Wednesday, April 20, 2011

O bittersweet black sheep: Camille Martin’s Sonnets

This piece was originally written for, and presented at, Margaret Christakos' Influency Salon in Toronto on Wednesday, April 13, 2011;

In her review of Toronto poet Camille Martin’s Sonnets (Exeter England: Shearsman Books, 2010) on the NewPages site (, Carol Dorf begins with a question:
Can you pour new wine into old bottles?
The sonnet may not be dead, but I’ve seen it struggling. Despite the explosion of new examples over the past decade or two of Canadian writing, is the sonnet a form simply loaded with too much history to continue? For all the miserable, ordinary pieces I’ve seen by those who claim to love the sonnet, there have also been worthy and even thrilling examples, such as Stephen Brockwell and Peter Norman's magnificent collaborative essay in sonnet form, Wild Clover Honey and The Beehive, 28 Sonnets on the Sonnet (Ottawa ON: The Rideau Review Press, 2004), Alfred Noyes, in his Compression Sonnets (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2006), Toronto poet/publisher Jay MillAr, through his ESP: Accumulation Sonnets (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2009), and the brilliant things done by New York School poet Ted Berrigan in his own collection, The Sonnets (1964), since reissued (New York NY: Penguin, 2000) and reprinted in The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan (Berkeley CA: The University of California Press, 2005). As Noyes wrote in the introduction to his small chapbook:

I do not wish to participate in the maintenance of the sonnet, like some hand-wringing relative at the bedside of a long-term coma patient. And yet something in the form will not let go. Its practice, at its best, was a form of condensation; I have sought here only to see how far such condensation may be taken. Fourteen lines, if nothing else, every student recalls at least this. What might come of only fourteen words? What of the ‘sonnet’ remains? A turn after the eighth word? At the thirteenth (a concluding ‘couplet’ of words)? What of the sonnet's traditional themes? I am interested only in economy ― in what might be said with less. In reducing the poem until it turns in on itself, turns itself inside-out. Becomes something else. Becomes nothing. What becomes of a form and its tradition, through compression? This may be ― I certainly hope it is ― the last of what might be wrung from the very shape of literary fatigue. After this, the sonnet, shrinking in size since its heyday four centuries ago, becomes so small it disappears. The patient is to be unplugged. Goodnight.

All of this to discuss Martin’s third trade poetry collection, Sonnets, a follow-up to her Codes of Public Sleep (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2007) and Sesame Kiosk (Elmwood CT: Potes and Poets, 2001), as well as chapbooks Rogue Embryo (New Orleans: Lavender Ink, 1999), Magnus Loop (Tucson, Arizona: Chax Press, 1999) and Plastic Heaven (New Orleans: Single-author issue of Fell Swoop, 1996). So much of Noyes’ paragraph could have been written about Martin’s explorations in a form that, despite hundreds of years and perhaps thousands upon thousands of attempts, still has an awful lot of mineral left to vein. Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell has repeated numerous times the infinite mutability of the sonnet.

Martin is a poet and collage artist who relocated to Toronto in 2005, soon after Hurricane Katrina, closing out fourteen years as a resident of New Orleans. It's no surprise her work has a flavour that puts her far closer to American poetry than its Canadian counterpart, given her years south of the border, and a Ph.D. dissertation from Louisiana State University, titled “Radical Dialectics In The Experimental Poetry Of Berseenbrugge, Hejinian, Harryman, Weiner, And Scalapino.” Martin writes with the most wonderful sense of clarity, thought and play, but what effect does that geographic shift have, for a collection composed in part, if not completely, within Canadian borders? What does it mean to open her collection as it does, with an untitled poem that begins: “comatose in paradise, but happy, happy / feet! is this where i want to go?” In a further poem, she writes: “for all the inevitable / holes in my umbrella, i follow my calling / to a better history.”

In the hundred-plus pages of this collection, most poems remain untitled, and some in longer sequences, each sonnet sitting one-per-page. Throughout, Martin holds to the sonnet standard of fourteen lines while allowing for the form’s mutability, shifting her way page after page in a series of pieces that exist far more as a single, extended unit than a collection of individual pieces. What I enjoy best about this collection of mostly untitled sonnets is how the constructions and themes exist as simply this: a collection of Camille Martin's sonnets. Everything else remains secondary, wrapped up inside, an almost means-to-an-end as she explores the rhythms, shapes and sounds of the form itself. She is writing sonnets.

Martin touches on her interest in the sonnet form in an interview with John Herbert Cunningham conducted in January 2009. But Cunningham, for some reason, infers a contradiction between what he refers to as Martin's “postmodernism approach” and her interest in the sonnet, asking:

JHC: You’ve indicated that your next book is going to be a collection of sonnets. Given your postmodernist approach to poetry and poetics, why sonnets?

CM: Postmodernism, pretty much by definition (in architecture, as an obvious example), gives artists permission to borrow forms and styles from other times and places and to recontextualize and update them. So it’s not surprising to see contemporary poets exploring received forms and procedures such as the sonnet, sestina, pantoum, haiku, haibun, cento, epigram, and eclogue (among others), as well as inventing their own. I’ve always found the short lyric congenial to my poetics, and although variety wasn’t a goal when I began composing the sonnets, I did find myself playing with the fourteen lines to see how much diversity I could tease out of them.

