February 11, 2008

Review: American Music

American Music
Copper Canyon Press, $15 paperback
ISBN 978-1-55659-266-9

I: like American Music 

Of course I flip to the backmatter to read Chris Martin’s biography before I start in on the collection proper, as though somewhere in this paragraph, amid the list of journals I may or may not be familiar with, I might find a constellation communicating something to me about Martin’s poetry a priori Martin’s poetry. Because I have gone to the back cover first (even before the backmatter) I am already equipped with the knowledge that this is Martin’s full-length collection of poetry and that his manuscript, American Music, emerged at the top of more than a millennium of manuscripts as the winner of the Hayden Carruth Award for New and Emerging poets selected by C.D. Wright. So I'm there in the backmatter after the back cover and I flip forward (I don’t read the last poem first or anything deviant like that—I typically respect the order of operations a poet has set out) but in Martin's collection I come across something that betrays what could have have been a more innocent reading of his book. I find another, less-typical page in the backmatter headed by the following:

Words lead double lives: anonymously adrift and tethered to authorship. This book attempts to celebrate both. In addition to those named outright, other voices in the chorus of American Music include:

Underneath this cautionary and instructive note, Martin lists forty-three “voices in the chorus." As far as I can tell, the personalities include filmmakers, artists, bands, and philosophers, but not even a Google/Wikipedia search could help me with some of the inclusions. Some inclusions to the list you might expect rounding out a collection that sports the author's name inside a cartoon ketchup bottle: Joy Division, Modest Mouse, Nietzsche and Ingmar Bergman. Automatically I flip to the contents of the collection and count: there are thirty-seven poems, not forty-three; this saves me the task of compulsively turning back to the voices list, trying to match poems to voices, and attempting to create some kind of master map of the collection. (Cautionary note to reader: it is still pretty tempting to do this, part of the fun of reading the book if you ask me, and I think I’ve got some of it decently figured out.) The two epigraphs Martin chooses (“Plagiarism is necessary” —Guy Debord and “The world’s furious song flows through my costume”—Ted Berrigan) support what I am gathering is the collection’s thesis. All of this before I even get to the poems. I am certainly entertained, excited at the prospect of our narrator wearing dozens of hats, but I am also beginning to experience some anxiety that what I am about to read will fall somewhere between a post-post kind of schizophrenic cacophony and sitting down to a 37-act 2-D puppet show put on with one semi-mobile hand. 

Martin doesn’t subject me to either of these things. His collection is controlled, tightly knit, and formally and thematically cohesive. There is little anxiety that Martin's careful lines do not orchestrate for me. Two formal strategies save him (and me) from the abovementioned dangers. The first is Martin’s totally admirable commitment to form. Each poem in American Music 100% strictly adheres to a three-line stanzas and regular meter; they are short lines, just two to three beats per line the entire way through the collection. (I wouldn’t really say “tercet” here for reasons of technicality and posterity, and though I’ve never sat down with Martin or anything, I kind of think he’d shirk from use of that term as well.) Martin’s commitment to this form offers a technical foothold, providing a constant a rhythm through excessive enjambment. It also establishes a general spatial orientation. I begin to anticipate how to move, when to bob and when to weave. The second strategy is the use of “I” emphatically and often. So emphatically and so often in fact, Martin stretches the lyric “I,” the "I" of ultimate subjectivity in this case, to almost to the point of elimination— he stretches it to its absolute thinnest and enlarges it to its thickest. Martin's goal, as I know going into the collection, is of course to blend “I” Chris Martin and the various “I” voices we expect to find in collection (thanks to the list provided and the table of contents: “I am No Proprioceptivist,” ‘I” “I Am Not a Cinematographer,” “I” “I Ghost,” and “I” “Being-in-the-Being,” etc.). So, the whole voices=plagiarism thing is a bit misleading, in a good way.

Martin takes these two strategies outlined above and combines them to create what becomes perhaps his most instructive and rhetorical device, his consistent little nod to the reader. See below:

At the exigencies of cinema, even at this
Intersection if I
Tremble my trembling divides
(“Toward Perceptual Ensembles”)

Towers toll without
My being there, as my being ebbs only
To erupt in directionless code, I

Storefronts as my sense
Of direction daily rearranges
Itself in heat, so I
(“Allegrissimo, or Not As Hell As You”)

Smile tremoring the air
Into festive throbs, I think I
Hear all the bleeding
(An Introduction to the Mechanics of Deformable Bodies’)

And sinking in the paradox
Of frozen motion, if I
Say I ghost hummingbird-like
(“I Ghost”)

Martin gets so many good miles from the “I” because the predicament deepens, the device begins to traverse the kind of subject/object chasm the collection presents often and with ease, so Martin is able to simultaneously occupy and write in the voice of the new I's and the consistent I of the author without sounding pretentious or insincere.

