David Allen Case
Dionisio D. Martinez: Bad Alchemy
W. W. Norton, 1995 // 105 pages
- In a poem called "Looking for Frank O'Hara on Fire Island," one of the most impressive in his new collection, Dionisio Martinez finds nothing of that poet's presence; instead, he speaks of "everything you can imagine / delicately ruined." He has too much good taste actually to find O'Hara, for O'Hara stood for "the death of literature as we know it" (see "Personism: A Manifesto"), and Martinez' poems represent nothing if not poetry as we know it. His voice is skeptical, rather plain, though occasionally a little bitchy, as in the book's last two lines, a comment on his childhood days in Cuba:
Many still refer to these days as the triumph
of the Revolution. All I remember is too little coffee.
In the book's centerpiece, "Afternoons with Satie," Martinez achieves a reflective tone refined almost to the point of pure tedium:
Even night is a product of residual light.
What they call absolute darkness is the art
of knowing how to lower the shades almost
completely, knowing exactly how much is enough.
We measure the varying degrees of shadow
in the residue. We know that a shadow
is the object from which it is cast.
We are beginning to understand the principle.
Night, we have finally admitted,
cannot extend beyond the things it evokes.
The admirable title poem navigates transitions from a Space Shuttle launch to a woman's "cognac cures," to the strange effects of being struck by lightning. All material is equally ripe for this poet's polished touch. All one might wish is that "Bad Alchemy" had been a little more bad, for the tone as it is strikes me as strangely dutiful.
- Martinez deserves praise on many important grounds. What I would like to discuss is the misleading tone of some praise that the publishers have chosen to emphasize, that is, to speak in the vernacular, to use as a blurb. The remarks from Stephen Dunn are reasonable: "His poems are mysterious and intellectually provocative [...] I love the way his poems show us that one can be both bemused and alienated at the same time." Fine. Bemused and alienated. Yes. The remarks
from David Lehman, however, are astonishing: "Dionisio D. Martinez is an exuberant poet." Compared to whom? William Cullen Bryant? "He celebrates Jean Harlow, Ed Sullivan, Glenn Miller's big band, Scott Fitzgerald, the Los Angeles of the freeways, Fire Island." The poem "Ed Sullivan and the Decline of the Variety Show" includes these lines:
[...] I was learning, in those days,
on my fingers in French, and to say
the names of
cities I would mispronounce again many
on the train to Paris.
I'm not sure how to characterize the tone of "Ed Sullivan," but it fails to qualify as a celebration on most of the grounds I can think of.
More disturbing still are the words that follow in Lehman's broadside: "This exuberance is a very winning quality. It is decidedly American, but it is alsoand to me most movinglyan expression of the immigrant's sense of America. Martinez' poems reflect poignantly on the poet's status as a Cuban exile destined to a perennial sense of dislocation." Is Lehman afraid that Martinez will not seem American enough if he is not said to be "exuberant"? Must he, too, be turned into Whitman before he can be endorsed? And is a Cuban in Florida really more "displaced" than an Idahoan in Florida? The painful thing about this charade is the assumption behind it that only one sort of poet is a "real" American poet, and that is the poet directly "descended" from Whitman. This imperative has such a powerful hold on the minds of our literati that they feel compelled to put poetry that doesn't fit the preferred mode into the drag of that mode. How sad. What contempt for the consumer of poetry lurks behind this phenomenon.
Copyright © 1996
Electronic Poetry Review