Review: Admit One: An American Scrapbook

Admit One: An American Scrapbook by Martha CollinsAdmit One: An American Scrapbook by Martha Collins, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016, 104 pp/, $15.95

Last spring’s release of Martha Collins’s Admit One: An American Scrapbook, is the third in a series that includes the volumes Blue Front and White Papers. The trilogy as a whole wrestles with race and racism in America from the perspective of a white woman and the history of family and country that precedes and includes her. In her work overall, Collins goes past the paralyzing silence of white guilt and into the active language of implication.

One feels in her work the compulsion to discover, and to confront. Whether her subject is the lynching her father witnessed as a child that is at the crux of Blue Front or the scientific racism of the early twentieth century at the forefront in Admit One, this is material that can’t be ignored once uncovered. Poetry is the vehicle of response for Collins, and we are the richer for having the results of her grappling. She locates our country’s legacy of racism in her own familial connections, therefore speaking from a position more like witness than judge, thought her work does render judgment.

The book design brilliantly achieves a potent symbolism. The cover is swathed in a red ticket, with the title of the book, Admit One, providing the wording typically printed on such tickets and used to allow entrance. This book-jacket ticket is already torn in half, a jagged edge visually following the spine. The image conveys not only access to the reader, but the fact that admittance has already been granted, and all that remains is to enter. This singular ticket is meant for the reader holding the book, meant to lead him or her inside the flaps to walk around, to witness what is being displayed, to look at it with individual perspective, but most importantly, to really see it.

Further, the “One” in the title implies something dangerous in alluding to the idea that when there is only one type—one kind of person who gains admittance—all others are barred from the same privilege. This volume picks up that thread in poems about the fear of immigrants and with the idea that the “Nordic race” was considered to be the top of humanity’s crop by American eugenicists, and later, Hitler. Make no mistake. What readers see inside this book they enter isn’t easy to face, but it is necessary. It is also just as relevant today as ever, in our world teeming with displaced refugees and our country’s post-convention era of Donald Trump as the republican nominee for president.

The structure of Collins’s poems, individually and how they are compiled, is that of a scrapbook, gesturing back to the book’s subtitle. Usually a scrapbook is full of what one wants to cherish, what is most memorable, what was most beautiful. This book turns that on its head. These are not our nation’s treasured memories, but they must be collected and kept; we must consider them placed in context to understand their potent connections. While we might like to forget the powerful voices that once openly embraced racism, or wish that such voices don’t continue to exist, Collins won’t let us. We are made to remember.

The poem titles are displayed in a variety of fonts, enhancing the sense that this is a curated collection. Some pieces have the look of a newspaper layout, boxing in a variety of headlines and announcements that appeared on the pages of Collins’s grandfather’s newspaper in Illinois in a given year, such as 1916, or 1924. By juxtaposing these, Collins illustrates their relationship to one another. There is something similar, she is showing us, in how we have dehumanized the “other” in our country, whether Italians (“Italian Slayer”), Native Americans (“red children”), criminals, African Americans, women, or the mentally ill. The “wolf packs” and “superpredators” populating American newspaper headlines in the 80s and 90s clearly have deep roots.

Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric before it, Admit One is a poetic sequence that provides a form to match its message. The poems in both books offer records of racism through the device of accumulation. The collage sensibility of both collections creates forms that buck against unity. On the one hand, the subject matter of racism is inherently unharmonious; the compilation of fragments in both Rankine’s and Collins’s work highlights the terrible clanging truth that racism reverberates through our past and present. There can be no peace around issues of racism, and so these books remain in pieces in a certain way. They show their seams, and are stronger, and more authentic, because of this. Both authors forge connections between disparate instances of racism to shine a light on their commonality and prevalence. In Admit One, the focus is primarily on looking backward, which we must do if we are to understand where we are today. We cannot articulate our current brokenness, our wish to fix that, by ignoring how and why we are broken.

But we have short memories, and that is why the work of Collins, Rankine, and others is so necessary. We can more easily look away from racism when such accumulations are kept disparate. Collins’s poems explore, mine, and compile the past, but they have been written in a present that is experiencing the effects of that past. In other words, that these books are written now, helps us to identify how we got here and why today matters. Why, speaking of mattering, a movement such as Black Lives Matter matters.

