Admit Everything: Everything Broken Up Dances by James Byrne (Tupelo Press, 2015); Admit One: An American Scrapbook by Martha Collins (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016)

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews

Martha Collins’s Admit One: An American Scrapbook is the completion of a trilogy that includes Blue Front and White Papers, a series that examines race in America from a white perspective. Scrap-book is at once a personal account (the book opens with the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, and Collins’s grandparents, her grandmother pregnant with her mother at the time)—and a scrutiny of the history of American eugenics. Collins imagines her family’s trip to the fair, constructed with personal accounts of family members and documented research. This is not just a reenactment of history—it is an awakening to it:
    Because I’d always gone to the Fair
    in Iowa, sometimes Illinois
    Because I’d thought a midway, rides,
    cattle and pigs in barns, and they
    had those, she said, but more—
    But really because I later saw,
    with my mother, who lived in St. Louis then,
    the Centennial museum exhibit and learned
    that people had been brought to the Fair
    from Africa, Asia, America (North
    and South) to be displayed—
The poems gently but powerfully unearth injustices concealed by whitewashed history; at the forefront is the World’s Fair, with its entertainments and social events geared to the privileged class.

Collins names both victims and perpetrators, and follows each story in several poems—for instance, that of Ota Benga, an African Pygmy displayed and later transferred to the Bronx Zoo, and that of Madison Grant, a leading U.S. eugenicist of the time. But then Collins takes the poetry a step further and observes the reach of eugenics, its effect, and its extension into pre-war Germany (with ramifications for World War II and the political climate we find ourselves in today, with its deep-seated issues about race and about immigration).

Collins expertly weaves in research that highlights the mindset of the age. For example, in the poems about enforced sterilization, she writes of Carrie Buck, from Charlottesville, Virginia, whose sterilization (and the sterilization of her sister), Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes defended, saying (as Collins quotes), “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Buck herself is quoted in a poem that provides a timeline of her part in the great eugenics experiment in this country (“Carrie Buck, Part Three,” here in full):

    In October 1927, Carrie Buck was sterilized at the Virginia Colony.
    In November, she was discharged on furlough to work for a family.
    In 1928, her sister Doris, 14, was sterilized at the Colony.
    In 1932, Carrie married her first husband, joined the Methodist church
        and sang in the choir.
    The same year, her daughter Vivian Dobbs, 8, who was once on the
        school honor roll, died.
    In 1965, Carrie married her second husband.
    In 1974, Virginia repealed the Compulsory Sterilization Act.
    In 1980, Carrie said: They just told me I had to have an operation.
    In 1983, Carrie Buck Eagle Detamore died.
Another poem on a timeline is “Alien, Part Two.” Unlike the echo earlier of Ginsberg’ sprawling music in Byrne’s final poem, there is no sonic reverberation here, but there is, interestingly, one of content: in the invocation of the trial of Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti (in Ginsberg’s “America”), which starts her poem, here in full:
    1921  Sacco and Vanzetti convicted
        Italian   immigrant   anarchist
    1920-22  Henry Ford buys   publishes   weekly
    newspaper   with anti-Semitic columns   compels
    dealers   to buy   placed   in new cars   made
    into pamphlets   into languages   into German
        no civilization   no great achievement
        in any realm but the realm of “get”

    1920  Madison Grant courts Albert Johnson   Chair
    of House Immigration   recommends Harry Laughlin
    who testifies   is appointed   Expert Eugenics Agent
    to Congress   Grant works with Johnson   who tells
    Congress   US Consuls anticipate   1 million Jews
        abnormally twisted   unassimilable   filthy
        un-American   often dangerous in their habits

    1921  Grant lobbies   publicizes   creates with Johnson
    one-year   Emergency Quota Act   which decreases
    immigration allows   each nation only   3% of its 1910
    1922 Harvard President Lowell announces quota for Jews
    1922 Emergency Quota Act extended for two years.
The reportage here challenges our ideas of what it means to be fit: mentally fit, fit to live, fit for acceptance or equality.

In the poems that are not providing a record of events, Collins makes “American scrapbook” into a verb, scrapbooking resonant words from her narrative poems (“missing,” “animal,” “pass” for example). The poem “Admit/Admit” is representative of how Collins uses these spare and fragmented lyrics, words she’s scrapbooked in order to open up a greater dialogue:

                one   two   them   it            
            was a right   wrong   just
        the ticket   members   only   into
        the country   school   bar   refuse
              hate to   have to   concede
            as evidence   into the record
            we have to   guilt   mistake   own
                as a right   openly   into
These lyrics are the heart of a scrapbook—requiring both breath and pause, they trail off into the white space, which is both the wider past they contain and the greater dialogue that needs to ensue. In her book, Collins reopens a fraught and relevant conversation that seems to have no end in sight.

Valerie Duff-Strautmann is the author of To the New World (Salmon Poetry). Recent poems have appeared in Solstice, Prague Review, and The Common. Her books reviews have been published widely and she was the 2015 Writers’ Room of Boston Fellow in poetry.

Prayer for Something Like a Home
Self-Portraiture, Family History, and the Lyric: One Hundred Hungers by Lauren Camp (Tupelo Press, 2016) and Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti by Chad Parmenter (Tupelo Press, 2015)