Saturday, March 23, 2013

"Captive," by Martin Ott--a review by Stacia M. Fleegal

Martin Ott's "Captive" won the 2011 De Novo
Poetry Prize by C&R Press and was published
in 2012. Order it here.

The word “captive” is multi-dimensional in Martin Ott’s first full-length collection of poetry.

A former U.S. Army interrogator, Ott organizes his musings on military life in tight, efficient lines and stanzas. “The interrogator’s notebook is more frightening / when closed. That means the questions / have ended,” (p. 14) he intimates matter-of-factly, but with a hint of shame (he knows he’s frightened people in his life). In “Breathless,” he tells us the hierarchical protocol for the gas mask drill: “When it is time to take off the masks / the lowest ranking soldier tests the air” (p. 6). Such lines appear to be straightforward glimpses into military life, until aha lines like “The lesson was: masks work” (p. 6).

Because Ott, we are to presume, has had these often dark and complicated experiences--which he tells of compassionately, with a strong grasp of craft, and with no goal toward shock value—we trust his observations about, say, magic tricks. We are glad the person speaking is seeing lighter, happier scenes, like his daughter in a sandbox.

But Ott, who is comfortable and effective employing both first person and omniscient perspectives, wants us to see “home” through the lens of one who is captive to the hidden, deeper level of meaning his experience has enforced. In “What Has My Daughter Done Now to Pablo Neruda?” Ott hints at the politics of censorship (i.e., book-burning, the fiery culmination of his daughter’s zeal for the Chilean poet’s Selected Poems) in a way that underscores the secrecy and reverence for documents and truths in the poet’s “other” life as an interrogator. He posits his daughter as having inherited both his love of Neruda (“her favorite” p. 16) and his desire to guard or take ownership of certain words and ideas, to extract them. He tells us he has “not forbidden [his] girl from bruising [Neruda] or sailing / him like a ship at bath time to where words / and dreams fight like lizards on a cliff beach” (p. 17).

Like father, like daughter?

Earlier, in “Baby CPR,” and through his daughter, Ott learns to save an innocent life, rather than (we again presume) to threaten a potentially non-innocent one.

Ott’s best poems show how a military experience breaks into life back home. In “Mine,” the speaker visits his native Alaska on a hunting expedition with his father. The weight of their relationship is an arsenal strapped and holstered to their bodies. Just as they begin to forge a connection through whiskey-ed campfire reminiscences, a misfire, when the father insensitively prompts the speaker to kill a wandering bear cub; the son “missed the shot on purpose,” while the father is frightened that he, a soldier, took it in the first place. Later, the father introduces the speaker as “my son, the killer” (p. 25). A few pages later, in the litany-esque “Doors,” the emotional distance of the speaker is more evident: “Some doors are wrapped / in human clothes and they are mostly closed” (p. 27).

In parallel of a returned soldier’s displacement from two worlds at once, Ott hinges his collection on a duality of equal parts overt and subtle political poems. The former are self-contained statements (“Exchange” is a memorable summary), while the more civilian poems quietly weave between the detritus of everyday realism—an X-ray machine, a maple syrup breakfast, a stick shift—and an at once banal and stark truth about humanity. Stark, in fact, because of its banality: how can torture and games with our children happen in the same world?

As one who has witnessed both normalized violence in a war-world and the slow boil of accepted violence in a “normal” world, Martin Ott is superbly equipped to break the silence for those who haven’t, to get to the truths of his personal journey at all costs, and to captivate.

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