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Robert Pfeiffer on Adrian Matejka

Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke


The concept behind Adrian Matejka’s third book of poetry, The Big Smoke is as fascinating as it is well executed.  Matejka immerses the reader in the life of the great American boxer, Jack Johnson, whose life was at various times troubled, desperate, triumphant, controversial, and misunderstood. Monologue poems from start to finish, we get Johnson’s life through the pugilist’s own voice, however untrustworthy he may be at times, and through the voices of his first wife and two other lovers. Perhaps the most interesting voice though, at least in presence if not verse, is Johnson’s own shadow, who makes interspersed appearances and who might be the only one who gives it to him straight. It is through these various voices that Matejka rounds out his representation of a man who created his own myths, defeated the odds, and confounded expectations. 


One issue that might cause the casual reader of poetry (if that even exists any more) trepidation at diving into The Big Smoke, should be dispelled right away. That is, some might fear that reading and enjoying this book requires some depth of pre-existing knowledge about Jack Johnson or about boxing in general. This is not true. I came to these poems with only the knowledge that Jack Johnson was a boxer. I didn’t know when he lived, that he was the son of former slaves, that he became the first African-America Heavyweight Champion of the World, or that he was a notorious playboy. I got all this and much more from the poems, and reading them sent me out searching for more information on Johnson. If there is one success of The Big Smoke than can be counted above all the rest, it is this: Matekja does not fall into the trap of over-simplification. That is, Johnson is portrayed not merely as folk hero, or merely as villain; he is difficult to pin down, and intentionally so. Our feelings about him change from one poem to the next. There is pride and pity and laughter and revulsion in these pages … and outstanding poems to boot.


The America of these poems is as complicated as the man who inhabits it.  On the one hand, we have the stark cruelty of the late 1800s and early 1900s. This is evidenced throughout the collection, but we are plunged into it with the first poem, “Battle Royal.” The reader is bound to reflect on the famous scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and rightly so. At the ringing of the book’s first bell, the narrator gets pummeled:


                        it seemed like I got hit from eight

                        directions. I didn’t know where


                        those punches were coming from, but I swung

                        so hard my shoulder hasn’t been right


                        since because the man said only

                        the last darky on his feet gets a meal.


The utter dehumanization here is representative of the larger-scale oppression nationwide. This scene also sets up a few thematic components that show up throughout the book: the metaphor of the “fight,” of Johnson as a performer, and Johnson as a puppet or puppet master, among others.  Beyond that, Johnson’s life and career are represented in this fear of never knowing where the next punch was going to come from.


The Big Smoke is also peppered with the language of pre-prohibition America, when cars were brand new and called “machines,” when the Rockefellers were royalty, and when all the prize fighters seemed to have nicknames. We come across Chrysanthemum Joe, Mexican Pete, Sideways Mike, and Klondike just to name a few. The poem “Alias” is comprised entirely of different nicknames for Johnson, “The Big Smoke,” being one. What is interesting about this poem, which comes a little past the midway point, is that all these different names underscore the concept that Matejka threads throughout the book, that Johnson was more than what any one person could see. Though the poems move chronologically through Johnson’s career and life, they also operate a bit like the Ryoyan-ji stone garden in Japan that inspired John Berryman’s Dream Songs. The design of the garden is such that it looks completely different from each different perspective; it is only from taking in each different perspective that the visitor can gain a sense of the whole garden. The same can be said here. We can move back and forth through the poems, and through time and perspective, and in the end, we end up with a sense of the man, even if we don’t really know him. 


We get our first glimpse of Johnson as more than what we expect in “A Great Maltese Cat Toying with a White Mouse,” a poem whose title is taken from a newspaper article about the fight. The historical context of this particular fight is that Johnson defeated Tommy Burns in Australia to become the first African-American Heavyweight Champion. Johnson had been trying for years to get an opportunity to fight for the title, but the previous champion, Jim Jefferies refused to fight across the color line. Burns demurred as well, until the guaranteed sum was enough. After two years, Johnson made him pay, and the police stopped the fight in the fourteenth round. In the poem, split into what Johnson told reporters after the fight and what he meant, we see two very different personas. He said, “I wanted to be heavyweight / champion, not injure Burns seriously.” He meant, “That’s a boy Tommy. Straight right / to the cheek. Take your medicine nicely.” Johnson was known to talk to, or taunt his opponent, or even those sitting near the ring during the fight, which would only infuriate the audience more. Indeed after the title fight, racial tensions around Johnson were inflamed dramatically, and promoters kept seeking a “Great White Hope” to reclaim the title. That Johnson married three white women in his lifetime, and had affairs with many more, only escalated those tensions.


It is in the poems dealing most overtly with Johnson’s personal life that we learn the most troubling aspects of the man. In “Letter to Belle (September15, 1909),” one of Johnson’s lovers writes to another, that “He does not beat me much,” and that sometimes when he “has one of those big / hands on my tit or around my throat,” it’s just “play.” This is the first reference to Johnson’s being violent toward women, but certainly not the last. Two poems later, in “Shadow Boxing,” there is a conversation of sorts between Johnson and his shadow. Throughout many of these poems the two interact with one another, with the shadow often acting as the reality-check.  This is an inventive concept, seeing how boxers “shadow box” as part of their training regimen.  Johnson says that he thinks about his mother all the time, to which the ever-insightful Shadow replies:


                                    All the time, Mr

                                    Champion Negro?

                                    Even when you’re

                                    choking Belle out?


Shadow acts as the moral compass here, calling Johnson out for claiming he loves and respects women, then going behind closed doors and beating them up.  In the very next poem, immediately after Shadow’s comments, Johnson says “Belle, I wouldn’t put / my hand on you if you’d do // what I say.” He’s a man who knows what he’s doing is wrong, but like so many, finds ways to justify his violent behavior.


It’s impossible, moving through these poems, not to sense tension building in both Johnson’s professional and personal life. The professional climax occurs in the aptly named “The Battle of the Century,” a fifteen-page poem about the fight that eventually occurred between Johnson and Jim Jefferies, who came out of retirement to challenge Johnson. The poem, imagined through Johnson’s eyes, is a fascinating and beautiful read right through the final punch. Johnson’s personal life reaches a far worse climax in “Il Travatore,” Johnson’s favorite opera. Johnson is attempting to describe the singer’s voice rising, piecing out different similes from his own life.  He describes the voice rising like going


                                    up the steps of the Café de Champion

      after the crash of a gunshot in Ettas’s


      room. Like finding Etta on the floor,

      a halo of blood getting bigger


      by the minute.


Johnson’s first marriage, to Etta Duryea, was tumultuous and violent, and ended in Duryea’s suicide. The poem ends with Duryea’s last, dying whisper, and she points the blame squarely on Johnson: “You did this Papa.  You did this.” One would hope this was the toughest blow Johnson ever felt, but the truth is that he remarried in less than three months. 


There is only one poem after Duryea’s suicide, and it shows an older, far less glamorous Johnson asking someone (the reader) “What would you like to know?” After The Big Smoke, the reader might indeed have more questions than answers, and relish such an opportunity. But the truth is that Jack Johnson will forever remain just out of reach. Adrian Matejka reimagines this American legend in this collection of poems that will stick with you like the memory of a Jack Johnson uppercut.

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