The turn that I would like to discuss occurs in Martha Collins’ “,” the fourteenth poem in White Papers, a collection in which Collins examines the complexity of white privilege in America. White Papers is a singular achievement, to be sure, but it is also part of a larger project that Collins started in Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006). In that book-length poem, Collins writes about a lynching that her father witnessed when he was a five-year-old boy living in Cairo, Illinois. The investigations of that project led Collins to write White Papers. Throughout the collection, Collins explores the dimensions of whiteness as the color of cotton that was grown and commodified in the South; as the color of ivory on piano keys; as a metaphor for cleanliness as well as erasure; as an absence or form of invisibility; and as a boundary that is occasionally fixed, frequently crossed, and always under scrutiny. As diverse as the content of these poems might be, they all contribute to a narrative arc in which the poet achieves a sense of resolution about her own ideas of race, privilege, and power. So, then, there are three ways in which we can read the poems in White Papers: as individual lyric expressions, as interwoven parts of a sequence, and as part of a larger, two-volume exploration of racism in America. In what follows, I will argue that if we are to locate and discuss a turn in any one of these poems, it has to be in the context of the speaker’s broader turn from complicit participation in a racist culture to a powerful affirmation of cultural and individual change, a transformation that takes an entire book, and decades of a lifetime, to complete.
I have chosen to write about “” in part because it defies any easy categorization, especially when it comes to identifying its turn. How do poems that are part of a poetic sequence “turn”? Do they segue into one another? Do they privilege links over leaps? Do the hinges that connect them force coherence rather than surprise? In a short, self-enclosed lyric poem, the turn often presents itself with a rhetorical clarity and force, but none of the poems in White Papers are self-enclosed artifacts. As Martha Collins herself has observed, this particular poetic sequence is full of threads that weave and unweave and place a great deal of emphasis on the uncomfortable gaps in our ability to understand race in America.1
In what follows, I will show how Collins deliberately pushes against prescribed structures in this and other poems in the sequence. Her resistance presents a problem for the reader who wants to locate a specific, self-enclosed turn in one of her poems, as all of them are related to a larger turn of consciousness throughout the collection. In what follows, I will provide a close reading of some of Collins’ rhetorical moves that lead up to her arresting turn, and then discuss the turn itself, and how and why it defies easy categorization.
Without further ado, let’s consider “” from White Papers:
black keys from trees white keys locked
on black shoulders locked together above
skeleton ribs keys to 45 keyboards from one
tusk the word ivory rang through the air
one tusk + one slave to carry it bought
together if slave survived the long march
sold for spice or sugar plantations if not
replaced by other slaves five Africans died
for each tusk 2 million for 400,000 American
pianos including the one my grandmother
played not to mention grieving villages
burned women children left to die the dead
elephants whose tusks went to Connecticut
where they were cut bleached and polished
while my grandmother played in Illinois
my mother played and I—there were many old
pianos and slaves were used till the 20th century:
an African slave could have carried a tusk
that was cut into white keys I played, starting
with middle C and going up and down
With her brief lines and abandonment of standard punctuation, Collins briskly transports the reader from the labor of Africans harvesting ivory to the manufacture of pianos sold to middle-class white Americans, to the speaker herself, who played such a piano as a child. Certainly, the poem provides a clear and arresting turn when, at the end, the speaker implicates herself in the exploitation of African slaves, thereby showing a powerful urge to examine the residue of racism that influences every aspect of American life.
The turn is surprising if we consider the poem on its own terms, but it accumulates even more power when read with the poems that surround it in the book. The poem that precedes “” begins with a meditation on the material properties of white paper (15), and the poem that follows “” is a meditation on “Beloved Belindy,” a doll that was “the mammy” of “Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy and of all the other dolls in the nursery.” In this context, a piano with black and white keys becomes one of many commodities that relies on racial difference for its significance and value.
Collins uses this and many other poems as rhetorical acts of correction, and she begins this corrective work with the title itself. Like all of the poems in the sequence, “” has a bracketed number for a title. Upon a first reading, one might easily overlook this numerical assignation, which seems to function as a signifier of order more than anything else, but Collins deliberately uses typography to signal the poem’s rhetorical function. The typographical mark of the bracket is used to enclose missing material; as John Wilson observes in his Treatise on English Punctuation, “brackets are chiefly intended to give an explanation, to rectify a mistake, or to supply an omission.”2 What omission is Collins correcting? It appears that she wants to puncture the nostalgia that surrounds the piano as a symbol of domestic bliss.
Poems are always in conversation with other poems: as intellectual and emotional engagements, as arguments, as acts of theft, whether it be of subject, of rhetoric, or of language, and with this in mind, it is useful to read “” against other poems that have meditated on the cultural and emotional power of the piano. For example, if the reader considers “” in conversation with D.H. Lawrence’s “Piano,” she can easily see Lawrence’s nostalgia for the familiar comforts of his past and his blindness to the material conditions of production for the piano.
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.
Everything about Lawrence’s poem—the diminutive feet of the adoring mother, the child’s fascination with the instrument’s mechanisms, the contrast between the sweetness of boyhood and the “flood of remembrance” felt in manhood, and the juxtaposition between the warmth of the “cosy parlour” and the cold weather outside—suggests an unapologetic longing for the past but in no way alludes to the materials and labor that allowed for such longing to exist in the first place. In contrast, Collins refers to maternal figures—her mother, her grandmother playing pianos in Connecticut and Illinois—but only after the reader has been exposed to the crimes committed in the name of profit in Africa. Collins continues to puncture any hope of nostalgia with her citation of a quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “the word ivory rang through the air.” In referencing this famous quote, Collins reinforces the juxtaposition between violence and domesticity. The numeric title in brackets can bring the reader to an understanding of Collins’ dissatisfaction with some previously published texts and her reconsideration of others in the context of this profoundly personal poem.
