BY EVE L. EWING
In her second collection of poems, 1919, Eve Ewing writes in conversation with the 1922 report, The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot, created in response to the 1919 race riots in an effort to understand its causes and prevent another riot from happening. Each piece begins with an excerpt from the report to which Ewing responds, using a mix of prose and poetry—including a haibun, erasure, and concrete poem—and a variety of voices—from a cleaning maid to schoolteacher-turned-stockyard worker—to recreate the spirit of the city that summer.
As in her first book, Electric Arches, Ewing frequently crafts her own folklore. The “Exodus” poems threading through the book echoes the biblical Exodus story, tracing the Great Migration up from the South, God’s disappointment in how his people have been welcomed into the city, and how the people thrive in God’s blessings while their oppressors suffer:
“And the people stretched forth their hands,
and there was a heavy darkness in all the city:
it weighed heavy on the heads of saint
and sinner alike. And the people smiled upon the darkness,
and the darkness was good. For upon them the darkness
was as burnt sugar: pleasing to the skin and sweet upon the lips.”
In “Jump/Rope,” Ewing relies on the language of jump rope rhymes—another type of mythmaking. Each time the rhyme approaches the subject of Eugene Williams’ drowning—that unspeakable grief and the catalyst to the riots—the poem interrupts itself, “no, it goes like—,” launching into another rhyme, another attempt to tell Eugene’s story.
Telling this portion of history in fragments allows Ewing to tell multiple experiences, moving from realism to the personification of a railway and streetcar, and to tie in current racial tensions. In “it wouldn’t take much,” she erasures a 2018 email from her apartment building on the day of the verdict for Jason Van Dyke, a white Chicago cop who fatally shot Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, in 2014: “Keep focus / keep your focus on the present / what is happening / before it escalates.” The words could have been written in 1919, a sad sign of what has not changed in 100 years. But I find Ewing to be a hopeful and visionary writer, and see this poem also as an urgent call for continued engagement and presence—with each other and with our city / our home.