Short-shot Review

Martha Collins: White Papers (Pitt Poetry Series 2012)

Martha Collins’ newest book of poems is doing what no other book of poems is doing right now – talking about race from a White first-person perspective. Most similar in terms of its theme to C.D. Wright’s One with Others, Collins’ book dispenses with Wright’s historical distances and her cast of characters to address racism directly. She asks, as a White woman growing up amid the great turmoil of the second half of the Twentieth Century, “If there is (has always been) a them, then who am I?”

Beginning with her early recollections of segregation in the town where she grew up, Wright moves into an interrogation of the normative value “Whiteness” itself, as she catalogs the personal, economic, social, and political costs of centuries of American racism.

There is a good deal of guilt in this collection. These are not poems that discover the speaker’s sense of shame or ever question whether such shame is an appropriate reaction, but rather, these are poems that wonder why it has taken so long to recognize what now, for this speaker, seems so obvious. The sense of apology is palpable.

But what sets this book apart and shakes it loose from the siren-call of the sentimental is its experimental form: forty-five un-titled narrative lyrics, often spare and restrained, and often playing with “white” space on the page, some pages even left intentionally blank. Fragments and half-finished thoughts evoke un-realized lives and un-finished business, the as yet only just unfolding American project. Collins’ mastery here lies in her great skill at creating a new vehicle for expressing what a whole generation of poets has quietly felt.


Here is [35a ], reprinted from the Fall 2011 issue:

and if I look at your face at your hands your

triumphant or suffering body and do not

see, if the mirror neurons that make

me experience another’s actions

as my own do not fire

who wasn’t us

who isn’t us

who isn’t there

I may find in your face

my father my mother my most

desired despised my most from even

myself hidden other myself displaced not re-

cognized and you of course defaced your self erased