Martha Collins: Reviewed by Paul David Adkins


White Papers by Martha Collins (University of Pittsburgh Press)


collins cover


Because—a conjunction which normally precedes a reason or an excuse.  It is with this word that Martha Collins masterfully opens her sixth full-length volume of poetry, entitled White Papers.  As a child growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s Midwest and New England, Collins is faced with a lot of excuses, particularly concerning the nation’s race relations.  Armed with a refusal to accept these precepts, Collins bravely and singlehandedly embarks on an internal quest to explore, and later refute, the prejudices in which she was immersed for twenty years.

     Collins employs two distinct voices in the book:  one, conversational, often without punctuation, coupled with a second, more literary, italicized style she seems to lift from textbooks and other educational documents.  Poem [8] provides an excellent example of this dual voice juxtaposed:


     Not mine:  mine came late

     they lived in England


     which supplied more slave

     ships sold more slaves than all

     the colonies and states combined


Normally, the italicized lines are accurately punctuated, as opposed to the surrounding text, as found in Poem [29]:


     slaves hoeing picking bailing

     carrying loading trundling cotton


     butchering hogs mining mowing

     men women children families


     It’s right on the money, said

     John W. Jones, the black artist


     Collins’ use of enjambment throughout the book sharply heightens the tension and recreates the rhythm of natural speech patterns and internal dialog, especially addressing so explosive a topic as racism.  In Poem [1], Collins explains:


     Because magazines rarely TV

     rarely textbooks rarely or not

     at all except for figures like

     George Washington Carver

     who’d lived in our state


     The poet isolates Carver on his own line to underscore the separation experienced by African-Americans in the United States at the time.  Further in the same piece, an African-American poet is similarly segregated when Collins writes the line, “had only Gwendolyn Brooks[.]”  Later, utilizing the same enjambment technique to create internal tension in Poem [16], she states:


     Of course there were browns

     who weren’t black, but we called

     them white or didn’t call them

     or know them, except for Senor

     Briseno who taught Spanish.


     Punctuation in White Papers is normally sparse, especially in the conversational, non-italicized portions of the volume.  When the poet does employ it, the ellipsis is often the grammatical symbol of choice, especially in the first third of the book.  In Poem [10], Collins writes about African-Americans in her school:


     one in junior high but not in my class


     one in high school but not—


     except for not-quite her I didn’t . . .


     but oh I knew how many oh yes I knew


     The poet uses the ellipsis to insinuate understood racist undertones, ideas or themes without having to actually utter them.  This construct allows rooted prejudice to maintain a certain amount of respectability and decorum, as if such fully uttered talk would otherwise lower the status of the speaker to the level of an outright bigot.

     Physical visualization and construct is an important part of the volume.  While Collins makes spare use of concrete poems, their effectiveness is nevertheless powerful.  The poet shapes three pieces ([9], [18], and [35]) into horizontal > forms reminiscent of pillories, where the victim’s hands and feet are clamped separately, forcing the sufferer to contort himself painfully.  The reference is clear at the beginning of the second portion of Poem [35]:


     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


She creates another startling concrete piece in the third portion of Poem [38], seen here in its entirety:


     a majority white                 means

     of defending              against non-

     only sensible                  all whites

     welcome                 separate state


     separation              of the strictest

     Christian                more children

     bring them up                       fulfill

     our God-given                     white


     future homeland                 violent

     third reich              war and blood

     shed            racial revolution pan

     Aryan                       white against 


     One can envision the cracking marble monolith she creates using italics, justification, and spacing.  It is as if the reader encounters an aging monument, dilapidated and forgotten in a weedy plot.  The poet uses a similar concrete image in Poem [20], a construct of diminishment, center-justified and similar to an ancient New England headstone, complete with tribal names and dates.

