ straight to the bigger boy. Not long// after, fighting became a way/ to make money.' This Jack Johnson, whose channeled voice dominates the book, resembles the real-life boxer in his lovers, opponents, enthusiasm for opera, and in the marks racism left on his life: 'I always abide by the rules inside/ of the ring. Those dock fights were/ more about survival than winning.' The five sections here are woven with lyrics, letters, and brief interviews. Strongest are the shadow-boxing poems, titled alternately 'Shadow-Boxing' and 'The Shadow Knows,' because they go far beyond elaboration in verse to argue with the dominant narrative: 'You're not fooling me/ by quoting Shakespeare, Mr. Champion of the Negro/ World. No matter how/ carefully you enunciate,/ Tiny was a slave/ & the condition of the son/ follows the condition/ of the mother.' Matejka's project straddles that risky line between life and art, and some readers may question whether it transforms Johnson's life sufficiently into art, but others will find this to be a powerful and accessible poetry collection." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Selected for the 2008 National Poetry Series by Kevin Young
The poems in Adrian Matejka's second collection, Mixology, shapeshift through the myriad meanings of "mixing" to explore and explode ideas of race, skin politics, appropriation, and cultural identity. Whether the focus of the individual poems is musical, digital, or historical, the otherness implicit in being of more than one racial background guides Matejka's work to the inevitable conclusion that all things-no matter how disparate-are parts of the whole.
About the Author
Adrian Matejka is a graduate of the Southern Illinois University Carbondale MFA program. The author of The Devil’s Garden and Mixology, his work has appeared in the American Poetry Review, the Crab Orchard Review, and Prairie Schooner. He teaches creative writing and English literature at Indiana University.
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