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Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006)

Bluefront cover

Martha Collins's father, as a five-year-old boy, sold fruit in front of the Blue Front Restaurant in Cairo, Illinois, in November 1909. What he witnessed there, along with the reported 10,000 participants, is shocking.

About Blue Front

Blue Front won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for 2006. These awards "recognize books that have made important contributions to our understanding of racisim or our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures." The award, which is administered by the Cleveland Foundation, will be presented on September 6, 2007.

Blue Front was also chosen as one of "25 Books to Remember from 2006" by the New York Public Library, and received an Ohioana Book Award.

"Reading this clear-eyed, sorrowing, searching poem of witness, I feel gooseflesh, and I weep, for fear and for the truth of our U.S. racism, which goes on and goes on. I admire everything Martha Collins has written, and I feel she was born to write this book. I want to quietly thank her, and to quietly thank those to whose memory she dedicates this great work."

—Jean Valentine

"Blue Front is an essential book for anyone interested in the history of race and racism in the United States. Martha Collins, a poet of unfailing intelligence and linguistic gifts, has created an original collage that conveys the texture and complexity of the events surrounding a lynching in 1909. Most importantly, the book's force accrues and moves beyond that moment; it speaks to the most urgent conflicts of our own day—and days to come. What a fiercely uncompromising writer she is!"

—Alice Fulton

from NY Times Book Review

[Collins's] discursive, breathless, self-contradicting, breaking-off-and-circling-back techniques make the book feel like the testimony of a traumatized witness. Which, of course, it is. . . .

Collins, again and again, wants to know about her father, "would he have seen?" . . . The motif Collins most strongly associates with the character of the father . . . is the recurring line "he made change," a literal reference to his childhood jobs selling fruit . . . outside his uncle's restaurant (the Blue Front) and working at a drugstore.

But the agent of change he made, these poems suggest, is her. . . . Here, in a book concerned, above all, with historiography, her verbal dexterity takes a dark turn. . . . Shoot begins with the bullets aimed at [the lynching victim], evokes the gory snapshots taken of the crowd, and ends with what must be the poet's imperative: 'go ahead, tell.'"

To read the entire NY Times review please see:

—Dana Goodyear

from Booklist, May 4, 2006:

Through unflinching examination of her father's experience witnessing a black man's lynching, Collins has produced a commanding book-length poem. As a five-year-old in Cairo, Illinois, in 1909, Collins' father sold fruit in front of a restaurant. One November day, he was hoisted on a relative's shoulders to watch a bloodthirsty mob kill a black man and then, in an escalation of its "hunger," hang an accused white murderer. Collins carefully examines the event and its aftermath, especially the effect on her father…. She then extends her thoughtful scrutiny to incorporate newspaper accounts, photographs, personal accounts, and history to expose the way racism permeates all layers of society. Collins employs a staccato, matter-of-fact tone that strikes like a sledgehammer at persistent, if hidden, hate. More than worthy as poetry, Blue Front is also a powerful statement about America and a potent reminder of humankind's terrible potential.

—Janet St. John

from Publishers Weekly:

Collins's fifth volume and first book-length poem concerns a horrifying lynching in her father's hometown. In sometimes narrative, sometimes impressionistic modes, Collins moves out from Cairo ("the most southern point in all the North") to the sad history of race relations in southern Illinois and throughout America since the Civil War. Snippets from letters, postcards, statistics, eyewitness reports and other documents mingle with Collins's own appalled voice to create a work that mixes resolve with horror: "Often they cut off parts for souvenirs... Children were often there they were being taught." . . . Collins . . . creates at once a compelling, bristling story and a collage of evidence about white guilt. . . . "What he had seen/ is also what I was," Collins writes: "I had to know."

from Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Collins assembles a pastiche of found material -- excerpts from newspaper articles, speeches and interviews—and interlaces it with her own verse. She taps into race memory in America through her father's experience, experimenting with various poetic shapes to create a fragmented tapestry in which no evidence—even that of our own eyes—is wholly reliable. . . . Blue Front achieves a convincing—and chilling—cumulative effect."

from Midwest Book Review

[Blue Front] varies its rhythm, style, and meter from page to page, and explores human hate, mob mentality, culpability, and what it means to be white in a nation with a racist history. Once picked up, Blue Front cannot be put down.

from Beloit Poetry Journal

Collins . . . infuses the authority of extensive research into a rich variety of prose and poetic forms to recreate the social climate of a dark era and the mindlessness of its injustice. Though she writes from an external perspective . . . her arrangement of the evidence in a fragmented but cumulatively coherent collage produces in the reader a profound revulsion from the anarchy of violence.

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