     The reader will find two pages reading “[this page blank]” after Poems [15] and [30], and another blank page after Poem [45], the closing piece.  One might initially assume these blank pages allow the reader space to breathe, or they serve to divide sections, as they are positioned between every fifteen poems.  However, Collins hints at something deeper and more disturbing in the second portion of Poem [13].  Here, she writes:


                                    this is a white on white

paper if you are finding

it hard to read white

words on white consider


And closing, she reveals the white words are:


glare perhaps but nothing

rising off the page


     The implications are stunning.  The poet essentially is proposing that she presents a blank page here, and the reader is seeing whatever he chooses, or is able, to discern.  This hypothetical white letters-on-white sheet poem leads to intriguing possibilities when the reader encounters the blank pages further on, which are all the more significant because they follow extremely revelatory, painful pieces.  In Poem [15], Collins admits she does not even know the first name of her family’s beloved, long-serving maid.  Likewise, Poem [30] reveals the amazing extent that race privilege has assisted the poet during her lifetime.  White Papers is full of poems which utilize the unsaid, the ellipsis, to convey some of the poet’s deepest confessions and admissions.  It is only logical to assess that there are whole passages or poems which Collins must leave unwritten, and these blank pages represent this courageous admission to her readers.

     Not to be outdone, the cover absolutely involves the reader in symbolically combatting the racism Collins battles throughout the volume.  Looking at the front of the book, the reader peers out from behind a glass door reading WHITE ONLY.  On the other side is an anonymous, passive, black-faced figure facing in.  While the person does not attempt to enter or even try to twist the knob to the door, the reader must himself reach out instead to the cover (and, hence, the figure outside) as though to unlock and open the door.  The simple act of opening White Papers becomes a metaphor for compassion and liberation, involving both the reader and oppressed figure outside.

     As stated earlier, Collins is on a quest, a journey to unearth and destroy the racist foundation of her Caucasian heritage.  The poet uses a logical narrative arc to convey this intent, primarily through the lens of her education.  She moves the reader from her childhood to adulthood, through her primary, secondary, and college schooling, to personal experiences understanding and combating racism, and finally President Obama’s election and term in office. 

     Collins subtly employs wide variations on the common English sonnet to illustrate the pernicious influence of her race-obsessed education, and the slow release from its symptoms.  The poet starts using fourteen-line variants starting in Poem [10], then repeats the same number of lines in a poem for a total of seven more times in the space of the next 21 pieces.  This quasi-sonnet form represents typical educational standards regarding the study of literature and the humanities in postwar America.  After Poem [32], this pattern disappears, illustrating Collins’ movement away from traditional to more experiential forms of education.  One can sense in Poem [26], her maturing attitude towards self-education and awareness when she writes:


     Protests marches teach-ins sit-ins I tried to write

     a poem a woman walked across a field across

     my mind does she carry a gun / I do not know


     And later I went to Vietnam It will change your life

     my friend said I do not know—Toi khong biet—

     I did not know, but they taught me


In Poem [3], Collins illustrates her childhood perceptions of racial segregation.  She explains:


     they lived


     in the colored section

     of town though we lived


     in a city not a town it had

     a downtown where we saw


     them sometimes in stores

     on street at the movies . . .


     She presents the reader with a middle school pop quiz in Poem [11], and continues with high school history lessons in Poem [13].  Both reveal a significant level of ignorance she possesses regarding race relations at the time.   

     As she explores the African-American experience, Collins also delves into prejudices leveled against both Native- and Asian-Americans.  Poems [19], [20], and [21] focus on the nation’s Native-American genocide campaign.  In Poem [19], she confesses:


     rivers counties even

     our state for the Ioway

     tribe long gone now


     only the once removed

     returned Keskwaki I never

     went to their annual powwow


     By exploring the treatment of these people, Collins is able to draw conclusions on the common nature and roots of racism in the United States, identifying Native-Americans in Poem [21] as “our first them.” (pp. 27). 

