The Big Smoke (Matejka)

[Fill disclosure: Mr. Matejka has graciously agreed to visit my classroom this week. He’ll be in town to accept his Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.]

When I first heard of the concept, a book about the boxer Jack Johnson, I was intrigued. But when I learned it was a book of poems, I was doubly so. It seemed like such an interesting concept, and Matejka makes it work – a(n) (auto)biography in poems.

The most remarkable thing here is the creation of the voice, not only of Johnson, but of his shadow (really) and several of the women in his life. He effectively brings Johnson alive, warts and all.

With sections headed by boxing terminology – “Hurt Business,” “Weigh-In,” “Knee Off Canvas,” “Bet Your Last Copper” and “No Decision” – Matejka tells the story of a powerful boxer, dealing both with racism and his own demons.

For all of Johnson’s flaws, Matejka’s final poem, “Hubert’s Museum & Flea Circus (1937),” is absolutely heartbreaking ( He deserved better.


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