In addition to being one of the great poets of our era, Eve Ewing is a sociologist and professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. This book of poetry grew out of historical research Ewing did for her book GHOSTS IN THE SCHOOLYARD: RACISM AND SCHOOL CLOSINGS ON CHICAGO’S SOUTH SIDE, which I have not read, although I'd like to. Historical data on housing segregation went into that book; glimpses into black life in 1919, the summer of a violent, deadly race riot in Chicago, went into these poems, proving once again that historians are the best writers, period.
Ewing’s first book of poetry, ELECTRIC ARCHES, may be the book I recommend most to friends. The narrower focus of this book means I might not recommend it to literally every person I know, only to people I’m shouting at about learning about race in America—which is, let’s be honest, literally every person I know. So.
The poems in 1919 cover a lot of ground, both spatially as the riot swept through the city, and stylistically. One of my favorites, “Jump / Rope,” is patterned like a jump rope rhyme and captures the horror of childhood innocence broken by violence: “Little Eugene Gene Gene/ Sweetest I’ve seen seen seen/ His mama told him him/ Them white boys mean mean mean”. Later in the book, Ewing jumps through time with “it wouldn’t take much,” an erasure poem that uses excerpts from an email she received from her apartment building management in 2018, nearly a hundred years after the 1919 riots. Sent in anticipation of the conclusion of Jason Van Dyke’s trial, the email warned residents to stay indoors to avoid riots.
Another of my favorites, “The Train Speaks,” is the story of black migration to Chicago, post-Civil War and Reconstruction, from the point of view of a train: “Even now, I dream of them,/ Quiet nights in the railyard…/ My children. My precious ones./ I can never take you home. You have none./ And so you go, out into the wind.” Later, a street-car mourns those pulled from it and beaten on the street in “The Street-Car Speaks,” which I'm not going to quote here because it's structure is important and I don't think I can do it justice.
Perhaps my number one favorite (how can I pick a number one favorite? impossible!) is “sightseers.” I'm not a poet; it's hard to describe how this poem makes me feel. There's something about busting your ass to change the systems that are destroying us and then seeing people who aren't doing that... The poem is quite long, but here's the first stanza:
just this once I hope you’ll forgive me
for writing a somewhat didactic poem
I just didn’t know how else to say
that we live in a time of sightseers
standing on the bridge of history
watching the water go by
and there are bodies in the water
and the water has been dirty for so long
and the sightseers still drink from it
they buy special filters and they smile
they have nice glasses and teacups
they put sugar in the dirty water
that has our bodies in it
I read this book on the bus. I cried in public. You should read it so you, too, can fall in love with Chicago in the summer of 1919 in all its beauty and treachery.