     Further on, Collins identifies bigotry against Asian-Americans in Poems [25], [26], and [27].  The poet, through these pieces, demonstrates her ability to perceive racism directed at various, seemingly disparate, groups.  In Poem [25], when considering a Nisei classmate, she wonders:


     before, or after, was she maybe one

     of the hundred and ten thousand, did

     she remember fences wire the war

     we didn’t remember, we didn’t

     know much about her, who wasn’t us—    


     Collins slowly grasps the full extent of race hatred in the United States, as illustrated by these six poems.  But of critical importance, in Poem [28], she is able to put this knowledge to practical, contemporaneous use.  She states:


                        the Turkish word for turban


     an item worn by some of our current

            Other:  formerly seen as more

                        or less white but recently un-


     whitened colored not to be bought

            and sold but made by other

                        means to do our bidding


     This applied knowledge, indicated above, is indeed a liberating experience, enabling Collins to discern present-day patterns of hatred once primarily reserved for African-Americans.  Her revelation is as important to American literature as Sarah Kennedy’s 2008 poetic masterpiece Witch’s Dictionary, in which the author identifies the targeting and alienation of non-Americans during the Global War on Terror.

     White Papers contains 45 poems, a number which coincides with the age of Barack Obama when he announced his candidacy for President.  Sixteen of the 45 poems, over 35%, use the long “O” sound somewhere in the closing line.  And while some of the sounds come from words like “know,” their commonality is clearly linked upon the appearance of Poem [42], commemorating the day America elected its first African-American to the Presidency. 

     Collins senses the new President’s ascent to power is a seminal moment in American history.  In her first reference to Obama in Poem [17], the poet notes during presidential debates:


     Why don’t

     you wear a flag

     pin they asked one


     of our candidates

     who often wears

     white shirts


     which look quite nice

     against his khaki

     American skin


She decisively drives the point home in Poem [43], stating:


     Today the train too fast

     said not yet they said


     to Washington right

     now:  to the White

     House on the train


Later in the same poem, Collins rejoices, exclaiming:


     One hundred years later  King said

     Now is the time  We can never

     be satisfied as long as  he


     dreamed:  every valley

     exalted  all these years until

     not an end  they said  a beginning


     One of the most striking aspects of White Papers is what Collins must personally risk to gain a semblance of racial understanding and internal coming-to-terms with her whiteness, her role in and benefits from the oppression of entire races of people.  In Poems [39], [40], and [41], the poet reports a sense of personal danger and physical threats as she approaches the possibility of a race-free American society.  Poem [39] catalogs these fears:


     because black people could brown


     people could brown people could


     yellow people could brown people


     could white people could disappear!


     because     people could


Poem [40] is similarly unsettling, with the insinuations of being targeted by gunfire, as well as continued dread regarding disappearance.  Poem [41] underscores Collins’ terror:


     could dis-

     appear in snow

     Poe’s Pym’s sea

     of milk white

     ashes vapor


     Poem [42], however, catalogs some relief from this sense of personal unease, though the construct is dense and claustrophobic.  Poem [45] also provides further evidence of a lessening of the danger to the writer.

     Collins opens White Papers with Because.  Just as significantly, she begins the collection’s final poem with Although, a word inherently used to present two parts of a contradictory argument or discussion.  If nothing else, the presence of internal conflict, argument, tension, is what drives the volume.  At every turn, the poet has confronted and questioned her own attitudes and privileges, the comfortable circumstances of her life:


     although my father although

     my mother although we rarely

     although we whispered


     although the silence although

     the absence although even now

     some TV books not to mention


     Collins admits her internal struggles are not finished, nor can they ever truly be reconciled.  But she concludes it is the introspective journey, the internal struggle, and victory over the teachings of hatred and bigotry that is most important here.  Her refutation of racial privilege, her knowledge, awareness, and rejection of its history and continued effect on both personal and societal attitudes, is likely the best anyone can hope for at this time.  As she explains in the penultimate tercet:


     and although I’ve gone back

     and filled in some blanks

     I’m still learning this un-


Yes, she closes, and repeats the affirming.  Yes.




Paul David Adkins grew up in South Florida and lives in New York.