Category Archives: poetry review

Carol Dorf reviews Camille Martin’s Sonnets

I just came across Carol Dorf’s terrific review of my recent poetry collection, Sonnets, at New Pages Book Reviews:

“Can you pour new wine into old bottles? Well, if you are Camille Martin and the bottles are sonnets, the answer is an emphatic, “Yes.” [click here to read the full review]



Camille Martin

Joel Chace: Cleaning the Mirror

Joel Chace, Cleaning the Mirror: Selected and New Poems
BlazeVOX Books, 2007

          Cleaning the Mirror: Selected and New Poems contains works published between 1984 and 2007—a span of twenty-three years, during which Chace’s work has undergone a significant transformation from a more traditional approach to language (narratives, lyrical descriptions with symbolic significance, and psychological investigations of the family romance), to radically disjunctive work that trains language’s eyes and ears onto its own phenomenon. The early works are skillful and astute, as in “Paper World,” which describes a scene of parents and children reading the Sunday morning newspaper:

The young ones fixed their eyes on the walls of print stretched above them
and on the knuckles and knees of their parents.
The young ones waited for the next moment
when from their separate, unknowing rapture
their parents, unknowing, would send them ecstasies, gifts,
when the first sheet, the first piece of the packet
would be flung above their heads,
discarded, set free and drifting; the mother, the father moving through the packet,
the paper world.

          The unwitting delight and desire of the parents as they fling the “discarded . . . remnants” of printed words that flutter around the heads of the children speaks to a passing of knowledge, however conscious or unconscious, from parent to child. But the children have their own witting or unwitting designs on language as they “mov[e] on their own voices” as “each child make[s] a story.” The tension between the overarching shelter of language, of the communal “crazy city of tents” that the fallen newspapers resemble, and the private narratives that individuals concoct from that common fabric engenders a dance between the two in which the common joins the private life to express it and, once expressed, rejoins the communal linguistic pool.
          It is with ” o-d-e” that Chace succeeds in allowing the language of the poem to loosen its descriptive and narrational imperative that “squeeze[es] until it hurts” and to approach the condition of music through the repetition, re-formation, and contextual recombination of word-motifs: “leavened parchment” is elsewhere “leaving / for the parched / world” and “sleeves / floating / in this floating world” is later “scarves that / dangle or / float / in the dance.” Chace’s “o-d-e” is a lament suffused with meditations on the departure of one ”whose / leaving / shattered / divine / hours.” The departed one is “leaving / for the parched / world” by a cab (Charon?) that can “bear away.” But now there is “no more / bearing / away” and “no more / suffering” from “the / stings” and the “cancelled / goals” The self in the poem is a ghostly presence whose life is fragmentary and ephemeral; it is represented metonymically by floating scarves and sleeves, shoulders, faces, one’s “long / song,” waves in the ocean, dancing, and dreaming. The rhythmical repetition of these and other words enacts the conflation of being with doing, invoking the last line from Yeats’ “Among School Children”: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” In a similar vein, Chace asks the rhetorical questions “how can we / know more / suffering” (which resonates with the ambiguity of “no / more suffering”); “how / can we know / our feet from the / flower path our / selves from / song / the line from / life / snow on parchment from / the key . . . whose / leaving / will / break / this trance.”
          Thus “o-d-e” enacts the cycle of life and death. Life resides among the “high doors” and “upper rooms” where ghostly selves of scarves and sleeves float along a “flower path” suffering and desiring (“wanna / gotta”). Something transcendentally divine bears life away from these high places down to the “rainstreets” where cabs await to bear souls to the other side, like Charon ferrying the dead across the river Styx to the underworld. The Yeatsian questions, then, seem to investigate the merging of self and symbol, of presence and absence, of not ceasing to dream while living and of being “reclaimed / by / rainstreets” when the “leaving / will / break / this trance.” The cycle is also a dance between the two states in which the dead are “washed up” as “al / lu / vi / al” soil and also “floating / in the parched world,” reclaimed yet remembered, “always with us.”
          “o-d-e” and other earlier works in which Chace’s linguistic epiphany establishes a new approach for him, a pattern emerges in which fairly short, lyrical poems create a series in which recurring themes emerge.
          For my money, it is in the last two sections of the collection, “faints gods” and “terrible thread” that Chace comes into his own as a seasoned and mature poet. The poems of these two series focus a spotlight on those subtle, momentary thoughts that must be stranger than we believe, since they are often so quickly erased from memory. The word that comes to mind for the philosophical concerns of many of these poems is “anti-doctrinal.” I like the way these poems blend the ordinary and the sublime and echo their thematic and philosophical issues.