An Acknowledgements section records the multitude of research materials Collins mined in the process of crafting this collection. How she went from this wealth of sources, including familial primary ones, to these stripped-down poetic forms is a marvel. The book is deeply personal, and perhaps this is the principal way we can attempt to rehumanize. Collins locates herself inside the pages; her grandparents attended the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, and her grandfather wrote about it in his newspaper.

From the very first poem, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” we feel an accumulation:

An Ivory City of Palaces
with columns colonnades towers
turrets fountains statues domes

engines working factories farms
dairies bakeries animals art

20 million trees and plants
75 miles of roads and walks
14 miles of railroad track

 

We as readers are made to feel the awe and onslaught; we are voyeurs and made complicit in the viewing.

The pathway to objectification is examined in “The Pike.” Through liberal use of exclamations, Collins shows how fabricated and real sights displayed together at the Fair led to the conflation of the two: “Zulus and Bushmen!” beside “Dante’s Inferno!” and the “Six Days of Creation.” At the bottom of the page is a box inside of which we get the addition of “ICE CREAM CONES! COTTON CANDY! HOT DOGS!” All is entertainment. In “The Street Between,” the poet notes a Centennial museum exhibit seen later in life, in which she “… learned / that people had been brought to the Fair // from Africa, Asia, America (North / and South) to be displayed—”

In “Meanwhile” we are shown another kind of accumulation: “… Meanwhile segregation laws for train cars    streetcars / trashcans    schools    libraries    bathrooms    poolrooms    books / hearses    graveyards    prisons    circus tickets    telephone booths…”

A title term, “Admit,” comes up in “Alien, Part One,” which documents the ways in which we keep others from being “admitted,” the reasons immigrants have been excluded from our nation: “—and you could have been excluded as a convict / lunatic    beggar    pauper    polygamist    anarchist / prostitute    epileptic    contract laborer    mental defective / bearer of loathsome/contagious disease…”

This poem is followed by “Fitter Families,” in which the ironic “Yea, I have a goodly heritage” is invoked. To belong, one of the “Nordic” race could proclaim these biblical words, but this whole book uncovers the ugliness of that claim, the shame of such a heritage that would claim its own goodness at the expense of others.

Several poems throughout explore the different meanings in similar words, such as how “Exposition/Expose/Exposure” investigates the roots of words as Collins does the roots of racism; thereby dismantling the idea of “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” by showing how many layers words have, how subjective they can be, how like weapons.

Recurrent subjects in the collection include forced sterilization victim Carrie Buck, the “exhibited” African pygmy Ota Benga, and eugenicist Madison Grant, whom Collins further skewers by including a piece on how he “helped save” endangered animals and “preserve” forests and parks. This is hypocritical not only because he was saving what he hunted, and where he hunted, but also because of whom he considered to be impure and was rallying to have eradicated: people of color, immigrants, and the mentally ill. In “Some Eugenics” Grant is quoted as saying “The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit.” He called “sentimental” the “belief / in the sanctity of human life” and urged us to eliminate “defective infants” and sterilize those deemed as having “no value to the community.”

In an ongoing poetic “conversation” between Ota Benga and Madison Grant through the book, the poems are placed on the pages with the Ota Benga pieces preceding the poems about Grant, thus physically showcasing a lineage between the two, one Grant himself would have railed against. Grant also founded the Bronx Zoo, where Ota Benga was placed on display after the Fair. Ota Benga ended his life in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he committed suicide in 1916.

In “Zoo,” a poem about the Bronx Zoo, Collins writes, “for us we parked / the car could leave”—in other words, there are the caged and the jailers, the “them” and the “us.” We make up the rules, godlike, deciding, as in “Elephant,” that “Whipping an elephant does not hurt him; / but he thinks that it does.” And it is a slippery slope from whipping an animal to whipping a human, to animalizing a human.

Admit One is not only scrapbook but mirror. The final section, “Postscript,” includes pieces that draw direct links between our troubled history and how that plays out on today’s national stage. In nods to the way President Obama has been animalized and his middle name has been used to further stoke a fear of Muslims, to the way reproductive rights are still threatened today, these final poems prove that hate and violence begets hate and violence. This is us, it seems to say—U.S.—and it feels like it could only be told in this fragmented way, the ticket torn from the start, suggesting the tears in the very fabric of our country, how divided we are, how ripped apart, how in need of healing.

 

 

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