The legendary Jack Johnson (1878–1946) was a true American creation. The child of emancipated slaves, he overcame the violent segregationism of Jim Crow, challenging white boxers—and white America—to become the first African-American heavyweight world champion. The Big Smoke, Adrian Matejka’s third work of poetry, follows the fighter’s journey from poverty to the most coveted title in sports through the multi-layered voices of Johnson and the white women he brazenly loved. Matejka’s book is part historic reclamation and part interrogation of Johnson’s complicated legacy, one that often misremembers the magnetic man behind the myth.
Praise for The Big Smoke
“Just as we finally get a grip on the volatile Jack Johnson, Adrian Matejka, in his collection of poems, The Big Smoke, gives us a man wrestling with myth. He assays a figure bigger than life, and we see a legend shaped by American history—heroic and antiheroic—that is humanized by moments of poetic exhilaration as well as downfall. This poet’s Jack Johnson is made of sweat, blood, and vulnerability. Unadorned and honed, the poems in The Big Smoke are seasoned with easeful authority but jaunty as the Eagle Rock.” —Yusef Komunyakaa, author of The Chameleon Couch
“In this revelatory work, Adrian Matejka makes a chamber opera out of the highly mythologized and often deeply misunderstood life of Jack Johnson. Through the virtuosic interplay of voices, Matejka forces us to interrogate our own complicity in making histories that focus on the prize fights and the flashy cars while ignoring (and perhaps abetting) the intimate struggles and losses, the cruelties occurring in the places we call home, that make the rifts in our lives and our country deepen. This is a startlingly human book whose gorgeous language never keeps us from the harder truths and myths that make and unmake all of us.” —Gabrielle Calvocoressi, author of Apocalyptic Swing