EP&M Online Review


Charles Martin

Starting From Sleep: New and Selected Poems
Sewanee Writers' Series/Overlook Press, 2002.
208pp. $26.95

Robert Darling

There are many landmark birthdays for a poet: from Dante's time to now, thanks to generally increasing life expectancy, the figure has advanced beyond the age many poets of the past could expect to reach.And we also have examples of poets who don't come into their own until old age.But as a general rule today, the age of sixty is one at which poets invite a longer view on their work; the poet's opus has achieved an identity, a maturity, which, while it may still develop, allows the reader to gain some estimation of the writer's achievement.


Starting From Sleep: New and Selected Poems is published to coincide with Charles Martin's sixtieth year, and a fine collection it is indeed.One would hope that Martin's slowly growing reputation will be greatly enhanced by this book, which brings together a generous sample of new work and a substantial selection from his previous books.

Even a quick perusal makes one aware that Martin is a master of form, of many forms.From the epigram to the extended verse narrative, he handles every form he touches with apparent ease.The villanelle and sonnet appear, as do many nonce forms that might fall under that general catchall of ode.There is even a one?page short story.(I have always considered the term prose poem to be an oxymoron; also, "Death and the Four?Year?Old" has a plot and is comprehensible, which would seem to eliminate it from the category as well.)Martin, a noted translator of Catullus, also includes some translations, though not of Catullus.

A closer perusal reveals that Martin is a philosophical poet, though he is always accessible to the patient reader.There is something Eighteenth Century in some of his themes and leisurely pacing, though he never seems anachronistic.Nor is he afraid of capitalized abstractions.Few other poets would attempt such titles as "Against a Certain Kind of Ardency," let alone make them work. Most poems written by a longtime teacher entitled "To the Blackboard" would elicit a groan from tired readers of poet?teachers, but Martin makes the work a fresh examination of time and transcendence, wondering "Whether, beyond us, there is aught to wonder / At what the meaningful was meant to mean, / At what can happen to us here, between / The momentary lightning and the thunder."

There are also some wonderful epigrams in the opening selection of new work.I'll content myself with quoting two:


            Expansive Poetry

            Can I express how much I cherish you

            In just one line? Not possible. Take two.

            Marital Colloquy

            "Cuckolds," says Pontius, "should be ducked in ponds??"

            "Learn how to swim then," his Pontia responds.

                (from "Seven Poems from the Latin of John Owen")

There is a grace of wit, a lightness of touch while thrusting in the knife, of many poets who are familiar with classical models. There is also an expansiveness of scope that comes with such learning, which reminds us of how much we've lost by making education more "relevant."

Perhaps the most striking of the new poems is "How My Queer Uncle Came to Die at Last."This piece does not lend itself well to quotation, which is part of its strength.It is centered around one incident which gains power from being told so reticently; the poem thus mirrors the slowly growing and then erupting knowledge of the speaker.

The rest of the book reintroduces old friends to those who have followed Martin's career and brings necessary poems to the attention of those who haven't.Meditative lyrics such as "Stanzas after Endgame" and "Speech Against Stone" mingle well with witty work like "Victoria's Secret" and "Modernism: The Short Course."The powerful short (and packed)lyric, such as "Getting the Miracle Wrong," "Metaphor of Grass in California" or "Easter Sunday, 1985," plays off against the leisurely narrative pacing of "A Walk in the Hills above the Artists' House."

There is also a variety of voices throughout.Lot's wife is given a voice, if not a name, and mice speak part of "Steal the Bacon."There is a cultured voice in many of the poems roughly identifiable as the poet's, but Martin also can write an extended sequence, "Passages from Friday," from the point of view of Crusoe's servant.This last poem, incidentally, was one of the first to bring some attention to Martin's work.

I am tempted to go on listing titles, from "E.S.L." to two poems far too little known, "A Happy Ending for the Lost Children" and the early "Four for Theodore Roethke."But no review will do proper justice to this book.Those who know Martin's work probably already own the book; those who are new to his poetry owe it to themselves to purchase this collection.It is hard to imagine a better book of poems being published this year, or for some time to come.

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