The sonnet form has been favoured by those who write typically in a more formally conservative vein, but simply because a frame is used by one group doesn’t mean they claim exclusive rights. Hasn’t Cunningham seen the sonnets by John Newlove, Gerry Gilbert, bpNichol, Steve McCaffery or Gregory Betts? The argument itself reads as so limited as to render the question inert, especially one posed a year after poet and critic Zach Wells crafted his attractive anthology Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets (Emeryville ON: Biblioasis, 2008). Including poems by poets one might expect, such as Margaret Avison, Carmine Starnino, Peter Van Toorn, Irving Layton, John Newlove, Stephen Brockwell, Archibald Lampman and Robyn Sarah, part of what made the collection was the inclusion of more experimental works by Gerry Gilbert, Stuart Ross, E.A. Lacey and Phyllis Webb. But why not Martin, in the midst of perfecting her own argument for the form?

In a review of Sonnets posted online at Galatea Resurrects #16, a poetry engagement (March 30, 2011), Marianne Villanueva wonders if the pieces in Martin’s collection are “set in a southern, post-Katrina landscape,” writing:

The poems take a particular approach to catastrophe and geography: not for Martin the teary voice, the righteous handwringing of what passes for much of contemporary journalism. Instead: “a simpleton inherits a kingdom after unwittingly avoiding/ the king’s traps of boiling oil and poisonous snakes. He wins the hand/ of the lovely princess, who takes her knife out of its sheath …” Who is the simpleton? What allegorical purpose juxtaposes nursery rhymes and kings and princesses and simpletons with “bulldozed/ forest the forest where trees tall and green once/ where they once where they swayed in the wind where …”

Set, perhaps, but only abstractly, in sonnets that court leaving one geography for the sake of another. Carol Dorf’s review focuses more on where the language and actual meaning intersect, writing that:

Martin’s interpretation of the sonnet is as a 14 line poem where the syllabic count varies from lines as short as 4 syllables in part 5 of tellurium candies “bulging magma gathers,” or even the single syllable first line of “snow.” Other poems such as “a simpleton inherits a kingdom after unwittingly avoiding” have lines of more than 20 syllables. While this may make some formalists uncomfortable, the technique of varying the syllable count opens up the form for most readers, allowing for a flexible balance between narrative and image with form.

But for Dorf, it seems as though the reviewers of Martin’s book give her work in the sonnet form a great deal of credit without exactly understanding what she’s done, and what work has come before her that she might be riffing from. Touching upon authorial intent and other thoughts on meaning, Dorf continues:

Most of the poems in this book are from the perspective of the poet reflecting on language and experience (including the excellent series “the street names of toronto”) but I’d like to end this discussion by looking at one of the love poems which comes near the end of Sonnets:

her green sweater, caught in a revolving
door that reflects clouds frittering away
like flour blown off a wooden cutting
board. she looks back. she has no
shadow. thoughts of the shortness
of ant seasons, and whether omens will ever
mean what they mean before coming true.
her eyes, transparent holes in the sky.
light fades into a dusk riddled
with dim constellations and vanishes
into their unconnected dots,
like knots in a magician’s scarf.
the key to unhooking her sweater
is a tangled up, long, long time.

In this poem, the line between address to self and other are fruitfully elided while the poet plays with the perceptions of times “the shortness of ant seasons,” or “the key to unhooking her sweater is a tangled up, long, long time.” The poem also alternates between the domestic “flour blown off a wooden cutting board” and what we take as larger like the sky or omens.

Dorf insists on separating points and images deliberately set to work in a collage, in unison with each other, something else that Dorf reads as component parts? Why not enjoy the cake, and not try to divide the flour from the water from the butter from the eggs? Is such a response so simple, or even possible? In her interview with Cunningham, Martin says:

Some of the more “language-y” sonnets I’ve written are as crunchy as peanut brittle, but I’ve also written, for example, relatively accessible sonnets based on ideas and patterns from nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Considering that upwards of 90% of cognitive processes are not conscious, perhaps in a sense the poem does have a kind of will of its own, blurting out things whose meaning we can divine only after the fact, proving, as neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga claims, that the mind is hopelessly late for consciousness.

