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…