Camille Martin

The Lowly Eye: Samuel Greenberg’s Platonic Argument

         Shortly after my previous post about American poet Samuel Greenberg (1893 – 1917), Mark Woods gave a link to it from his website wood s lot: the fitful tracing of a portal along with a poem by Greenberg that I hadn’t mentioned. I love the idea of people having a favourite Greenberg poem, and Michael’s post brought to my attention one that I hadn’t yet read, “Memory” (64), which begins with the startling line “Gluttonous helium of thought’s endowment.”
          I had mentioned irony in Greenberg’s poems, which first occurred to me as I read “Immortality” (62), a poem that owes its own immortality in part to Hart Crane’s appropriation of some of its lines in “Emblems of Conduct.” Because of his lack of formal education, Greenberg is sometimes viewed as a naive poet whose rather purplish style implies an uncritical and rapturous praise of the powers of poetry to describe nature and express emotions. But in my further readings of Greenberg’s poems, I found that his tone is more ironic than previous critics have noted. For example, L. S. Dembo’s comparison of Hart Crane’s “Emblems of Conduct” (which is mostly a pastiche of lines from various poems by Greenberg) and Greenberg’s original lines is an admirably sustained and insightful analysis whose purpose is to demonstrate that Crane “has changed the whole tone of Greenberg’s work from romantic enthusiasm to irony” (320).
          However, in the following I want to show that many of Greenberg’s poems investigate the problematic duality of perception’s illusion and an ungraspable reality through argumentation that sometimes relies on irony. Greenberg’s philosophical and aesthetic stance, which is in essence a version of Platonism, sometimes ironically attributes authority to poetry and the senses and then dethrones them to show the necessarily mediated reality that arises from human attempts to experience and describe the world.
          I’d like to preface my analysis by stating that the ambiguity of Greenberg’s punctuation and syntax make interpretations speculative to an extent, and because of the difficulty of reading his work and to explain how I arrived at my interpretation, I’ll attempt “translations” of his lines. Prosaic and faulty as these glosses may be, I nonetheless hope that they show his deliberately ironic tone in working out a philosophical problem.
          For example, “The Laureate” (57) might at first blush seem to be unadulterated praise of the poet’s powers, but on closer study Greenberg’s argument comes through clearly. The first clue to the poem’s irony is in the title’s rather pompous reference to the poet. Greenberg’s opening apostrophe poses the central question of his sonnet:

                    Poet O soul! hast thou within thy wing the raise
                    That nature doth disown with complete color,
                    The enlightening beat of Heaven’s plausive royalty?—

          The question mark is an addition of the 1947 collection, a plausible assumption of the intended syntax, perhaps something like the following: Poet, does the flight of your inspiration fall short of nature, with its complete range of colour (as opposed to the limited human palette with which you describe nature)? Does your poetry contain the enlightening rhythms of heavenly authority?
          In the lines that follow, Greenberg extols the poet’s inspired vision of nature by contrasting clouds and earth:

                    As the clouds in their nudity softly sensate,
                    Uplift the sordid earth from dark slumber
                    And deviate spirits mystic woob,
                    Create animations about the hidden angels,
                    Regulate love in lofty nobles’ helm.
                    Conquer, but to unconquer self’s tomb,
                    Knight the command of universal thought,
                    Thou who art the stream of souls’ flow.

In other words, just as the softly perceptible clouds uplift the base earth from its dark sleep and womb of strange spirits, so does the poet animate hidden angels, give meaning to love, conquer mortality (but also embrace it), and express universal thoughts and feelings. These lines seem to praise the “laureate’s” divine powers.
          But it is the last three lines that reveal the irony behind his adulation of poetry:

                    O Lyre, ne’er can’st thou forgive praise,
                    For joy hides its stupendous coverings;
                    The quality of senses create and overthrow.

To Greenberg, poetry should not become conceited by such praise because its joys conceal its own “stupendous coverings,” its illusory colouring and symbolizing of reality. Our very senses create the qualities that poetry ascribes to reality. However, in the last word of the poem, “overthrow,” perhaps he metapoetically conveys the idea that the poet’s senses are also capable of revealing those qualities for the illusions that they are, thus justifying his own poem.
          It’s possible that I’m over-reading with my thoughts on “overthrow,” but I hope that the above offers a general idea of his sonnet’s argument regarding human perception and expression: poetry and the senses give pleasure, but these are illusory expressions of a reality that cannot be grasped by limited human means. The senses can experience, and poetry can describe, but the strong, unmediated light of reality lies beyond the ability of mere mortals to see.
          In “Enigmas” (49), Greenberg describes this dichotomy as “the beam / Of fire from the sun” versus his own “slumber in imagination of spheres . . . and moon-like shapes.” In “Nature’s Cover” (10), reality has a “[s]mooth, tangible, accessible skin / That gives its sensual, carnal kin,” unlike the unknowable “glossy smoke” and “spongy blue” of the “heavens.” In “The Cloud” (12), the poet’s power is mere “gilt” compared with the cloud that is “far from our souls.” And in “Daylight” (50), he addresses reality’s light as the “[g]leam” that with its “all-power[ful]” rays (“strings”) assists the poet’s “muse” to express “desire”:

