The poems in Signs And Wonders have a moral and structural grace that is sometimes fueled by political anger or collective sorrow.
Charles Martin has been writing first-rate poetry for years, and Signs And Wonders, his latest collection, is filled with satisfying substance. It should encourage those unfamiliar with him to discover Starting From Sleep, New and Selected Poems, kept in print by Overlook Press.
Martin is also a classics scholar, and has won awards for his translations. The poems in Signs And Wondershave a moral and structural grace that is sometimes fueled by political anger or collective sorrow. When George W. Bush infamously declared, “I am the decider and I decide what’s best,” Martin responded with a controlled toss of acid, in three verses that beg to be performed by someone in Tom Lehrer’s league.
The ones we bomb to liberate
Have really got an attitude:
Despite the care we demonstrate
The ones we bomb to liberate
From tyranny respond to hate:
How’s that for sheer ingratitude?
The ones we bomb to liberate
Have really got an attitude.
And those we torture to set free
Have got no cause to sigh and groan:
As we export democracy
The ones we torture are set free
Are stripped of human dignity
In prisons no worse than our own.
No those we torture to set free
Have got no cause to sigh and groan.
And what is all the fuss about
Who knows what’s best? The ones in charge,
Believe me, don’t have any doubt.
Say what? Is all this fuss about
The liberties we trample out?
Our nation’s powerful and large.
So what is all this fuss about?
Who knows what’s best? The ones in charge.
Martin has a consistent, well- calibrated wisdom for when starchy meter is necessary to pound the bad guys. His knowledge of history and literary double entendres are on equally fine display in “Three Sonnets from the Romanesco of G. G. Belli. He calls the first one “The Good Soldiers,” and savages the vanity of ruling monarchy :
So for some martinet’s fantastic whims,
The sheep come stumbling back into the stall
With broken skulls and mutilated limbs.
In the second and third sonnets his ear for satire and his edge of despair serve as precision tools , and he ends with an address to “The Coffee House Philosopher,” aware that he and his readers are sometimes equally capable of being
Lost in the depths, or struggling in the shallows,
Not comprehending what or why or whether,
Until death lifts his little cup and swallows.
Reading Martin makes one glad for the company of his compositions, much the way one is glad for the companionship of the finest fiction, in part because he so acutely reacts to the mundane, even when the common facts are shot with shame. “Getting Carded,” everyone knows, has long meant getting asked for identification when buying cigarettes or alcohol if the seller suspects that the buyer is underage. In this case its something else altogether :
We couldn’t know what we would lose
When the ENDANGERED SPECIES sign
Began to turn up at our zoos—
A small white card propped up on a
Shelf in front of the cage or pen
Of one selected for this honor.
Translated from its habitat
Into a compact modern flat.
By what ENDANGERED, or by whom,
It couldn’t know until too late :
One day it woke up in this room
Where it patrols compulsively
The borders of its shrunken state
And stares at what it cannot see :
Far dominions, other powers.
Its glance keeps on avoiding ours.
You wonder why it didn’t learn,
Although, quite frankly, it seems not
Even to share your mild concern.
Time to move on : the fourth grade class
Behind us wants to claim our spot
And press its faces to the glass.
We leave ENDANGERED and its next
And wonder who’ll get carded next.
Part of this tragedy is that the cards are utterly unremarkable to the fourth graders, too young to recall a time when many species were not at risk of extinction. When so much “ new formalism” abuses and extrudes language in misguided service to literary dogma, it would be unfortunate to categorize Martin’s work as anything other than superb poetry that is profoundly engaging, contemporaneous and timeless.
Though well-traveled, literally and intellectually, Martin was born in New York City, grew up in the Bronx, and went to Fordham. In the seventies he bought a brownstone in Brooklyn, long before the borough became known for being self-consciously hip , and he’s honest enough to admit that he ‘lived not in a brownstone but a myth’’:
For Brooklyn is, or was then, all about
The joys of restoration and repair:
A brownstone once the fortified redoubt
Of feuding gangsters or the unkempt lair
Of junkies went from shooting gallery
To showcase in –let’s say eight years or ten
Of tearing down and building up again,
With never any kind of guarantee
That spouse or partner would be standing by
There at the end, if just to say goodbye.
There’s lots more, before and after and , it would all be too nostalgic by half if the words were not so carefully chosen. “Junkies” is a dated term that’s the right contrast before “To showcase in—let’s say eight years or ten,” which captures the glibness of slick realtors. The poem is a portrait of an era, of interconnected states of mind, and its universal enough to be renamed Notting Hill or San Francisco’s Mission District thirty years ago.
“After 9-11,” the longest in the last section of the book, is far and away the best poem on the subject I have ever read. I say this as someone who grew up fifty miles south of Lower Manhattan and experienced the cityscape before and after the Twin Towers were built and destroyed. The piece honors a necessity for “formal feeling” recognized by Dickinson, Seamus Heaney and others and it does so with similarly brilliant gravitas. A major part of its success is the way Martin sets the historical-visual perspective :
We lived in an apartment on the ridge
Running along Manhattan’s northwest side,
On a street between the Cloisters and the Bridge.
On a hill George Washington once fortified
To keep his fledglings from the juggernaut
Cumbrously rolling toward them. Many died
Martin is in no rush, and with the stately, never slacking pace of what he sees, what others have seen throughout American history, he never tries to prettify the ugly. The unutterably awful becomes as manageable as possible, as the poem proceeds :
Little by little we would come to grasp
What had occurred, our incredulity
Finely abraded by the videotape’s
Grim repetitions. A nonce community
Began almost at once to improvise
New rituals for curbside healing, we
Saw flowers, candles, shrines materialize.
“Materialize” is especially apt when attempting to contemplate all the matter that has been so savagely, permanently changed. By the end , Martin is back, naturally, where he began :
Against the need of those lost to be claimed
(Their last words caught in our mobile phones)
Against the need of the nameless to be named
In our city built on unacknowledged bones.
This six-page poem is a masterpiece of empathy, detail and execution, the “unacknowledged bones” first brought in as a memory of hearing an old man talk about bodies in ships that have become landfill, which is often the case in major port cities . There is, too, acknowledgement of those (unlike the author) who were “Grieving for someone they would grieve for always.”
As the tenth anniversary of that day approaches, this poem would make an “altogether fitting and proper” commemorative broadside, perhaps illustrated by Sandow Birk, who would easily recognize Martin’s structural nods to Dante.
Signs And Wonders has countless strengths, and every poem can be appreciated without catching every learned reference. It is a welcome classic.