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I have never read Martha Elizabeth's poetry before, but on the back
cover of the collection The Return of Pleasure, one reviewer notes that
"[r]arely does one read a book of poetry that gives such easy delight... " I
disagree. While clever, most of her poetry seems unfinished. The poems are short and do
have a certain charm but most are ultimately unsatisfying.
The collection is divided into three sections of roughly eight
poems each: "Close Enough," "Stirred and Exhausted," and
"The Return of Pleasure." A wonderful
triptych, but the poems do not follow the pattern. Ostensibly, the bulk of her poems
regard memory's relation to time and feeling. I like her subject, especially for poetry.
However, all poetry is selection and arrangement. Ms. Elizabeth has problems doing either
well. To borrow a line from "Basics of the Dance," her ambitious poem, "I
remember the tone but not the words..." More to the point, her verse usually contains
one or the other, but rarely both. Consider fully the poem "Old New Year's,"
which starts with an epigraph:
Limbo is hell's actual location.
Snow glittered like sugar in a glass jar.
The window hung with ice.
Limbo is a narrow threshold, the cage
where a door meets the frame.
I wondered how to unhinge from him
as I should-
but not right now,
blood relacing muscles
like threads of green under snow,
the moment opens like a lens.
icicles dripped sharply in the sun.
The undersides of my breasts felt hollow,
filled with light,
I could feel the stem of my nipples
all the way back to my ribs
as if the bone sprouted clear through skin.
Relief felt like happiness
I knew I would suffer for it.
While this is one of the better
poems in the collection, it has problems. "Old New Year's" what was my first
reaction. What is the relationship between the poem and its title? Or for that matter,
between the epigraph and the poem? Ms. Elizabeth does not say.
More importantly, I am not sure why these images are put
together in the order they are or to what effect. As poetry goes, the first stanza
provides an intriguing distance and perspective. But later in the poem, where are we? The
images jump back and forth from perspectives of being cold (I presume outside) to being
warm (I presume inside) without ever concretely expressing what is at stake. I love
symbolism but the relation of the nature imagery to that of the lovers' bodies can be said
to hang rather loosely--not to mention the door. The icicles may be well hung, and the
door hinges might be unhinged, but is the object of her thought--that is, her lover--even there?
details are left poorly sketched, which might have served as graphic counterpoint to her
thoughts. As a result, the poem is full of interesting ambiguities (confusions), but none
derive from careful economy, as much as loose and clumsy design. I have come up with a
complex theory, the brilliance of which rests on the cantilevered line regarding a
"lens", but I am sure it is more the voyeur in me than it is the Limbo of Hell.
Either way, if I am wrong, I hope not to suffer for it.
believe Ms. Elizabeth's imaginative powers strain to say too much regarding images not
worth much. She recreates the most general human emotions in a fashion
similar to a
propagandist. These realistic poems--they have real details and objects--mostly relate a
blandness, usually the dull occurrences and thoughts of everyday life exaggerated for
melodrama. (And I even like dullness, when properly treated.) In addition, she digresses
pointlessly far too much. Though I cherish this trait in prose, it is anathema in poetry.
"O rose thou art sick" is a lot different and
better, I think, than the over-board exaggeration (one which I have constructed for the
reader's benefit and my own), "O crimson rose you have a malady-- a withering
illness, which reticulates your petals and blunts your thorns and makes you look kind of
unappealing and...speaking of unappealing, my lover who makes me think sometimes, but more
often makes me remember, but never lets me forget and is never far from my thoughts and
does this thing with..." Well, perhaps, Ms. Elizabeth might not have used the word
crimson. Such poetry requires an unusually strong anchor to prevent the words from
floating away like so much flotsam and jetsam. If not, then both reader and writer alike
will be at sea. Somehow, one is expected to accept these problems and feel the kinetic
(static?) energy which her poems generate. Unfortunately, I could not ignore them and am
left wondering where the reader's pleasure exists. It may be petty to note the most
egregious lines, but they best illustrate feelings improperly and laboriously formed.
These are from "Basics of the Dance:"
I'm not the Empire State Building
you can't climb all over me
waving the other woman in my face.
Nothing destroys mood more than
a contemporary cliché. I wonder who is King Kong to whose Fay Wray or who really goes
anywhere in the Empire State Building except the observatory? Besides, doesn't everyone
want to be a phallus, or so I've heard? Well, maybe those few dissenters join Ms.
Elizabeth, and observe instead. And to what end? Observe what? Love mostly.
I had parmesan on mine,
and we kissed over the wineglasses, cabernet sauvignon
a bad year. We hardly tasted it.
Well maybe love lost or
remembered. It doesn't matter. For a wine barely tasted there is a great deal of
explication. (It sounds good, it must be good. Poetic gibberish.) Am I to infer that the
wine is remembered long after the lover? Or should I consider her lucky in having tasted
(barely tasted) only one bad wine in her life? In any case, I recommend romano-- more
robust. Or consider the "The Days of Plenty":
Auntie fried my egg to a rubber raft,
the way that I liked it, even after
I didn't. I still ate it.
