Martha Collins’s Race Trilogy

I first came across Martha Collins’s work at a seminar on taboo at the Mass Poetry Festival. Sharon Olds read a poem about testicles. Jill McDonough read a poem that included a line about a stripper’s “perfect pink asshole.” And Martha Collins read a poem about race. It was the Collins poem that made me the most uncomfortable. I’d spoken about race plenty in conversation with people of color, but for a white person to initialize the discussion seemed uncouth, discomforting, in a way that frank talk about sex is not. To confess the sins of one’s ancestors and acknowledge the privilege of one’s whiteness seems the biggest taboo in our day and age.

Collins read from White Papers, the second in a trilogy about race in the United States. White Papers focuses on the poet’s own recollections of race growing up in the Midwest and living in New England. Blue Front is a book-length poem circling around and around a brutal lynching that her father witnessed in 1909 in Cairo, Illinois. Admit One uses the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (which her grandparents attended) as a jumping-off point to speak about “scientific racism,” the eugenics movement of the 20th century, and the continuing legacy of racism in the United States.

Collins uses repetition and fragmented sentences throughout her work to create a hallucinatory, half-conscious effect. We can see these techniques in “[24]”, (poems in White Papers are numbered rather than titled) where she documents the evolving definition of whiteness:

The Irish were not, the Germans
were not, the Jews Italians Slavs and others
were not, or were not exactly or not quite
at various times in American history.

[…]

Even the English settlers were only
vaguely, at first, to contrast with natives,
but then, with Africans, more and more
of them slaves to be irreversibly,
totally different from, they were.[i]

“Were not” punctuates this catalog of ethnicities, illustrating that whiteness (“we keep / making our whiteness up,” she ends the poem) seems largely defined by what it is not. She uses a similar repetition in “[8]”, a poem that cuts through denial of white people’s ancestral complicity: More than half the stanzas begin with the refrain, “Not mine: mine came late. They came from…” Each stanza then explores a different country of origin: England, Ireland, Wales, Switzerland, Germany. The stanza that follows then refutes each nation’s innocence: for example England, “which supplied more slave / ships sold more slaves than all / the colonies and states combined…” The final stanza ends with an unfinished thought: “Not mine: mine came late / from Germany which” Collins uses this technique of the unsaid throughout the three books; often the thing unsaid is usually racist in nature, either unconscious programming or overt behavior. We see this in the case of her father’s association with the KKK. From the book-length poem Blue Front:

fourteen years later rode around town
dressed in a white sheet just
made noise he said made noise (p. 11)

…twelve years later he
would join the at least associate with the ride
around town with … (p. 27)

Collins often circles back later to revisit the unsaid. In Blue Front, she threads the reader through a narrative labyrinth, arriving through episodic detail at the gruesome details of the November 1909 lynching. This style of storytelling echoes the dissociative mind state many trauma sufferers report. Individual details become vivid and distinct, yet disconnected from a larger narrative. Over and over again, she repeats variations of the first stanza:

He was five. He sold
fruit on the street in front

He sold fruit. People came
He made change (p. 3)

Until at the very end of the book she turns the meaning on its side:

he made change may
I help you please
make change (p. 77)

Collins also examines words and phrases central to racism: white, black, lynch, drag, hang, cut, shoot, bury, race, fair, admit[ii], pass, fit[iii], geneses[iv]. These meditations include not just dictionary definitions but also word associations and connotation. “lynch” is one of the most heartbreaking:

not as in pin, the kind that keeps the wheels
turning, and not the strip of land that marks
the border between two fields. unrelated
to link, as in chain, or by extension whatever
connects one part to another, and therefore
not a measure of chain, which in any
case is less than the span of a hand hold-
ing the reins, the rope, the hose, or taking
something like justice into itself, as when
a captain turned judge and gave it his name.
that was before it lost its balance and crossed
the border, the massed body of undoers
claiming connection, relation, an intimate
right to the prized parts, to the body undone.

My own experience of race is very different than Collins’s, but it is a significant part of my story. I and many other white poets have shied away from writing about it explicitly. But the current political climate and the bravery of poets like Collins calls me to speak about my own experience, and to make space for people of color to tell their own stories.

Works Cited

Collins, Martha. White Papers. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.

Collins, Martha. Blue Front. Graywolf Press, 2006.

Collins, Martha. Admit One. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.

[i] White Papers, [24], p. 33.

[ii] As in to allow entrance, and also to admit guilt. See “Admit,” Admit One. p. 49.

[iii] As in “Fitter Families for Future Firesides,” a eugenics program common in county fairs in the earlier part of the 20th century. See “Fitter Families,” Admit One, p. 49.

[iv] As “eugenics” and “miscegenation.”