University of Pittsburgh Press
Paperback, 69 pages
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli
Too often, the conversation about race is reduced to lectures about the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, or the election of Barack Obama and whether or not this proves the country has truly evolved on matters of race. Martha Collins’ latest collection of poems, White Papers, takes a shift in the conversation by boldly confronting the issue of white privilege, while exploring her own complicated personal history with race and the country’s larger struggles with the issue. White Papers confronts America’s most central trauma, while allowing the healing process to begin.
One of the most noticeable stylistic choices of White Papers is Collins’ decision to not title any of the poems, but instead number them. By the last poem, the book serves as a complete story, one that explores Collins’ family history and the country’s past, from the Civil War to the election of Barack Obama. The poet makes clear in the opening poem that when she was growing up, true racial equality seemed far, far off, making the election of President Obama that much more significant, considering it happened only a few decades after the Civil Rights Movement. Immediately, Collins draws on her past with the opening line, “Because my father said Yes / but not in our lifetimes,” adding a few stanzas later that the only black American poet included in most American lit anthologies was Gwendolyn Brooks, who was never assigned. Even the poet is critical of her past views, punctuating the poem with the line, “Because a few years after Brown / v. Board of Education I wrote a paper / that took the position Yes but not yet.” That repetition of the phrase “Yes but not yet,” highlights how timid some of the privileged and liberal white folks were regarding the progress of civil rights.
In the book’s third poem, Collins’ makes clear the racial divide that existed, using the pronoun “they” to refer to black people who lived in “the colored section of town,” then juxtaposing that phrase with the pronoun “we” to refer to her family. The poem is mostly composed of unrhymed couplets, which alternate between the “we” and the “they,” making the difference and divide that much more evident. A few poems later, Collins’ repeats the phrase “they lived in the colored section of town.” As simple as the phrase may be, it is haunting and serves as a clear reminder about the polarization that existed, even in the north where Collins lived.
As much as the poet draws on her personal history, she also addresses U.S. history, challenging any notion that blacks had more rights in Northern and Midwestern states. In the book’s 11th poem, she acknowledges that slavery was illegal in Iowa; however, black persons needed a Certificate of Freedom and a $500 bond to move to Iowa, which was nearly impossible to obtain. She also points out that if they somehow did escape to Iowa, they were still restricted from voting, attending white schools, serving in the militia or legislature, and testifying against or marrying white people. The rest of the poem is composed like an exam, where a line is given with a blank, and then the answer is presented in parenthesis after it. This experimental form is especially useful in teaching the darker aspects of U.S. history, the trials and tribulations often erased from textbooks, or the “white papers” as Collins often refers to them.
Collins leaps from U.S. history to her childhood again midway through the book to address race in terms of Asian American history, specifically the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The collection’s 25th poem recalls one Japanese American girl at the poet’s all-white school and asks the questions, “was she maybe one / of the hundred and ten thousand / did she remember fences wire the war,” before concluding with the line “we didn’t / know much about her, who wasn’t us,” acknowledging the Japanese American girl was as much of an other to the white elite as the black people who lived on the other side of town.
The book’s last few poems acknowledge the healing process America has gone through, while again referencing past struggles that ultimately led to the election of the first black president. The book’s 43rd poem focuses on that election, while remembering the voices that used to say “not yet” or “too soon.” Collins brilliantly weaves together the past and present with the lines:
On his way to the Capital largely built by slaves
who baked bricks, cut, laid stone—
On his way
to stand before the Mall where slaves were held
in pens and sold—
On his way to the White
House partly built by slaves, where another
resident, after his Proclamation, wrote:
If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.
White Papers is challenging not only in subject matter, but also in its experimental forms and language. The book is risky, formally innovative, and a much-needed addition to the conversation of race in this country. Collins’ successfully rips off the mask of white privilege, while dealing with her own past and this country’s greater traumas.
Brian Fanelli’s poems have been published by Popshot, Portland Review, Harpur Palate, Solstice, Boston Literary Magazine, The Oklahoma Review, and other journals. He is the author of one chapbook, Front Man (Big Table Publishing), and the full-length collection, All That Remains, forthcoming soon from Unbound Content.