Monday, July 8, 2013

Lessons from "Eating the Heart First," by Clare L. Martin: A review by Stacia M. Fleegal

I like to play this game, after reading a good book, in which I ask myself, if this book were the only surviving document in some post-apocalyptic or future time, and otherworldly visitors, or a rogue team of anthropologists emerging from a sub-mountain recluse, were to study it, what would they learn about our society?

I think, after reading Eating the Heart First, they’d learn that human beings are able to be both felled and redeemed, over and over, by the love we carry. That we can suffer immeasurable losses and our love will only grow. That we revere our planet, our towns and cities, our backyards, and that we recognize that the cyclical qualities of the natural world parallel and are tied to the seasons of our emotional and spiritual evolution.

And lastly, they’d learn that we need to write so that such seemingly reckless loving and living make sense.

This is the debut full-length collection by Clare L. Martin, chosen as part of the Tom Lombardo poetry series from Press 53. Lombardo, in his introduction, cites poet Dave Smith’s belief that life and death are the only two subjects of poetry. I read that and remembered when poet Molly Peacock told my MFA program that the only two subjects were love and loss. 

Martin turns both edicts on their heads. In her poems, love is sometimes loss, but is always life. Death is also life, and actualizes love. For someone so enamored, so to speak, with loss, Martin can still make us feel as though we, and she, have limped away with a net gain: the insight that loss and death are inevitable and not enough of a reason not to love fully. 

Life will eat you, heart-first, no matter what you do, and you’ll go “down like an egg / in a snake’s jaw.”

Martin is a fearless poet who opens her collection with a poem called “Naked.”  She tells us she “winc[es] at self-recognition”—but wincing isn’t running, isn’t hiding from the mirror. In “I Have Learned to Hold My Tongue” a few pages later, silence isn’t forever, but “Not yet, not yet.” Words must gestate, be nourished in wombs until viable.

Knowing when to let words out becomes knowing how hard to love, and the knowledge, anthropologists might conclude, comes from women. Perhaps it’s one woman who is many women: “The woman naked before the mirror,” “the woman you married,” “Bone Woman,” “Girl Running with Horses,” “Garbage Woman,” “wood-boned mother,” “the earth, your other mother”…there are more. Martin tells us what women know, and looks to women in dreams, in art, and in memory for answers. Many of her poems even read like spells—the knowledge is “conjured,” “illuminates” and “enlightens.” Love letters are burned and smoke is “sacrificial.” Ashes are offered “to the thunder and wind.” Ceremoniously, Martin honors lives—her father’s, her infant son’s—she  couldn’t herself sustain anywhere else but in the altar-tombs of her poems.

“What are these words / but weapons of grief?” she asks rhetorically in “Abandoned.”

And such weapons as we find in her book are exquisitely rendered. 

“The love letters you folded / into paper boats / sail across my hips” in one poem, and in “Life Expectancy” (BL #3), a deathbed realization rings early in our younger ears: “I have two bodies. One is a cold trap. / The other is a mist over the bed, a beaded pain.” A favorite, lovely title is “Winter Brought Out All the Knives.”

Despite the description of the heart as purely physical, clinical, “calloused” and “grow[ing] stranger” in the opening poem, by just past the book’s midway point, Martin’s speaker gives the muscle more weight figuratively, but less imagistically: “The bird / in my ribcage / flutters…dances…” The heart dislodges itself from its own pain, “pecking the fig / in my throat…drink[ing] from the well / of my womb.”

Often, an omniscient voice sweeps in to advise or foretell: “…the one you love…is taking the belt from his robe to hang himself dead.” I thought of the third fairy in Sleeping Beauty who, though her gift at the princess’ christening had yet to be given before the witch cast her death-sleep spell, could not undo it, could only bestow a caveat, when Martin’s voice continued: “With my winds I will cut him down, close his eyes. Shake the storm out of him, for you.” Martin’s speaker begins to understand that loss can only be dealt with, not stopped or even stalled.

To write of personal pain overtly is more humbling than exhibitionist when the poems are liquid over the tongue, painter-precise, and when the poet knows she is in charted waters. Time and again, Martin turns a phrase or finesses an image to be both familiar and strange, as if to say, look again, and again, it is only almost what you think, but there is always more to see, feel, learn.
Her lessons would be well received by not only those who want to be moved by poetry, but who privilege being moved above all else.

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