Martin’s poems in Sonnets emerge from the shapes and sounds of collision, of how the collage becomes, and words that impact upon each other, bedevilling meanings. The pause and parse of Martin’s lines and breaks ride as an accumulative wave, with certain poems in the collection reading nearly as a single line, a complete and single breath. Although the immediate water imagery in her opening poems and the Katrina details of her biography suggest a linkage that might be difficult to avoid, perhaps it is not safe to automatically presume such simple connections. Perhaps the foundations of Martin’s poems are flooded in and of themselves, beyond the author’s control. Here is the poem Villanueva quotes in full, an untitled sonnet situated close to the end of the collection:

and if the seeds and if they sprout in the bulldozed
forest the forest where trees tall and green once
where they once where they swayed in the wind where
treetops back and forth where they waves and if the birds
drop seeds if they drop them on the razed on the vanished
woods where birds remember perches where bird nests
once perched if birds remember if they know that here
they once flew if birds drop to the bare ground if they drop
seeds if the seeds sprout in the mind of the bird if
the bird’s mind sprouts if it grows its own perch if that perch
on the sprout in the mind of the bird if the bird’s mind remembers
a nest if the eggs in that nest if they hatch if they remember
hatching little birds if the little birds fly over the forest over
the bulldozed forest if they drop seeds and if the seeds

There is a collage element of Martin’s art, both written and visual, that these reviewers appear to misunderstand; her blending of lines, concepts and the words themselves. Martin herself discusses her approach to collage in the interview with Cunningham:

After my divorce, I had a room and a table of my own, and I proceeded to fill my dinette table with cut-out words, my palette. On a cutting board (the “canvas”) I clustered words until they formed some kind of syntactical arrangement. From that original thread, the continuation was more or less intuitive. It was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. I’d look at that table full of words, let my mind do something else for a while, and when I came back to it combinations begin suggesting themselves. The poem would practically write itself.

She goes on to say, more specifically:

After Katrina, the poet Skip Fox, with whom I hung out in Lafayette, Louisiana, in the weeks following the disaster, encouraged me in the old day book tradition, so I filled some blank books with collages from National Geographic magazines and weird doodles, which provided for me some much needed post-Katrina therapy.

So where does image meet meaning meet collage in her collection of sonnets? Could Martin write such an overt post-Katrina poem? Would she even want to? The trauma of such experiences, and the joy and loss and discovery of leaving one home for another is inevitable in these poems, just as it was in Codes of Public Sleep, but these poems even taunt with such specifics. Sonnets placed earlier in the collection reference seismic shifts, writing how she “moves her hand to write / her lonely fiction. holds her pressure / to the heft. outs her story / for good.” and “my birthplace recedes into a blank page.” (“coma, amok”). The third poem in the fifteen-sonnet “parroted weeds” is even titled “katrina, tundra,” implying a movement from one state to another, and ending with the lines, “melting / snow gives back accidental scraps. frozen filth / and flying white flurries are both ideal states. will geese never fly north?” Another rare example of specifics in Martin's sonnets comes later, in her three poem “the street names of toronto,” the second of which reads:

you were a brewer and a faithful methodist. prejudiced
against trees, you imported some of your prize bushes
from a brickyard in scotland. though considered ineffective,
you dreamed of living in a real castle
with thirty bathrooms and ornamental lakes
for the ponies. during the rosedale croquet riots,
the house of lords burned your effigy
at their clubhouse. after hanging the rebels,
you rebuilt your tavern and outlived all your accusers.
eventually your debts drove you to selling candy floss
in public dance halls and lunatic asylums. you left
instructions for your heart to be tucked away
in a place with no alcoholic beverages,
and now you are a street.

There are elements to Martin’s sonnets that read as experiments in intuitive movement, much in the way poet Fred Wah has discussed the “drunken tai chi” he's explored in his own writing, through an ongoing series of pieces responding to artwork that began with his Music at the Heart of Thinking (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1987). In her three Toronto-specific pieces, she writes unnamed individuals, wrapping what we can only, often, presume to be correct information about early city founders, this second poem on Joseph Bloor/e (1789-1862). Bloor, who founded Yorkville, ran a brewery in the Rosedale Valley near Sherbourne Street, and kept a hotel on King Street, the man for whom Bloor Street was named. But then, his name is still unspoken in the poem. Are these important facts? Are you presumed to already know? Martin’s poems suggest that these facts aren’t essential. What do you know of Bloor, with or without his final dropped “e,” and does it matter if I, speaking his name, am even correct? What hold does meaning have, here?

Villanueva ends her short review with:

Intellectually fearsome and restlessly exploratory, “little catastrophes with the calmness of a cloudy/ dawn observed …” the poems in Sonnets require rigorous attention. Their delights are in sound and paradox, and in the discovery of a poetic imagination that conjures “mute mountains” and “precise iridescence,” “airless balloons” and “quivering ideas.”

Throughout the collection, references to water change temperature, shift to repeated references to snow, sprinkled throughout. For an American poet published by a British press and living in Canada, there are plenty of references to snow in poems rife with Canadian/British spellings. She puts the “u” in “neighbour.” Hello, neighbour. Is this a book that begins in New Orleans and leaves the sea behind for snowy Toronto? It’s as though the poems suggest various possibilities, almost taunting the reader; they don’t want you to know. She collects her lines and information, and, through cut-up and collage, lets them fall where they might, or may, creating sonnets. Early in the collection, she writes, in part four of “tellurium candies”:
plotting unawares the direction of impulse
(which is to say, not plotting at all.)
As if the poems understand that knowing is beside the point, that knowing is to miss the point entirely. Perhaps the point is simply how the words flow. Listen.

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