                    The horizon hues give vent
                    To thousand lofty thoughts of poetry.
                    The floating marble-like clouds
                    Form incomprehensive molds;
                    But the lowly eye views this all
                    And, from within, peals its classic melancholy folds.

The clouds and horizon, in Greenberg’s symbolism, imply the unknowable realm. On the other hand, Greenberg often uses forms and colours to signify limited (“incomprehensive”) human apprehension of nature through imperfect faculties. Thus the poet’s limited perception sees only the colours of the horizon, inspiring poetry, and perceives only shapes from the clouds, whose resemblance to marble contributes to their aura of permanence and perfection. Perception’s “lowly eye” views an ultimately unknowable nature, attributes qualities and symbols to it, and creates cognitive images that are inherently limited. The reality beyond human grasp is transformed by the poet’s “melancholy folds” into poor representations of what the mind and senses cannot directly apprehend.
          In fact, a fairly consistent set of symbols attesting to these concerns can be traced throughout Greenberg’s oeuvre: the unknowable is figured as divinity, heaven, eternity, truth, scepters, immersion, essence, nature, clouds, strong light, or the unseen realm beyond the horizon. On the other hand, the relatively frail human perception is figured as a world of dreams, memories, reflections, echoes, veils, webs, specks, vapours, hues, shapes, or shadows; base earth; or the illusory charms of beauty and language.
          The religious implications of this symbolism are obvious, and I’ll address the influence of Jewish spiritual tradition below in my discussion of Greenberg’s image of a “spiritual gate.” As well, his aesthetic stance follows the Renaissance recapitulation of Platonic philosophy and is similar to Michelangelo’s succinct statement: “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.” This idea permeates Greenberg’s poetry and is at the heart of the irony in many of his poems, notably in “Immortality,” which I’ll quote here in full and try to untangle Greenberg’s gnarled syntax:

                    But only to be memories of spiritual gate,
                    Letting us feel the difference from the real;
                    Are not limits the sooth to formulate
                    Theories thereof, simply our ruler to feel?

This passage is especially tricky, but inverting the syntax helps to sort things out: Art is a limited human expression of a truth or divine reality, a kind of theory that we formulate in order to feel close to the divine. Isn’t the limitation of artistic expression, which allows us to sense our separation from an ungraspable reality, actually a memory of a spiritual gate to the divine?
          The next few lines give examples of the apparent power of artistic expression:

                    Basques of statuettes of eruptions long ago,
                    Of power in symmetry, marvel of thought
                    The crafts attempt, showing rare aspiration;
                    The museums of the ancient fine stones
                    For bowls and cups, found historians
                    Sacred adorations, the numismatist hath shown,

