Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke, Reviewed by Brenda Mann Hammack

 
 
Big Smoke

 

In Adrian Matejka’s verse biography, The Big Smoke, Jack Johnson might have stepped into the boxing ring directly out of tall tale.   Best known for decisively defeating James L. Jeffries, the so-called “Great White Hope” in the 1910 “Fight of the Century,” Johnson’s bigger-than-life persona manifests in hyperbolic metaphors that will remind some readers of other legendary strongmen as disparate as Mohammed Ali and John Henry.

In “Blues His Sweetie Gives to Me,” Johnson claims that Frank Childs, another African American boxer, “followed / me like I was the one who ran off with // his wife” (11-13).  In “Prize Fighter,” Johnson boasts: “My fists / worked like cranked-up engines”; “[w]hen I hook a man, it’s like being hit / by frustration” (“Prize Fighter” 17-18, 23-24). Johnson’s colorful trash talk would not be out of place in tall tale.  After all, Henry’s folkloric exploits involved competition with another “cranked-up engine,” otherwise known as the steel drill. 

While Johnson’s physical prowess has earned him a place in sports history, “Mouth Talk” demonstrates his skill at psychological battery.  Johnson employed his tongue to weaken opponents before he ever resorted to fists:

                                                                     How
is a fighter supposed to think about defensing

when he’s trying to get at me by whatever
means necessary? That’s why the mouth

is the most devastating weapon & mine shines
to high heaven every time it takes a swing. (15-20)

Johnson needed such confidence to withstand the onslaught of racial epithets that he regularly encountered both outside and inside the ring.  Indeed, anyone who has seen the recent Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, will be very familiar with the verbal assaults that were launched in attempts to intimidate athletes who dared defy the color line in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Some of the titles in Matejka’s collection are lifted from mainstream sports reportage of the period. “Carefree as a Plantation Darky in Watermelon Time” is taken from a Baltimore newspaper’s description of Johnson, prior to the contest with Jeffries; another ringside account casts the African American as a “Demon” (“Notes” 12, 6). Johnson is also called “The Big Cinder. / Black Animal,” “Texas Watermelon Picaninny,” “Galveston / Giant,” “Smoke. The Big Ethiopian,” and worse by other sports writers (“Alias” 6, 7, 10-11, 12).

But such intimidation tactics did not diminish the boxer’s nerve.  “If I felt any better, I’d be afraid / of myself,” Johnson brags. “I’m so fast I got only my shadow / to spar with, & most times, it don’t keep / up either” (“Carefree as a Plantation Darky in Watermelon Time” 11-13, 19-22). This passage is especially significant since Matejka employs the figure of Johnson’s shadow as a kind of conscience that talks back to the champion throughout the text. 

In several poems, all entitled “The Shadow Knows,” Johnson’s alter ego taunts the getting-too-full-of-himself fighter.  In the first, located in the “Hurt Business” section of the volume, Johnson is castigated for failing to give back to the African American community.  Aspiring to distance himself from racial caricature, Johnson splurges on props, including “quail / cooked in butter,” “high- / styling clothing,” ”gold pocket / watches, and “[w]hite women” (5-6, 9-10, 12-13, 15).  “When we get to the top,” the shadow alleges, “it’s just us. No use for Negroes / then, not even ourselves” (22-24).  Even in poems that do not bear “The Shadow Knows” as title, the reader comes to recognize the shift into the voice of Johnson’s suppressed conscience by the sustained use of italics.   

By mentioning the choice of Caucasian lovers among the pretentious and tawdry things that Johnson prizes, the shadow calls attention to the man’s tendency to treat women as objects.  Public displays of affection seem designed to flaunt his power over bodies that Johnson describes as “delectable & powdered / as a beignet,” as “white enough / to catch a bit of sun / in its own sugar” (“Courtship” 2-3, 4-6).  In one poem, he keeps his “big hands” on the breast “or around [the] throat” of a girlfriend whenever they are out in public (“Letter to Belle (September 15, 1909)”).[1]  According to Matejka’s account, Johnson claims to have eschewed lovers of his own race because, “I never had / a colored girl that didn’t two-time me” (“Fisticuffs” 19-20). 

