Map to the Stars by Adrian Matejka
Penguin, 2017; 116 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
In his latest collection of poems, Map to the Stars, poet Adrian Matejka reverses the process that made his previous book so remarkable. The Big Smoke, a National Book Award finalist, uses tight lyric poems in multiple voices to trace the dramatic story of boxer Jack Johnson. A masterpiece, Smoke should be taught in creative writing classes. Each poem is self-contained but the collection takes on the gravitational pull of a good novel, and as it does not only does Johnson’s character take on complexity but racial contingencies also assert themselves.
In his new collection, Matejka begins with story, his own, create the coherence of a constellation. Individual incidents associate rather than line up in narrative sequence for a traditional memoir. And instead of only mapping his own life, he explores the cultural landscape of race and class in America. In “How to Choose the Next City,” he aspires to escape his hometown (and his own awkward nearsightedness and nearsighted awkwardness) through basketball; he’d go to “Cincinnati, Chicago. Almost // Brooklyn, nearly Detroit” (23–4). But in the end, he’s left on the sidelines watching the “real ballers.” Exiled to off-court zones, he may as well be a different place: “A little city of gleaming / gallantry that I was too broke to get a spot in.”
In The Big Smoke, Matejka uses the first person to create an intimacy with an historical character so it reads like memoir; in Map of the Stars he expands the self into inclusive imaginative zones where a character could be someone we may have run into. The speaker seeks to transcend his life’s strictures by imagining himself becoming an astronaut. He does actually travel from an existence marked by “the crass powerlessness of not having” (38) to a “realm / of glamorously blue // swimming pools” (67). Over the course of the book, “the spacious myth of space” may get too stretched. Nevertheless, Matejka does create worlds through nitty gritty details, like being too “chicken” to play spin the bottle “with Cynthia from science class” (15), his “black father’s absent jurisdiction” (25), or “bowls just for name-brand cereal” (69) after his mother re-marries and the family moves to the suburbs.
Through hip-hop, Richard Pryor routines, and Sun Ra music, larger American dynamics are mapped, questioned, and challenged. What results is not one boy’s story, growing up in Indianapolis with his friend Garrett—a film shot in black-and-white—who reaches the bright color of the American Dream. In the end, there is an “unrelenting” aspect to these themes, a stuckness that is demonstrated in a late poem, “Stardate 8809.22”:
If there was ever a chance to go to outer space
it wasn’t here & it wasn’t for me, as off balance
on this distant planet as a buster getting a mouthful
of knuckles. If there was a possibility of making it
out of this heliosphere, there never really was here. (101)
Matejka is one of our finest poets, and Map to the Stars is an outstanding book of poems, one that is immensely pleasing in its music and images, thought-provoking in its themes, and resonant in its personal revelations.