Martha Collins’s Admit One chronicles the impact of social Darwinism on the twentieth-century United States with poems built from historical, ancestral, and etymological fragments. Within that context, Admit One presents a number of different narratives. The book’s first two sections, “Fair” and “Zoo,” are its strongest, taking racist exhibitions of the first decade of the century as backdrops.
In “Fair” and “Zoo,” Collins most effectively explores the dialectic between spectator and spectacle through the narrative of a Congolese man, a Mbuti pygmy named Ota Benga. Benga was taken from Congo by eugenicist Samuel P. Verner to be displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair. Afterwards, he was forced to live, for a time, in the Bronx Zoo. The reader first encounters him in “Ota Benga, Part One”:
in the forest, alone, away from the villages:
hunted the elephant, hidden among the trees
teeth filed for was/was not a
why would they take the tusks and leave the meat?
Collins uses the voices of a historical observer (“teeth filed for”), excerpts from Verner’s writing (“why would they…”), and a skeptical poet-speaker (“was/was not a”) to destabilize any single understanding of the man who would be put on display. By refusing to assert one voice’s dominance, Collins undermines the hierarchies that allowed the displays described in “Fair” and “Zoo” to take place.
As Collins traces the policies of exclusion that followed these exhibitions, her settings scatter. In the later sections “Fitter,” “Fewer,” and “Postscript,” Collins explores the many ways in which eugenics entered into United States government policy, specifically by legislating the reproductive lives of those considered genetically inferior. While these sections implicitly condemn the policies, the poems cling to static voices. From “Some Eugenics”:
Marriage selection/ large
families encouraged for the fit
Legal prohibition of marriage
by the unfit: the feeble-minded epileptic
indigent inebriate insane in 30 states by 1914
—but the unmarried
According to the book’s notes, italicized text is taken from source material; in this case its placement argues with the poem’s historical voice. However, the earlier unsettling interplay between tones is missing. Where voices do interact, their tension is predictable, making for conflict less engaging to a reader expecting the wry nuance and fragmented omniscience of Admit One’s previous sections. Still, Collins’s moral aims are clear and credible. She affirms, “the way out will/ not be the way we came.”