In “” and most other poems in White Papers, Collins uses a disjointed syntax that disrupts the readers’ expectation for a clear narrative or sequence of events. As Linda Gregerson has observed, syntax functions as a kind of contract with the reader; that is, even if the reader does not fully understand the meaning of a sentence, he or she can infer what the sentence might connote based on the arrangement of the words in a recognizable order—a noun, followed by a verb, followed by a direct object, for example.3 Here, Martha Collins seems to break that contract. At first, her syntax might not “make sense”; instead, she uses patterns of association, accumulation, and repetition to convey the leaps in the speaker’s thoughts. For example, in the shift from the image of the tusk on the slave’s shoulder to the quote from Heart of Darkness, the image triggers the speaker’s remembrance of Conrad’s text, which in turn leads her to think of the precise arithmetic of physical harm and profit that leads to the creation of the piano. Notice, too, the care that Collins takes to create patterns of repetition, especially in her word choices. In the first two lines, we see the repetition of “locked” and “black,” which creates the sense of yoking between the two words, both aurally and thematically; five uses of “slave”; and four uses of “tusk.” Throughout the poem, Collins is assiduous in her attention to how all of this adds up, so to speak. For example, in the phrase “one tusk + one slave to carry it,” Collins uses the symbol for addition to recreate the methodical precision with which African slaves were exploited; and several lines down, she continues her arithmetic, reporting that “five Africans died / for each tusk 2 million for 400,000 American / pianos.”
As the poem proceeds, Collins leaps from the statistical to the personal, and without a single pause or use of punctuation, she alludes to the piano “my grandmother/played.” Here, Collins could have used the grandmother as a figure of domestic quietude; instead, she juxtaposes her own grandmother against other maternal figures who died for the ivory: “the one my grandmother/played not to mention grieving villages/ burned women children left to die […]”. For the most part, the speaker’s meditations seem to be grounded in the past, but then, at the very end of the poem, the speaker implicates herself: “an African slave could have carried a tusk/that was cut into white keys I played, starting / with middle C and going up and down.” This last, bone-chilling phrase resists any easy explanation of the speaker’s actions or any didactic reframing of what we have read in the poem. Instead, we are left with an image of the child sitting at the piano, using the “middle C” on the keyboard as her guide as she learns her lessons. The speaker hovers above the key, “going up and down,” suggesting an ambivalence toward the instrument, and its origins, that haunts the reader throughout this section of the book.
Collins borrows from several structures to create surprise at the end of this poem. On the one hand, the poem clearly offers a concession, one in which the speaker implicates herself in the crimes committed in the name of late capitalism. As Mary Szybist has observed, the concessional structure can be risky, but it can carry enormous power: “concessions can gain an audience’s attention and trust. Most importantly, they can strengthen the force of an argument and its overall persuasiveness.”4 In addition, though, Collins provides a meditation on the material properties of pianos and the labor required to bring them to fruition. This seems to suggest that she is using a descriptive-meditative structure, in which highly visual imagery leads to an insight on the part of the speaker. But we can also see elements of the dialectical argument structure at work in this poem, as the speaker engages with and revises literary texts that have come before hers. This poem seems to resist easy categorization, and perhaps this is a deliberate move on the part of the poet, as her meditations on race in America are meant to problematize any easy conclusions that we can make.
Many of the poems in White Papers derive their power from Collins’ research in a variety of archives, and their turns are directly informed by the materials she incorporates. Archives provide poets with a way to capture the past and retool it for their own uses. In their use of literary texts, too, poets show how they engage in conversations with writers who have come before them. These “retoolings” can take the form of collage, of chance operations, of the imprints of things left, and of mining sources for other materials. Each poem in this collection features raw historical data that seems to lie beyond our comprehension. It is this beyond-ness—and the poetic speaker’s desire to grapple with her culpability in it—that makes each of Collins’ poems unique. For Collins and many other poets, research is not just an accumulation of data. It catalyzes the reader to look beyond and outside the poem, back to an engagement with the world. In the case of White Papers, this engagement takes the shape of an extended act of self-implication and confession, one that takes an entire book to perform.
1 Martha Collins discusses this weaving in an interview on the Ancora Imparo website: http://ancoraimparo.org/?p=1338.
2 Treatise on English Punctuation (New York: Woolworth, Ainsworth, & Co., 1871), 235.
3 “The New Salon: Poets in Conversation. Linda Gregerson with Darrel Alejandro Holnes. New York University, April 12, 2012. http://www.cwp.fas.nyu.edu/page/podcast
4 “The Concessional Structure.” In Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns (NY: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 2007), 41.
Joanne Diaz is the author of The Lessons, which won the Gerald Cable first book award from Silverfish Review Press and was published in Spring 2011. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in 32 Poems, AGNI, The American Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, DIAGRAM, The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, The Quercus Review, The Southern Review, and Third Coast. Diaz is the recipient of an artist fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is an assistant professor in the English department at Illinois Wesleyan University.