Wednesday, March 30, 2011



Sonnets by Camille Martin

(Shearsman Books Ltd, Exeter, U.K., 2010)

In the hands of the right poet, the individual word holds more power than entire pages of prose. I am reminded of this as I read Camille Martin’s rigorous and uncompromising second collection, Sonnets. These poems, notwithstanding the beguiling title Sonnets and the rather decorous subjects we associate with the form, are torqued high. The “I” of the poet trembles, is fearful, is palpably fragile. There are pieces in which each word seems like a little explosion, as in these lines from one of the final poems, “jetsam archive”: “still at funnel wake/, braided unction stomachs no/ crime … “

Many of these poems, especially in the first half of the collection, seem set in a southern, post-Katrina landscape: “i’m astonished/ to see kittens delicately leaping onto the river/ and padding with dry paws on diaphanous sheets/ thrown onto the rippling current. mysterious/ hands gently flap the sheets over the water and float/ them for the kittens … “

The poems take a particular approach to catastrophe and geography: not for Martin the teary voice, the righteous handwringing of what passes for much of contemporary journalism. Instead: “a simpleton inherits a kingdom after unwittingly avoiding/ the king’s traps of boiling oil and poisonous snakes. He wins the hand/ of the lovely princess, who takes her knife out of its sheath … “ Who is the simpleton? What allegorical purpose juxtaposes nursery rhymes and kings and princesses and simpletons with “bulldozed/ forest the forest where trees tall and green once/ where they once where they swayed in the wind where . . . “

For the poet, “whatever i think to ask sinks into a coma/ and will not surface for air. what is it?” whispered naively is my madeleine … “

There are also faint echoes of Plath -- the disintegration of the self? The use of nonsense rhymes to echo violence? -- as in parroted weeds, where Plath’s iconic bees “buzz. they buzz and buzz”

There is a kind of stuttering that goes on in Martin’s line breaks, an emotional resonance. Colors are deeply saturated -- rich and vibrant with meaning: “sapphire tundra,” “ptarmigans/turn white in winter” and “islands of red ants float,” “black asterisk in a black alphabet” or “lovely birth of larvae in yellow silk,” or “quivering red dwarves.” “tundra” is balanced by “the news on tv,” “leeches” are “peaceable,” and “the clock has no hands.”

Martin’s poems have a uniform steadiness of form (which is not to say that they don’t take risks -- only that the risks are balanced by an insistently elegant structure). What unites these pieces is an awareness of the thrum or threat of dissolution, disintegration, fragmentation.

Ancient imagery: the poet assailed with nervousness or exhaustion. Or trying with angry fury to come to grips with reality.

Intellectually fearsome and restlessly exploratory, “little catastrophes with the calmness of a cloudy/ dawn observed … “ the poems in Sonnets require rigorous attention. Their delights are in sound and paradox, and in the discovery of a poetic imagination that conjures “mute mountains” and “precise iridescence,” “airless balloons” and “quivering ideas.”


Marianne Villanueva is the author of the short story collections Ginseng and Other Tales From Manila, Mayor of the Roses, and The Lost Language. She divides her time between her native Philippines and Redwood City, California. She loves poetic language, in all its forms, and is attempting to complete a collection of prose poetry, her first.

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