August 2008

Josh Cook


Rogue Hemlocks by Carl Martin

The primary poetic method of Rogue Hemlocks is the presentation of a series of surreal, incongruous images intended to accumulate into a cohesive reading experience; images that are rippled with references, studded with surprising phrases, and arranged with mid-line and end of the line rhymes that demonstrate a suppleness of diction. The primary experience of Rogue Hemlocks is struggle; the struggle of the poet flailing and sweating his way towards the next step in American poetry. It calls to mind Noah Eli Gordon's Novel Pictorial Noise, as a kindred spirit in attempting to innovate American poetry. The result is a sometimes brilliant, sometimes disorganized, but always interesting collection.

Martin introduces Rogue Hemlocks with three bold epigraphs, enumerating the collection's goals. The first from Foucault says that "limit of death opens before language, or rather within language, an infinite space," the second from Mozart describes a hanging in "the Piazza del Duomo," and the third is from Noel Coward's "Oh Baby." These epigraphs paint a daring swath of human linguistic experience, and, though Rogue Hemlocks does not reach all these goals, simply attempting such ideas makes this collection successful. With too many poets limiting their exploration to their own emotions, simple images, nature scenes, and the craft of poetry itself, Martin makes a statement by trying something else.

The strongest poem in the collection is "Perchance”; a complex web of references that pantomimes the actions of making sense. A material is described and then concurrently manipulated into some kind of construction and disintegrated into its particles; it's Escher gymnastics under a title that must be designed to set the reader off balance. The references are exquisitely employed creating strange reverberations by juxtaposing authors and works, Poe with Joyce and Frost, for example. The final line "Perchance to dream: fleetingly obscene and thoroughly American," echoes through and alters the preceding lines each time it is reached. In "Perchance" all Martin's talents come together: complex imagery, interesting phrases, manipulation of sound in all sections of the lines and humor.

Martin has a knack for brilliant phrases: "encaustic brushstrokes" from "The Common Cry," "Diana and Hermes: Art Nouveau models and volleyball stars," from "Jealousy," and "The solemn decrepitude of inhuman courage" from "And Who Will Remember," to name a few. Sometimes these phrases highlight the fundamental problem with the technique of accumulative imagery. For example "Jealousy" also includes the totally directionless image, "But isn't Hermes himself author of the empress's bag?/ A brand name bagged deftly down under, accessorized with/ charms like the bird's claw & platinum tag with her name?" Sometimes the images don't accumulate into anything. For every strong poem, there's a floundering list of weird pictures.

In his style, Martin does not understand what Vallejo knew about surreal poetry. It operates like a vampire; surreal poetry must be invited by the reader into his or her consciousness before it can act like a monster. Surrealism does not derive its power from the weirdness it creates, but by revealing the weirdness of what we accept as normal. For example, "Candace the Clock," another one of the excellent poems in this collection, starts out "Stupendous /is such a word," a line that seems to introduce benign wordplay, and you get that, sort of. The poem then creates a warped sense of narrative; no real events are related yet one feels like something is happening. The poem ends by folding itself inside out with the last two lines, "forks like a lyre. You lie she said;/ no I said the clock really stopped." The "I" could be defending itself from a simple misquote, as in the "she" accused it of saying "the clock stopped," or the "I" could be relating its response, asserting that "the clock really stopped." Either way, the closing lines place the earlier quasi-events in quasi-time and connect it all to a quasi-character; "Candace the Clock."

Though Rogue Hemlocks has its share of weak poems, they are weak in an endeavor, they are failures in the context of a risk, and they are the natural result of any effort to do something atypical. Given how often weak poetry in contemporary American writing is the result of poor execution of an established form, fundamental lack of interesting ideas, and/or slavish devotion to an idea of mundane diction -- all weaknesses of stasis -- Martin's failed poems are a thrill in comparison. And when he does succeed in his efforts, we get poems like "Perchance”; wild, complex, fun, referential, and evocative works that stretch the bounds of what poetry is capable of doing. Martin has not succeeded in rewriting the landscape of American poetry with Rogue Hemlocks, but he has tried to, and produced some great poems in the process.

Rogue Hemlocks by Carl Martin
Fence Books
ISBN: 1934200115
79 Pages