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.