Thursday, September 6, 2007

Martha Collins' Blue Front/News That Stays News

Martha Collins, who recently won the prestigious Anisfield-Wolf Prize of 2006, gave a poetry reading at John Carroll University a couple nights ago, and this is from my introduction.

Poet Martha Collins’ recent book, Blue Front, hails from the long tradition of poetry that brings us, in William Carlos Williams' words, "news/of something//that concerns you/and concerns many men." Its news is not the Thoreauvian news as gossip, but the old story of racial hatred and its legacy in our country. In its investigative and ruminative searching, in its worried collage of news stories, postcard image descriptions, museum exhibit language, Blue Front probes the traumatic experience of a lynching of a black man in Cairo, Illinois, an act witnessed by her father, when he was just a five-year-old boy.

Collins provides a kind of autopsy of the town, attempting to uncover what happened, and how it happened, and what sort of legacy has been passed down to her. In such a poetic act, Collins produces a work of ethical depth and aesthetic vividness, of historical questioning and of confessional intimacy. The author of four books of poetry and two volumes of translations from the Vietnamese, Collins has made a life work of making poetry accountable to the other and haunted by the other. With Blue Front, she leads us into the haunting and harrowing past, which is our shared past, and one which we can only be free of when we confront it—despite its seeming unspeakability.

Here are a couple pieces from Blue Front.

From Blue Front

There were trees on those streets that were named
for trees: Sycamore, Cedar, Poplar, Pine,
Elm, where the woman's body was found,
where the man's body was taken and burned—

There must have been trees, there were trees
on Seventh Street, in front of the house that stands
in the picture behind the carriage that holds
the boy's mother, the boy's cousin, the boy—

And of course there were trees on Washington
Avenue, wide boulevard lined with exotic
ginkgoes, stately magnolias, there were trees
on that street that are still on that street,

trees that shaded the fenced-in yards of the large
Victorian houses, the mansion built by the man
who sold flour to Grant for the Union troops,
trees that were known to the crowd that saw

the victim hanged, though not on a tree, this
was not the country, they used a steel arch
with electric lights, and later a lamppost, this
was a modern event, the trees were not involved.



as a mirror on a wall, or the fall
of a dress. a dress, a shirt on a line
to fasten to dry. on the rack, or back
in the closet again, a sweet curse
on it all, sliver of nail, delayed
attack. shamed creature, a curse
on itself, 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.

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