Although it is not clear if Johnson’s violence against white women was consciously intended as retaliation against the white men who continued to maintain the color line in his sport, the boxer’s record of employing his fists outside of the ring is clearly a major concern of Matejka’s project.  While violent acts involving the female companions of later boxers and other athletes (Mike Tyson,  Oscar Pistorius, Ray Rice) may be more familiar to contemporary readers, Matejka’s depiction of Johnson’s record of abuse against his lovers (Belle Schreiber and Hattie McClay) and his wife (Etta Duryea) provides illustration of the way in which sports heroes have been getting away with private villainy far longer than steroid usage has been documented.  It’s hard to say if head injuries, sustained in the boxing ring, might have contributed to Johnson’s lack of impulse control.

Certainly, he felt no shame for knocking female partners about. In one of the prose poems, inspired by court documents, Schreiber admits that she “knew the violence was in him,” but “didn’t realize what [Johnson] was capable of” until he took her to see his wife in the hospital, “her face lumpy like a sack of potatoes,” the cautionary point being made explicitly clear (“Fisticuff Difficulty”). Schreiber should obey and never sass Johnson lest she find herself in a similar state.  In another poem, “Cooking Lessons,” the boxer warns, “Belle, I wouldn’t put / my hand on you if you’d do / what I say” (1-3).  “I wouldn’t have cut my knuckle on your eyetooth,” he complains (7-8). In “Shadow Boxing,” he threatens “to gut-punch” his shadow,

until your eyes come out
like you’ve seen a ghost.

I want to put you out
of the Flyer, watch you
go end over end into the roots

& old leaves like Belle did
last time she sassed. (“Shadow Boxing” 1-8)

While the opening image, above, may seem to cast the shadow as a slapstick figure and might represent Johnson’s desire to upend the blackface stereotype of vaudeville, films, and cartoons of the period, the realization that the man is bragging about knocking a woman out of a motor vehicle ruins even a momentary hint of subversive humor.  Eventually, Schreiber would testify against Johnson when he was charged under the Mann Act for “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes,” a trumped up charge given that the woman in question was his wife.  However, Etta Duryea[2] would later commit suicide in order to escape chronic abuse.  In “Aristocracy,” she yearns to treat Johnson like a target in a carnival game, but turns the gun on herself instead in order to grant herself “the same kindness enemy soldiers / are provided” (5-6).  

One of the strengths of Matejka’s verse biography is the author’s refusal to sidle around or smooth over the nastiness of the boxing legend’s history of abusing women.  In fact, the poet commits a significant amount of stanza space to portraying incidents of domestic violence—and, instead of taking the reader to the end of Johnson’s life in a car crash, the volume closes not long after Duryea’s death.  This creative decision seems to suggest that Matejka intended to keep these acts of private violence from getting lost amid the public accolades that so often surround Johnson in historical accounts.  Like most legendary heroes, the man possessed flaws that contributed to his eventual downfall.

While Matejka’s collection is worth reading for the craft that led to its nomination for a Pulitzer as well as a National Book Award, it is likely to be of especial interest to those who are studying gendered violence as it is represented in literature.  Boxing fans are also likely to appreciate Matejka’s approach to his biographical subject, especially if they have already encountered Ken Burns’ 2005 documentary, Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, or the 1970 film, The Great White Hope, based on Howard Sackler’s 1967 play about the celebrated match between Johnson and Jeffries.  Followers of other sports, particularly those that promote and reward aggression, may also locate parallels with recent controversies in which athletes’ misbehavior has transcended their performance in their respective arenas.  Matejka’s writing style remains accessible enough throughout The Big Smoke to attract readers who aren’t usually in the market for a bout of poetry.

 

 

Notes

[1] Line  numbers are not provided with prose poems since lineation in Kindle files may not be consistent with printed versions of the book

[2] I am following Matejka’s model in referring to Mrs. Johnson by her maiden name, Etta Duryea. 

 

 

Matejka, Adrian.  The Big Smoke: Poems. New York: Penguin, 2014. Kindle file.
 
 

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