Friday, December 12, 2008
Camille Martin in moria
Anyone who follows my work knows that I have a vested interest in the sonnet form. Several poets have asked me why, and I do not have an easy answer for them. I think that it has something to do with compression; I am fascinated with poetic compression, with how much information can be compressed into a small space. The word sonnet is derived from the Italian word sonneto, which means "little song." Maybe my obsession with sonnets comes from also being a songwriter, and writing songs is, for the most part, like being a miniaturist. Songs force you to squeeze entire universes into three or four verses, 10-20 lines. There are exceptions, but most songs in popular idioms are prized for being succinct, direct, and complex in their seeming simplicity. So perhaps writing sonnets is the closest a poet can get to writing songs. In any case, William Allegrezza is about to release a new issue of moria, his online journal. In it, I was excited to find a group of interesting sonnets from Camille Martin. I have chosen two of the six to look at; the first is entitled poor souls:
i copied it out of some book.
what a kind heart you have, do lend me something.
i decided to read it, as quickly as possible.
what's the use of writing this?
i've never read a better book in all my life.
you say that you are useless?
there are many of them, all rare and expensive.
they are starving.
i should read it again with attention.
now, i must say a few words.
but enough of this.
we really don't need so much.
it's all talk and nothing else.
i know nothing and have read nothing.
From the title, one could infer a certain amount of intertextuality with Gogol (I am referring to Dead Souls); however, the poem seems to lead us away from this interpretation. The way I take this poem (and the poem is open-themed enough for there to be myriad interpretations), Martin is creating ambiguity between reading a book and reading a person. We never quite know if the "you" being posited is, in fact, a book or a person; "you say that you are useless" has a kind of referential simplicity, and a clear relation to a human Other, but the next line ("there are many of them, all rare and expensive") contradicts this, so that the scenario never quite settles or resolves. The language which Martin employs is spare and elegant. This is especially apparent in the last line, which has the effect of closing the book ("i know nothing and have read nothing"); yet this curt denial of understanding reinforces the central and unavoidable ambiguity of the poem as an entire, compressed construct. The possibility also exists that the sonnet is meant to enclose both; an interaction with a person and an interaction with a book. The fun here is trying to guess what is what and who is who; the poem takes on the quality of a guessing game, and the relationship between two people that may or may not be mediated by a book (that may or may not have something to do with Gogol) keeps the engaged reader on the hook for the duration of the poem. The very lack of resolution is what makes multiple readings of the poem necessary; every time you look, you see something different. There are pronoun games galore, and the protagonist's own lack of knowledge ("i know nothing and have read nothing") becomes our own. The second sonnet, as it appears in moria poetry, has no title:
comatose in paradise, but happy, happy
feet! is this where i want to go? thrust
into an age unfavorable to being
a guest in one's own home? the guest
so evolved its dying smile causes
offspring to birth on the spot? progeny
doomed to fail superbly, like houdini's
fetters? is this what i want? am i lucky to think
i am? these twittering birds have nothing
on the silence of magicians from the grave. someday
paradise will be thought savage. did rain fall
because i wanted to write a poem about love,
causing significant damage to blameless power?
here comes the bus, fool. is that it?
"Happy, happy," of course, is from Keats' Grecian Urn; the enjambment (into "feet") is funny and sets a droll tone which is extended through the rest of the poem. It seems to me that this sonnet does, in fact, have a volta, but that it begins uncharacteristically late, on line 11 (I mean from "did rain fall" until the end of the poem.) Once the volta has been registered, it becomes clear that this can be read as a mutant form of the "anti-love" sonnet, often assayed by Edna Millay (If I should learn, in some quite casual way and I shall forget you presently, my dear come to mind) and later developed by Karen Volkman (I'm thinking of Like the i to the n and get nothing and Call me no one, candle abandoned from Spar). Martin's edge has more to do with the conventions of post-modernity; of irony which trumps earnestness, cynicism which trumps avowal, humor which trumps pathos. The humor here is what gives the poem its particular flavor and memorable quality; oddball inclusions like "houdini's fetters" and the initial "comatose in paradise," which sounds like it could be a particularly arch HBO special. It seems that Martin is creating a double parody: of the Romantic conventions of the sonnet form, and of herself using the conventions even as she trashes them. These "twittering birds" are not meant to be pretty; "doomed progeny" tells you what you need to know about the poem's subversive intentions, and mordant wit.