Micro Review of The Big Smoke, by Adrian Matejka

The Big Smoke


Micro Review of The Big Smoke, by Adrian Matejka


Penguin, 2013: $18.00 paperback


The Big Smoke tells the story of the first African American heavyweight world champion, Jack Johnson. Matejka meets the difficult, tragic elements of Johnson’s life head on, and in the opening poem, “Battle Royal,” tells how Jack Johnson got his start boxing after bear baiting became illegal. Blindfolded, spun around and thrown into the ring: “I didn’t know where// those punches came from, but I swung/ so hard my shoulder hasn’t been right// since because the man said only/ the last darky on his feet gets a meal.” But like everything in this book, the tension is derived not only from Johnson’s race, but the complexity of his character—the person, Jack Johnson. In the poem “Fisticuffs,” Johnson talks candidly, disturbingly, and somewhat paradoxically about the first woman he loved, Clara: “Clara is the reason I don’t deal with// colored women anymore. I never had/ a colored girl that didn’t two-time me.”



The poems in Johnson’s voice have more surprising grace and eloquence than you might expect from a pugilist of any era, but these unexpected touches are why you cant set this book down. That Johnson read and loved Shakespeare. That Johnson bought gold teeth “to make/ every bite of [his] food twice as expensive.” That Johnson loved Verdi’s Il Trovatore: “it was like sun up after the Great Storm.” Matejka has gathered these details and used them to go far beyond mere caricature or even characterization. Johnson’s voice possesses the type of authenticity rare to stories rooted in a history muddled by early 20th century racism; so at the end of the book when Johnson asks the reader “What would you like to know?” in a smudged booth at Hubert’s Museum & Flea Circus in 1937, long after his prizefighting days, I simply shrugged my shoulders. What’s left to give? He’s already given us so much.  



—by Travis Mossotti