Friday, September 25, 2015

This Is How Poetry Pierces Our Bounds

Martin Ott, Underdays: Poems

I immediately liked Martin Ott’s latest, deeply autobiographical poetry collection when the first poem, “The Interrogator In Retirement,” began with these lines:
He’s waiting for the reverse
metamorphosis, for the extra
feelers to fold in or fall off,
to wake one morning a man.
Ott’s unsubtle but well-placed literary reference pings off his own military career, which clearly still troubles him. But if I found these lines smart and engaging, I knew I’d love Ott’s verse just pages later, with the opening of “Survivor’s Manual to Love and War”:
Death is a loving dog
with no children or chew toys
to occupy its attention.
It will lick you into submission,
this inevitable pack instinct,
to join the vast departed.
I first noticed Martin Ott nearly one year ago as co-author, with John F. Buckley, of the collection Yankee Broadcast Network. That collection’s hilarious, gimlet-eyed angle on American celebrity culture had crafty ways of making me think it’d pander to my anti-mass-media prejudices, then upsetting my expectations in ways both shocking and illuminating. Ott, working solo, extends that tendency, but along lines more personal and melancholy than that collection permitted.

Martin Ott
Like the best poets, Ott feels simultaneously familiar and jarring. Reading lines like “Death is a loving dog,” the contradiction between mental frames will, and should, dislodge our expectations.  Yet we inevitably recall other poets with similar approaches, like T.S. Eliot or John Ashbery, who have done similarly. If Ott plants surprising crops, he nevertheless farms well-tilled ground.

Ott’s best poems have a narrative quality, a cogent through-line, once common with poets like Browning or Tennyson. But Ott combines this almost retro storytelling ability with very contemporary sensibilities about language. I appreciate this dualism, because it gives readers firm grounding to anchor their attention, while immersing us in his surprising insights. Most poets either guide us, or defamiliarize us; Ott, notably, does both:
Ten days of rain a year in Los Angeles
invokes the legend of sheathed umbrellas.
My mother once told me a story
about a boy who lost an eye
on an umbrella’s undercarriage.
Mary Poppins has proven that you can
get swept away by unbridled passion.
Is an umbrella actually an umbrella?

—”Why I Don’t Carry an Umbrella”
I once believed that poets, like Ott, whose metaphoric language and unexpected leaps reveal surprising truths, just see life differently than us readers. Perhaps, like Van Gogh, light hits their eyes in personal ways that we consumers cannot share. But reading Ott, I realized: he doesn’t see differently than me, not prospectively. He uses language to help himself see anew. He’s just invited me along for the journey.

No, Ott doesn’t contribute some unique viewpoint, so much as construct one through language. His contribution is less some pre-existing attitude, more a willingness to test his personal experiences by milling them with words, a stone-bladed metaphor excising everything ordinary from his ordeals until their truth shines through. Sometimes, as with his military career, Ott explains what truths he’s revealing. Other times, facts fall away as unnecessary trappings:
She is a whisper filtering through shadowy
office ducts, a wind chime for coworkers,
a snare drum to delivery men, a Stradivarius
to the woman in the corner office. She is
the guttural chant that drove a thousand times
a thousand workers to erect a pyramid of gossip,
a stairwell that groans a symphony of sex.

—”What is Left”
One feels, reading the specificity of images that continue accumulating, that “she” is a real person, not some agglomeration of personal stereotypes. But Ott cleaves off identifying characteristics as mere, needless facts. The truth lies beneath anything concrete we’d describe in a police report or dating profile.

That, perhaps, represents Ott’s greatest contribution. His language sometimes includes specific details—Los Angeles, Fort Leonard Wood, Naked Lunch, J.D. Salinger. Yet his language mills away accidents of form, the history of accumulated expectations. Ott invites us to join him removing everything unnecessary from experience, like Michelangelo removing everything from the marble that isn’t David. The result is both collaborative and unpredictable:
The white page is an eyeball
rolled back on the verge, glowing
with knowledge of the depths.
It is a blizzard beyond snow-
caps or celestial freeze, blinding
nothingness, numb fingers to be
cut. The white sheet fills our bed
with unwritten tomes of exploration,
fear stained into it, a serif font.

—”Ink Quake”
I love poetry that invites me on a journey. Reading Ott, I feel I’ve journeyed beyond myself, and returned refreshed, restored, new.

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