Monday, August 27, 2012

Review of Camille Martin's Sonnets

Sonnets, poems by Camille Martin. Exeter, England: Shearsman Books, 2010.

First off, not to be a stickler, but in the old-fashioned sense, many of these poems can only be labeled as “sonnets” in the broadest of terms. They have 14 lines, each, but other than that, there are many variations on the form, including one series of poems consisting of fourteen lines worth of repetitions of the same word, such as “crown” with one nearly hidden variation (in this case, “clown”) which throws the aforementioned word's connotations into sharp relief. But what I’m really saying is that Martin experiments a great deal with form, sound, layout, and with how we read her poems. Common themes include spirituality vs. religion, love, alienation, an appreciation of nature, all presented with cleverness and skill.

The collection opens with an untitled poem expressing Martin’s ambivalence towards certain values of the modern world: “is this where i want to go?” she asks in the second line. Notice the lack of capitalization. Martin obeys grammar rules only when they are necessary for meaning, but she is never confusing or unclear because of this. She continues to critique the age: “progeny/doomed to fail superbly, like houdini’s/fetters? is this what i want? am i lucky to think/ i am?” Considering the current doom and gloom projected onto the Millennial Generation regarding their future economic prospects, this is quite apt. There’s a nice possible pun as the line continues: “these twittering birds have nothing/on the silence of magicians from the grave, someday/paradise will be thought savage”. “twittering” could be a play on “Twitter”, implying that the spewing of every thought into the ether doesn’t compare to the “magicians” or ‘writers’ of the past. One is reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s oft-quoted line about how any sufficiently advanced technology would appear to be magical; similarly, the care and thought put into the work of past masters might appear to be magical compared to more recent writing. Of course, it’s unfair to compare Twitter posts to more formal writing as I am doing, but I think Martin is simply implying the pun while meaning writing in a broader sense; no one can argue that there’s been an explosion of publishing opportunities in recent years, and with that has come not necessarily an explosion of great writers, but just more writing being published. She continues: “did rain fall/because i wanted to write a poem about love,/ causing significant damage to blameless paper?/here comes the bus, fool. is that it?” Here, Martin criticizes the pathetic fallacy of implying meaning to every experience. She also turns her attentions to herself and the “significant damage” she’s done “to blameless paper.” Finally, she closes with the image of waiting for the bus, implying that trivial aspects of life are what we tend to focus on and are often more encompassing, in a very real sense, than the pursuits of the mind. But the final question, “is that it?” opens the whole thing up and leaves the reader to consider the pathos of the situation.

Many of Martin’s poems deal with questions of philosophy, morality, and life, often juxtaposed with certain physical and economic realities and hardships. She also focuses on fairy tales, but recast in her own, inventive ways. One of my favorite poems in the collection is the “Catastrophe Theory” series. Section iv begins:

dear heady dogma, i’ve always loved your daily
bells and shiny apples, the sophistry of your symbol:
a frozen planet in a child’s colouring book, your memory
of a movie still is like a movie still, or like being
in a train rushing through a tunnel…

She’s created a kind of ode to the “heady dogma” which describes it, honestly, without mocking, though some would probably see it as somewhat mocking. In “On Merest Sand” she describes religious fanatics:

…the people
who live in the city obsess
about the possibility of doomsday
erupting among their soaring
buildings and effigies. of the end
they’ve made a fetish, chatting
about it at cocktail parties as if
it were the latest vogue. they believe
that it could happen at any
moment, so they no longer bother
to make their beds in the morning.

Her description is biting but fair and, frankly, a little funny. The idea of ‘not bothering to make their beds in the morning’ could represent many aspects of life that fanatics often ignore. And, really, making their supposed belief into a fetish brings into question the validity and/or depth of that belief.

Martin’s poems are complex and elegant. She reveals a vital, passionate intellect in these poems that move fast as river water after a spring thaw. I can’t wait to read her next collection.

-CL Bledsoe

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