White Papers is a series of untitled poems that deal with issues of race from a number of personal, historical, and cultural perspectives. Expanding the territory of her 2006 book Blue Front, which focused on a lynching her father witnessed as a child, this book turns, among other things, to Martha Collins' childhood. Throughout, it explores questions about what it means to be white, not only in the poetÆs life, but also in our culture and history, even our pre-history. The styles and forms are varied, as are the approaches; some of the poems address race only implicitly, and the book, like Blue Front, includes some documentary and “found” material. But the focus is always on getting at what it has meant and what it means to be white—to have a race and racial history, much of which one would prefer to forget, if one is white, but all of which is essential to remember and to acknowledge in a multi-racial society that continues to live under the influence of its deeply racist past.
The path of Martha Collins' work—selflessly risky, formally innovative, profoundly social—has always been leading to White Papers. These fierce, beautiful poems not only confront the illimitable issue of 'whiteness' itself, they are a breakthrough in the conversation we, with our fractured thinking about race, have yet to have. They defy the silences and insist nothing is unspeakable.
"White Papers is that difficult beginning, the one beneath traditional poetic confessions of written whiteness. Martha Collins transforms the history of America's troubled racial roots and, most importantly, her own into a slide show of non-capitalized flesh. This book is the one we knew was out there but had rarely read. It is an honest and powerful half-portrait, leaning into its own brave profile."
This tightly focused, strongly argued book-length sequence uncovers a personal, regional, cultural, and institutional history of whiteness and white privilege: its clipped quatrains, spare recollections, and embedded citations give the rare and valuable show of a white author reflecting on the meanings and the oddities of race. Collins's Blue Front (2006) told stories of an Illinois lynching, and this volume clearly grew out of that one; but she here deploys a range of forms, visual as well as aural, and a range of effects, from a hammering self-reflection ("could get a credit card loan car/ come and go without a never had/ to think about") to ironic collage. Race is not only nor always black and white: "the natives of southern New England," Collins notes, were "our first them." But black and white and their intertwined asymmetries rule this serious collection. Puns on color introduce musings on minstrelsy; recollections of Collins's not quite all-white Iowa childhood stand besides pictures of unacknowledged bigotry. Some readers and cultural critics may object that Collins has simply put familiar arguments into verse; the same readers might, instead, admire how much of herself, and of her sense of form, Collins brings in.
Collins continues the inquiry into race that shaped Blue Front (2006) here, in this startling and provocative collection, exploring the motif and myth of racial "whiteness." She writes, "history leaves us nothing / but not: like children playing at being / something, we made, we keep / making our whiteness up." The imaginary quality of whiteness reveals itself as a childlike fantasy as Collins evokes its abstract quality. Collins' flair for metaphor is evident when she shifts from "five white baby dresses" to "Gray framed faces in white / Black faces in negative / Shadows in the sidewalk's gray mirror." The movement form soft white baby dresses to the harsh concrete of the sidewalk seems to be a movement from comforting to cold. The fact that she has outgrown the baby dresses also indicates a movement from the stark world of black and white into the more hazy world of gray. Within the stark chromatic scale of black, white, and gray, Collins evokes a dazzling spectrum of palpable emotions, racial tensions, and unraveling binaries.
Collins' newest book of poems is doing what no other book of poems is doing right now—talking about race from a White first-person perspective. . . . There is a good deal of guilt in this collection. . . . The sense of apology is palpable. But what sets this book apart and shakes it loose from the siren-call of the sentimental is its experimental form: forty-five untitled narrative lyrics, often spare and restrained, and often playing with "white" space on the page . . . Collins' mastery here lies in her great skill at creating a new vehicle for expressing what a whole generation of poets has quietly felt.
Deeply personal and rich with discovery and inquiry and has a feeling of collage—the poems are untitled, greatly varied in shapes and sonics, and run from embodied interiorities to modes of reporting both big and small . . . A remarkable book, a wholly unified work—a book rather than a collection—whose object lesson is one of UNDIVIDING.
Collins is on a quest, a journey to unearth and destroy the racist foundation of her Caucasian heritage. . . . 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.
Collins has made a book that actually deserves to be called 'brave' . . . 'White Papers' isn't 'about' race; it's far rarer an artifact than that: Flawed and awkward though it sometimes is, the book's forty-five-poem sequence inhabits the conflicted, sorrowing, complicit, fiercely ethical consciousness of its white protagonist. This speaker rejects the false comforts of history's playpen, where, if you weren't present for this or that atrocity, never called anyone names or refused service or voted for George Wallace, never did anything at all to further race hatred, you can revel in innocence. No. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and responsibility means we all suffer the pain of the past and bear the burden of grieving it.
It's a wonderful and rare talent that produces poetry eliciting so much thought and feeling yet leaves the reader herself virtually at a loss for words. . . . The book reads of an earnestness of dedication to theme, mirrored by the very print on these papers of Collins', hitting the reader as it were between the eyes, with a glimpse of every meaning read between the lines, with the magnetic power of a lone title of a book of poetry named 'White Papers.'
Martha Collins is the author of seven previous books of poetry, including Day Unto Day, White Papers, and Blue Front, and co-translator of four collections of Vietnamese poetry. Founder of the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, she served for ten years as Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College.learn more