Here Greenberg states that the arts are ambitious: they create bodices of statuettes, and they show advancements in the power of human thought. The numismatist shows the love of historians for bowls and cups of precious stones in museums of ancient art.
          In this passage, Greenberg ironically praises the mimetic powers of art. That irony consists partly in the artistic objects that he chooses to invoke: not Michelangelo’s David, but statuettes, bowls, and cups. Even these more humble works of art (which he ironically describes as “showing rare aspiration” and expressing “marvel of thought”) show our attempt to recreate something of an unreachable divine reality. And the term “numismatist” contributes to Greenberg’s exploration of this duality, for the coin collector emphasizes the idea of the utilitarian and commercial side of human creative expression, further lending an ironic tone to his praise of art. And to emphasize his original question, Greenberg ends with the opening four lines, thus framing his examples of artworks with the idea of their “spiritual gate” to the divine.
          I’d like to dwell for a moment on Greenberg’s image of the “spiritual gate,” which might have roots in his Jewish faith. Marc Simon points out that “[p]robably much of what might be termed the Jewish experience had permeated Greenberg’s life, despite relatively little religious training in a schoolroom” (7). From 1901 until 1907, when he had to leave school at grade seven to work in a leather factory, he attended a public school, not a cheder. In his autobiography, he remembers, tongue in cheek, the “fancy problems,” “polished desks,” and “abnormal cheer” of his classrooms, where he describes himself as a “reaper of hard fact and geographical bliss,” “material” that nonetheless “served as an unconscious guide in my spiritual labors.” He would have absorbed Jewish faith and traditions at home, for his parents were observant Jews. And indeed, Greenberg’s poetry contains many references to his faith.
          In Jewish symbolism, a gate can refer to the gates of the Temple or the gates of heaven; open gates imply a closeness to God. The service that ends Yom Kippur is called “Ne’ilah,” which refers to the closing of the gates of prayer. According to Milton Steinberg in the Machzor Hadash, on Yom Kippur “the Jew saw a spiritual gate, an entranceway to a new relationship with God, an opportunity to change, to begin again” (761).
          Thus the spiritual gate in “Immortality,” an idea that infuses Greenberg’s poetics, may bear a relation to Jewish tradition. And although sometimes Greenberg seems to admire the power of poetry as a medium with which enter the “spiritual gates” and transport the mind to inspired heights, he also points out that after all, it is but a shadow of a divine reality.
          Greenberg’s work does present difficulties to the reader because of its effusive style and ambiguous syntax. But as several of his admirers have shown, careful readings of the poetry demonstrate him to be more sophisticated in his choices than it might at first appear. For example, Marc Simon’s study of the influence of Greenberg on Crane takes a positive tack in his revelation of Crane’s use and honing of Greenberg’s “techniques of repetition” (52).
          Likewise, Evalyn Shapiro, in her 1947 review of the collection edited by Holden and McManis, attributes originality to Greenberg’s work when she concludes that although Greenberg may have borrowed certain types of images from such sources as Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language, nonetheless during “the brief five-year period of his creative life he managed to evolve a poetic style of his own, including an idiom, a metric, and a symbolism” (160-61).
          And although John Berryman agrees with Allen Tate’s assessment of Greenberg’s work as “turgid and bathetic,” he also asserts that while Greenberg may have been “inexperienced” in his editing of his work, “he was not naïve.” Berryman also points out that because Greenberg “has been thought of so far, when thought of at all, as mad or simple . . . insistence is necessary upon the deliberate sane craft visible, at least by intention, all throughout [the 1947] volume” (505-506).
          As I mentioned in my previous post, Charles Bernstein appreciates Greenberg’s syntactical acrobatics and ambiguities as characteristics of a “radically modernist dimension”: “His swerve from syntax as a principal of clausal subordination and hierarchy opens up the field of serial apostrophe that pushes to liberate itself from the confines of ‘literary diction.’”
          In keeping with these positive assessments, I hope that my analysis shows that Greenberg’s poetic tone is not so simply a case of overblown Romantic enthusiasm, and that through a sometimes ironic tone he is working out a philosophical and spiritual problem in his awareness of the limitations of human perception.

* There is debate as to whether (or to what extent) editors should alter Greenberg’s spelling and punctuation to clarify meaning. For the sake of consistency, I’m presenting the versions in Poems by Samuel Greenberg: A Selection from the Manuscripts, the 1947 collection edited by Harold Holden and Jack McManis. Readers might want to refer to Michael Smith’s website Samuel Greenberg: American Poet, which presents less edited versions of some of the poems that I discuss.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. “Samuel Greenberg & Grammatic Truth.” Sibila: Poesia e Cultura.

Berryman, John. “Review: Young Poets Dead.” The Sewanee Review 55.3 (1947): 504-514.

Dembo, L. S. “Hart Crane and Samuel Greenberg: What Is Plagiarism?” American Literature 32.3 (1960): 319-21.

Deutsch, Gotthard, Cyrus Adler, and Francis L. Cohen. “Ne’ilah.” Jewish Encyclopedia.

Greenberg, Samuel. Poems by Samuel Greenberg: A Selection from the Manuscripts. Eds. Harold Holden and Jack McManis. New York: Henry Holt, 1947.

Hirsch, Emil G. “Gate.” Jewish Encyclopedia.

Shapiro, Evalyn. “Review: From Nowhere.” Poetry 71.3 (1947): 158-62.

Simon, Marc. Samuel Greenberg, Hart Crane and the Lost Manuscripts. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1978.

Smith, Michael, ed. Samuel Greenberg: American Poet.

Steinberg, Milton. Machzor Hadash.

Woods, Mark, ed. wood s lot: the fitful tracing of a portal.