Any reader of Martin’s collection becomes interested in how the “I” (the “I” Chris Martin, that is) aligns and unaligns with the various voices in the chorus of “I”s. This of course prompts the obvious conclusion at which any reader (myself included) is tempted to arrive at: if “I” Chris Martin is so much a part of so many other “I”s and all of those “I”s (Martin included) are not really a part of anything at all—except the clothes they’re in, the mustaches they wear, the cities they walk through, the foods they eat, etc., (their ultimate subjectivity)—how, in the face of that (ultimate subjectivity) I am supposed to not just throw my hands up and close the book at the utter impossibility of the task of reading, yielding to the pervading-post-post-anxiety-authorial-death-signifier-instability thing that is going on?

If the collection were not—on top of being in tune with these possible discourses—so utterly and completely entertaining, smart, and aware of when and to what degree to take itself seriously, it might not be so loveable. (There’s a whole level of entertainment in this collection that is the laugh out loud kind of entertainment-funny, the kind of Seth Green or American Pie comedy for adolescent males, which it seems someone could spend an entire review with but which I will swiftly address here with the help of one excerpt before moving on to acknowledge there is indeed a great deal of more sort of high-brow comedy here that works in a number of very different ways; from the poem, “Lo”: “MY NUT SACK/ But also like the Nobel Prize/ Winning novelist who.”) American Music is loveable beyond its comedy and I-play because a serious human concern surface through its artifice. This concern takes the form of laments for the trappings of said I's (all said I's). Martin frequently (at least one juncture in almost every poem) comes out directly with lamentation:

Plainly—I am afraid
Of becoming a sad pervert, even
So I yearn for a life of direct

And unfettered humanity, suddenly today
It is the future and the sun
Is a laser beam dispassionately shooting

You in the eye, you
Being I, here, the uncalloused
Observer of daily, nay

Momentary phenomena, such
As the children sledding the crusty
Hill on their little flotilla
(“Misdiagnosis, or Funny Music next to Death”)

Here Martin confronts the situation he illustrates so consistently with the use of the ventriloquized and enjambed I. The line: “Plainly—I am afraid” can be interpreted in two very important ways, right? It can be read ‘I am basely afraid,’ somewhat cowardly or at my core scared; or it can be read, ‘when and where I am plain (exposed, vulnerable, myself, etc.) I am afraid.’ The question of how to interpret one of Martin's lines is important to ask in a collection like this.

Martin’s ability to balance that kind of double-edged emotional transparency with a statement like the one he then makes about the sun being “a laser beam dispassionately shooting” is where he is at his best. In these moments Martin is his most literal and his most transformative all at once—not when he tries on a mustache or a dress, but when he identifies the sun’s rays for what they are, definitively (both very objectively and very subjectively, both "I" Chris Martin and "I" Everybody), when he laments the limitations of his own confessions.

Of course, it is becoming clear that I want to suggest the consistency beneath the Martin’s veil is Martin. That the personas/costumes/accessories he tries on, the voices he adopts, are—purposefully so—the first thing we forget in his poems. They are an entrance only, “In the recurring caveman/ Dream I wear my meat vest/ And I love you,” a façade that is meant to quickly fall away revealing something more genuine:

Of my own desire as it comes
Into being, which is
Why I prefer the hallucinations

Of Neanderthal life, days
Spent inching
Boulders from the ridge
(“There Will Be a Very Meaningful Picture Here”)

Martin loves to take off the mask. The revealing moments in American Music are more important to him than the guise. But the guises keep us moving; they allow us access to worlds and experiences that—dare I say it—if Martin were to explore in a different or less successful way, we might find superficial?

In this collection, a reader is meant to experience a plethora of different emotional states while holding on the that always slippery “I” at the heart of it all; the reader is a complete outsider and part of the inside joke. They are not unlike a listener of the quirky and great band from which Martin borrows his title. American Music references the Violent Femmes song of the same title, of course. (The Femmes, though, are conspicuously absent from the list of voices.) As a teenager learning to play the guitar, I gravitated towards the Femmes songs because of their simplicity, their tenderness, their unabashed pleasure in bouncing back and forth between some of the three-chord melodies. There was always a bit of singing along, somewhat genuinely somewhat ironically. I can’t help but wonder if Martin wouldn’t himself blister in the dispassionate sun.

by Thomas Cook