Lines so dense with meaning,
they balk interpretation. As far as I can tell, food plays an important part in the poet's
life. Much like my child shoes, which fit me before, but, alas, now do not. This child's
point of view is common in her poetry, though never fully engaged. The perspective usually
switches over to an adult one within a line or two, causing nothing but confusion. Perhaps
it is an interesting side note (from two separate poems) that "--the word, (she) now
know(s), is palate," or how the child realizes "(f)or the first time, the word
separate," but I fail to see their poetic relevance. It might be "signs"
and "signifiers," but hardly poetry.
This topic can be interesting given convincing treatment. For
example, Robert Graves's poem "The Cool Web" does a marvelous job of
incorporating poetically the themes Ms. Elizabeth seems interested in, and without
muddling up perspective. In any case, I have never understood why adults enjoy writing
about their childhood experiences from Junior's perspective. What insight is there?
Continuity? Warmth? How wombful. Or later:
and saw fat in my foot,
a little pale slab of it under the blood
like the rim on a slice of ham.
Ms. Elizabeth's poetic impulse
is in high gear here--- so much so that it veers into a cul-de-sac. What's next? How her
skin is actually butcher paper? I could never tell whether I am supposed to find her
comparison humorous, childish, profound, or just plain ridiculous. Pudgy feet in poetry,
mind you, is always a bad sign. All this is very emotional and does contain some sort of
insight I suppose, although I cannot fathom what it might be.
Undoubtedly, Ms. Elizabeth has a problem finding the right
tone for her subject matter, and the obverse. (As I stated previously, she pretty much
confesses this.) The more complex her imagery becomes, the more her tone falters. Or when
her tone is steady, many of her images operate only on the denotative level, as objects.
Her poetry seems to lack this required balance, and the reader is dropped--along with any
aesthetic concerns--for private confessions which gaily echo in an empty auditorium. Of
course, this seems to be the general trend in modern poetry. Poets confess things that no
one but they are particularly interested in. I submit, if their confessions are not
interesting, at least their language should be. But then again, how can a poet write
interestingly about subjects that are uninteresting, or a reader read writing, that cannot
be made interesting, by the interested if uninteresting, writer? (I might have drawn blood
from my own foot here.)
"Recognition" is, by far, the most abysmal poem of
the collection, or should I say the one I least liked? It is a "what if" game
taken to outlandish (out of body?) proportions. What would a shaman be if he were an
animal, a plant, or a tool? (Bear, mesquite, ax.) And what would a clown be? (A horse, a
rose, and a knife.) Furthermore, we are told that all men are divided into these two
groups. All of this could have been very interesting if the poet had gone as far as
Baudelaire did in his essay, "Caricature in Painting," which lengthily describes
the attributes of philosopher and fool...
Elizabeth, however, seems only to caricature poetry. The effect of this concerted mess is
paltry. The images, the names, and the insights are rather dubious, lacking any worthwhile
imagination. Then again, maybe I am mistaken. This Rosetta stone of a poem may be
deciphered by me yet. Perhaps these images are the beginning of a new set of Tarot cards.
Is this an update of Chuang-tzu's transformation of things? Is Robert Bly presently
sitting on a bearskin by the fire, wielding a knife in his right hand while playing the
drum with his left? Or better yet, clowns on the right, shamans on the left. A new Men's
Movement could be at hand. If in the beginning there is the Word, than here we are well
before the Big Bang.
I have been harsh in my criticism and, so far, neglected the
finer points of the collection. There are decent poems here. In her best poetry, Ms.
Elizabeth advantageously uses her sensitivity to objects and language. The superfluous and
over-extended images, which spoil much of her poetry, become a method of genuine
expression. Those few, finely written poems give not just objects, but how they function
in the world she participates in.
"Ode to Knees," for instance, delightfully exhausts
the humor and characteristics of an anatomical part which plays (plies?) such an important
role in our movement and bodily gestures. Knees are given some depth; they even carry a
detailed imprint of what that naughty first couple (not the Clintons) took with them,
after being thrown out of Paradise: "and so they took part of everything with them,
grass-juice, leaf-pulp, snake scales, bugs." (I am reminded, sadly, of Homer's
description of the Trojan War having "unstrung the knees of so many.") Clearly,
Ms. Elizabeth understands knees, and that Yahweh had no choice but to exile us, just to
get the bugs out too.
"Seeing the Elephant," another decent poem, shows
the impact of a young girl's ride on an elephant at "[a] scruffy summer country
fair". Her poetry is quite effective when focused. And her diction matches the tone.
Here are the middle two stanzas:
My legs stuck out straight
on the back of the elephant-
skin the leather of work gloves broken in
heart bigger than my whole head.
The large slow lope moved my hips
in a figure eight. The man said,
"You like that, yes?"
I nodded, holding on--I was afraid
Each line rhythmically develops
the exhilarating experience. (The slow lope and figure eight are well observed.) The poem
maintains a single point of view which preserves past memory and its long-term effect.
Only when she is sure of herself, as in "Seeing the Elephant", "Ode to
Knees", "Elbow Notes", "Les Fleurs de Mal", and "Barton
Creek, Alone" does her poetry seem remotely delightful. They have the interesting
humor--and occasionally startling images--which, perhaps, will be the future strength
and trademark of her work.