Camille Martin

The Fledgling Book Flies the Nest

          This post is more meditative and personal than most of my literary musings, but I’ve been thinking about various reactions to some of the poems in Sonnets.
          As I was putting together the final manuscript of Sonnets, naturally I made certain decisions about which to include and which to put on the back burner, perhaps for future revisions. As well, in the final, published, version, there are some sonnets that I feel closer to than others.
          But once my book goes out into the world, I have no control over which poems, to quote Dickinson, make readers feel physically as if the top of their head is coming off, and which, not so much.
          For example, one friend named a sonnet that he particularly enjoyed. It was one that in the editing stage I had seriously considered tossing. This has happened often enough to bring home the point that after a work is released into the world, the author becomes largely irrelevant, unless biographical information contributes to the meaning of a poem (my Katrina poems, for example)—and even then. Unmoored from the intentions and contextual significance in the mind of the poet, readers become, to use Barthes’ term, writerly. I might not share a certain predilection for or interpretation of a poem, but who am I to say? And it’s a pleasure for me to know how others are reading my work.
          At a reading, I sometimes find myself about to start talking about what the poem means to me and then catch myself, so as not to impose a set of significations to the poem.
          And in the editing stage, when I had trusted friends help me to edit the manuscript, one editor felt that a certain sonnet should be dropped, while another felt it absolutely must be included. I hated to be the one to break the tie, but more often than not, iI decided to include it, since at least one seasoned poet felt strongly about it, and I didn’t want to deny the little sonnet its chance to shine, even if only for a minority of readers.
          It can be illuminating and broadening to read other’s interpretations of particular poems. Not long ago, Bill Knott wrote a sensitive and insightful analysis of one of the sonnets, “comatose in paradise,” in which he gave it a depth of meaning and pointed out interconnected ideas that I hadn’t noticed before. As much pleasure and satisfaction as I derive from writing, it’s at least as gratifying to hear others’ take on the poetry. Perhaps it’s true that poets are the worst interpreters of their own poetry.
          I’m wondering what others think when they hear such unexpected feedback from others.

Camille Martin

Sonnets – European reading tour

Vulcan is cooperating for now, so my reading tour in the UK, Ireland, and Paris to celebrate the publication of my new book Sonnets by the fabulous Shearsman Books is on. A recent review and ordering information follows the itinerary below. If you are going to be in any of these places, please come!

London, England
7:30 pm, Tuesday, May 4
Shearsman Reading Series
Swedenborg Hall, Swedenborg House / 20/21 Bloomsbury Way
Readers: Camille Martin (publisher’s launch of Sonnets) and Alasdair Paterson

Bangor, Wales
7:30 pm, Thursday, May 6
Blue Sky Cafe / High Street
A triple launch – Camille Martin’s Sonnets, Ian Davidson’s Into Thick Hair, and the new issue of Poetry Wales

St. Helier, Isle of Jersey
8:00 pm, Saturday, May 8
PoAttic Reading Series
The Attic in the Jersey Opera House

Cork, Ireland
Monday, May 10
6:30 – 8:00 pm: workshop
9:00 pm: reading
Ó Bhéal Reading Series / The Long Valley

Salford, England
6:00 – 8:00 pm, Tuesday, May 11
University of Salford
Two-hour session with students in the MA in Creative Writing program

Paris, France
7:30 pm, Tuesday, May 18
Ivy Writers Reading Series
Le Next / 17 rue Tiqutonne, Paris

A recent review of Sonnets by rob mclennan:

There are so few that seem to know how to bring something new to an often-used form that when it happens, it’s worth noting, and such is the case with Toronto poet Camille Martin in her second trade poetry collection, Sonnets (Exeter, England: Shearsman Books, 2010). Martin, an American relocated north after Hurricane Katrina, writes with the most wonderful sense of clarity, thought and play in these poems . . .

Read the entire review here

See the Shearsman webpage for ordering information, or go straight to SPD.

Camille Martin

rob mclennan reviews Sonnets

There are so few that seem to know how to bring something new to an often-used form that when it happens, it’s worth noting, and such is the case with Toronto poet Camille Martin in her second trade poetry collection, Sonnets (Exeter, England: Shearsman Books, 2010). Martin, an American relocated north after Hurricane Katrina, writes with the most wonderful sense of clarity, thought and play in these poems, and with a flavour . . . (read more)

Sonnets is now available! Read its first review . . .

You can find ordering information for Sonnets here.

I was pleased to read an enthusiastic review of Sonnets recently in Stride Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:
        “Sonnets is a delightful body of work. Even though we wander
        into the oblique there is never alienation because the words
        are too beautiful …. Incredible poetic craft.”
             —James Mc Laughlin, Stride Magazine

Read the review here.

Camille Martin