1919, by Eve L. Ewing
Haymarket Books, 2019, 74 pp.
Reviewed by Susanna Lang
In her introduction to this collection published one hundred years after the Red Summer when so many people died in Chicago and other American cities, Eve Ewing explains that she likes “to use poems as what-if machines and as time-traveling devices.” Poetry becomes an opportunity for Ewing to inhabit the voices and the lives of those who came before and thereby bring back to life events that we have forgotten, or never studied during our formal education. She turns to persona in order to speak as the prophet in Exodus; as the train that brought Black people to Chicago during the Great Migration and the street car that allowed them to travel within the city; as a worker in the stockyards; as a boarder in a house owned by a suspicious landlady; as named victims of the violence like James Crawford and Samuel Bass; as the communal voice of the community that rejects the genocidal solutions of White citizens. She includes her own voice as one among many, most notably in the poem titled “it wouldn’t take much” that is an erasure of an email Ewing herself received from the management of her apartment building on the day of the Jason Van Dyke verdict in October 2018. This is a street level view of history, perhaps a woman’s view in contrast to the official report, prepared by six Black men and six White men, which provides many of the epigraphs for the poems.
That is a lot of ground to cover, and Ewing’s careful structure helps us navigate the events of 1919 as well as those that prepared the way and those that followed from that bloody summer. The three sections, “Before,” “What Happened” and “After,” include poems like signposts to show us where we find ourselves on the journey. Each section begins with a poem that echoes the language of Exodus. The two train poems are in two different sections; a number of poems across sections refer to a specific date or period (“in November,” “Haibun for July 30,” “April 5, 1968,” “July, July!”). Poems are interspersed with photographs from the time so that we can visualize the events she evokes. Within this structure, the poems are formally inventive. In addition to the erasure already mentioned and the Exodus poems written in Biblical versets, she uses slashes to create a hybrid of lineated and prose poetry (“in November”); two parallel and contrasting columns of text to embody the “Manifest Differences of the Negro;” oral traditions from the Black Community (“or does it explode” and “Jump/Rope”); a blank page to illustrate that “there is no poem for this;” a shape poem; haiku and haibun.
In “sightseers,” Ewing asks in her own voice,
just this once I hope you’ll forgive me
for writing a somewhat didactic poem….
The truth is that the whole collection is didactic, if we mean “instructive” as opposed to “pompous.” Ewing is teaching us the historical lessons she feels we need to know, and to discuss with each other. This particular poem may be more of a lecture than the others, but they are all an education. At the end, to keep us from learning the wrong lesson—the lesson of despair—she leaves us with a vision of what might have been, Emmett Till grown old but still very much alive, shopping for fruit at the local grocery store, each plum “a little earth,” his inheritance.
Susanna Lang’s third collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her chapbook, Self-Portraits, is forthcoming from Blue Lyra Press in June 2020. A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems have appeared in such publications as Little Star, Prairie Schooner, december, American Life in Poetry and Verse Daily. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language. She lives and teaches in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com.