New works by poets Adrian Matejka, Christina Davis, Stephen Burt


The Big Smoke

Adrian Matejka
Penguin: 128 pp., $18 paper

Boxing may be a brutal blood sport, but its devotees range from ringside brawlers to ringside literary gentility such as Joyce Carol Oates. Boxing’s history offers not only opportunities for poetry (Muhammad Ali’s “Float like a butterfly/ sting like a bee”) but also for a shocking chronicle of America’s racism -- in and out of the ring.

Adrian Matejka’s new collection, “The Big Smoke,” is a series of dramatis personae poems: swift uppercuts, fast hard-hitting insights. The chief “speaking voice” in this chorus is that of the legendary prizefighter Jack Johnson (1878-1946), the first African American heavyweight world champion. The child of slaves who refused to bow to rules that initially barred him from an all-white boxing ring, Johnson challenged the gatekeepers, the reigning champions, the boxing profession itself, then went on to defy society’s extreme prejudice, concurrent with that of the Feds, who monitored his personal life, including his relationships with white women, searching for grounds for prosecution.


Through it all, Matejka goes round after round on the steely music of Johnson’s authentic-poetic voice. If the reader is confused in identifying the other voices (a contextualizing introduction would help, the end notes are not so clear), Johnson’s basso profundo is unmistakable:

... I’m going

to make a whole lot of money betting on

myself. I’m so fast I only got my shadow

to spar with & most times, it don’t keep

up either.

An Ethic

Christina Davis
Nightboat: 66 pp., $15.95 paper

Christina Davis’ off-putting title, “An Ethic,” is immediately “justified” in opening epigraphs from Jean Cocteau (“The poem is an ethic”) and George Oppen’s free-associative riff on the word -- which ends by equating “ethic” with “awe.”

“Ethic” as awe, awe seen as wonder, shocked and searching questions rather than the narrow answers of a moral “compass” -- that’s the governing trope here. The death of a parent inspires what has been called “minimalist intimacy” on Davis’ part, but I see her intense inquiry as “maximum.” She says, “It is hard to keep remaining whole.” And:

It is hard and, therefore, a task to keep remaining

here, a kind of continuous

creature like a lawn…

... “I am law” say the trees

of their felled

selves, the pages.

These are remarkable, ambitious poems that refuse, in grief, the easy way out: predictable religious or received knowledge responses to death -- but dive into philosophical and moral “re-definition.” What we witness, in syntax, in stress, is the known self coming apart, an old word, “ethic” coming apart. The world is re-made in this bright disassociation: a new look at what lives and dies:

I say “bird” and watch

as the word

makes its way to you.



Stephen Burt
Graywolf Press: 88 pp., $15 paper

Joy is new each time it happens -- and it happens a lot in these poems of Stephen Burt’s “Belmont.” By nature, poets identify with wonder, with a child’s eye, but these poems pull out all the joy-stops. Like Blake on a sugar-high -- what joy-addict could resist the titles of these poems: “A Sock Is Not a Human Being,” “Fictitious Girl Raised by Cats,” “Little Lament for the Legion of Super-Heroes,” “Self-Portrait as Muppet,” “Butterfly with Parachute”?

This volume could have used a little editing, there are too many poems here -- but this is nitpicking, clearly, when the reader, midbook, comes upon this:

We meerkats are all smiles

As we stand again on thin feet

Taking a break from the sand

... Scratch that:

Who doesn’t love a smiling meerkat? But scratch that: These “excessive” poems are, in fact, serious (though in no way earnest). They work in a manner similar to (but in a very different style from) the poems in “An Ethic.” This is a world in which authority figures pull strings but are mostly irrelevant: Burt dismantles all cultural, psychological and literary idée recue pertaining to childhood, identity, gender.

Frank O’Hara’s “poet orphan” smiles down on the poems here, though many are inspired by new fatherhood. One epigraph here notes that children can indeed distinguish between real and imaginary worlds -- they just don’t see the preference for the real one. In Burt’s “Belmont,” the real and imaginary flow together harmoniously, in “elliptical” (to use his own term) poems that come at you spinning in indie-pop and “high” culture flights (“Keats to Lady Gaga”). Only once or twice does the vivacity of such literary “hope” dim, as he contemplates an outdated “ethic”:

I do not believe that art is a form of religion

an unforgivable selfishness that takes

the time I always owe to other people

I do not quite believe it but I have come close

So this is a super-hero who loves sweet limits, loves to rhyme, who writes in the literary tradition, seamlessly setting a praise-worthy translation of Sappho’s fragment, “Some Say,” into an idyllic hymn to a view from a rooftop bar:

Some say that the thing most beautiful

in this world is a fleet of trim sailing ships,

... or a phalanx in close formation, whose flashing spears

make the sun brighter as it sets,

but I

now say the most beautiful thing is the whole of the view

from the stucco roof of a hotel

in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico

Muske-Dukes is the author of several books of poems, novels, essays and editor of anthologies. She is professor of English/creative writing at USC and founder of the PhD program in Literature and Creative Writing there.