cover image The Big Smoke

The Big Smoke

Adrian Matejka. Penguin, $18 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-14-312372-9

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. (Nov.)