Thursday, May 21, 2015

What I'm Reading: Dear Mark by Martin Rock

58º ~ a bizarre cold front spreads quite a chill for late May ~ windows open, seated with blankets

One of the best things about attending AWP each year (the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) is the "chance encounter," when a writer who knows a writer you know and are talking to joins the conversation and your circle of friends widens.

Just such an encounter took place at the Hilton bar in Minneapolis this past April as I was having drinks with my poet-friend Traci Brimhall. Her friend, Martin Rock showed up and introductions were made. Later, in the book fair, I ran into Martin at the Gulf Coast table, as he is currently pursuing at PhD at the University of Houston, home of Gulf Coast. In our conversation, I learned about Martin's chapbook, Dear Mark, published in 2013 by Brooklyn Arts Press. Happily, I made my way to the BAP table and purchased a copy.

This chapbook finds its inspiration in the paintings of Mark Rothko, and each poem is titled after one painting. In addition to the title, each poem is preceded by a line drawing of the "blocks" included in said painting. Everything is black and white, so these outlines simply serve as reference points.

I have to say that I have little experience with ekphrastic poetry, finding it quite difficult to use a piece of art (created by someone else) as inspiration. When I've tried, I've mostly ended up with poems that "report" the elements of the piece of art. Not so with Martin Rock's poems in this book. I read the first 3/4 of the book away from the computer, and thus away from looking at the original Rothko images. The poems all held up. As an experiment, I read the last 1/4 of the book with each painting up on my screen as I read the poems. This was interesting, as I could often see the gate into the poem provided by the painting, but once I was into the poem, I only glanced back at the image on the screen now and again.

What impressed me most about these poems is the incredible attention to line breaks. The poems are all free verse and employ many different strategies in stanza breaks and justification. The form of each poem is organic and one can sense how each form mirrors the content of the individual poem. And then there are the line breaks. Here are just a few examples of line breaks that took the top of my head off.

First, from the opening poem and opening lines of "No. 5 / No. 22, 1949":

In the mustard sky
                    clouds have gathered
       inside a box

of Plexiglas.

OK, look at that again. We read the first two lines and think "a description of the sky, weird color, but a sky." Then, as we move into line 3, with no end-stop to prevent us falling into the phrase "inside a box," we get the surprise that the sky is not the actual sky, but an artificial one. The enjambment between lines 2 and 3 is crucial to the artifice that will permeate the rest of the book.

This happens again in "No. 61, Rust & Blue, 1953," only this time, Martin uses run-ons to enhance the enjambed lines and heighten the sense of ideas merging.

Down the path, a barn has left its lights on.
       We're lying on the red clay & it is cold
against my cheeks & eyes the barn
        atomic in the distance. Families are huddled
in partitions underground I fear
        we're one of them.

Now, usually when I see "wonky" syntax like this, I get easily frustrated by a poet taking unnecessary shortcuts. But, in Martin's case, these run-ons are integral to the meaning evoked by the poem (there is a sense of dangerous science & technology, a sense of a dangerous future waiting throughout the book). Look at the opening line. It is a straight-forward sentence. There is order in the world (even as we understand this is a moment of dis-order, because of the note about the lights). Then, we read through lines 2 & 3, getting that the cold clay is touching the speaker's face, but then this is blurred with the barn, seen at a distance and appearing "atomic" as it is illuminated in the dark. The barn is dangerous. This is reinforced by the underground bunker idea and the run-on in line 5. There are slightly different meanings, depending on where one reads the run-on.

Families are huddled in partitions underground, I fear.
We're one of them.

Families are huddled in partitions underground. I fear
we're one of them.

This muddled syntax heightens the reader's sense of fear and danger, even though it only takes us a moment to understand the meaning of the lines.

And I'll leave you with the opening of "No. 43, Mauve, 1960."

Forbearance is no longer a word
                     than is ascoliasm, in which medieval
      children beat each other to tatters.

This kind of break causes me to stop and write "wow" in the margin. If we read only the first line, we get the idea that "forbearance" is no more. Then, as we continue to read, we realize "no longer" has a different meaning all together. So cool. Of course, as you read the rest of the poem you realize that the whole poem is about patience & restraint versus wildness. And all of this suggested by an abstract painting built of blocks of color. So cool.

And I would probably not have learned of this book, without that "chance encounter" at AWP in April. So very cool.

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