by Djelloul Marbrook
In spite of what arriviste critics tell us, good, even great writers are lost in the cracks in every generation, and we must always ask ourselves if we have chosen to be a society too smug to indulge such a humble notion. It is for this reason alarming to see literary agents, editors and critics take refuge in the self-serving lie that what deserves to be published is published.
But as the means to publish expand and new technologies evolve, the critical apparatus is unable and unwilling to keep up. Many good works are ignored. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley said of critics that they reflect the ignorance of the age. I find this amusingly harsh. I owe much to critics for directing me to worthy books. But the odor of truth lingers about Shelley's observation.
There are some writers in every genre—I would extend this to the plastic arts—who by nature touch so many raw nerves that even when editors and critics see merit in their work they decline the work because it has nicked them in some vulnerable place. With luck, such writers and artists may find the one advocate whose commitment to creativity surpasses his or her vulnerability to disturbing insights.
It's all very well to say that editor after editor passed up Herman Melville's Moby-Dick because the crazy pursuit of a whale wasn't deemed a suitable literary subject, but I suspect it was the profound insights that Melville sewed into the seams of his work that put off those editors. Their supposed disinterest in a whale was their cover story.
It would be a great shame, considering these matters, if Martina Reisz Newberry's poetry were to be underestimated because it hasn't been published by a prestigious press and noticed by The New York Review of Books. This protégé of the late Virginia Adair is a restless experimenter with a forthright demotic voice. Her poetic demeanor invites you to think of the sort of person who, upon meeting, you know you’re not going to be able to have a pleasantly vacuous relationship; it’s going to be an engagement or nothing at all.
There is nothing of the deadly competence and bland content one often finds in poetry in our day. After the Earthquake (Poems 1996-2006), her latest work of 99 poems, is distinguished by her focus on finding just the right structure for each poem, each intent. For this reason, it isn’t an easy book to read, because you can’t settle into a familiar vehicle for the journey. But that isn’t what a collection of individual poems is about. This isn’t, after all, a narrative. It’s more like a briefing for a journey of discovery conducted by one who has already been halfway there.
I sometimes chuckled reading After the Earthquake because the poems I ought to have admired weren’t the ones that I most liked. For example, there are many poems more admirable in this book than No. 79, The Angry Affirmative, but I love the opening line: Don’t gloat. You were just my moment in the woods. It has to be a woman saying it. Not a woman of the 1960s, where there would have been a sticky embrace of free love, but a woman talking coolly in the teeth of our paranoid 21st Century.
It may be that the polarization of our society, brought on in no small measure by sound-bite journalism, has found its way into the tastemaking apparatus and that’s why we so rarely see the kind of daring that took our breath away in Arthur Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat. I entertained this thought as I reached Newberry’s No. 60, If Music Wasn’t Enough:
- President William McKinley’s favorite hymn was
Lead Kindly Light. Who knows why? But, if some light somewhere
is kind enough to lead, my ass will follow.
Savoring this tone, this profane interiority, is like watching and listening to an attractive young woman walking on a crowded street talking to herself. An old woman, a bag lady perhaps, you would grant leave to behave this way, but the fact that a well groomed young woman is publicly having a conversation with herself unmindful of what others think haunts and disturbs you. Something is excitingly, profanely out of order here.
It has nothing to do with the poet’s actual age but rather with the nature of the poetry, which is at once youthful and wise. But not too wise. Newberry doesn’t suggest that she knows more than she’s saying. On the contrary, she tells you exactly what she doesn’t know. Accordingly, we trust her.
But almost all of us have at one time or another had a similar conversation with ourselves, saying, Oh yeah, tell me where that light is, and I’ll follow it. We don’t think such conversations with ourselves are poetry, but in fact they are its source. A good poet knows exactly how her inmost dialogue is conducted, how it sounds, and so she is very like the young woman walking down the street fully engaged in the life of her own mind. We may choose to put her down as crazy, but in our hearts we know she’s into herself, exactly where you have to be to mean what you say and say what you mean.
This is Newberry’s accomplishment, and it’s all the more considerable because we’re not aware of the feat. We simply find ourselves unaccountably able to hear every word and every nuance of that “mad” young woman’s most revealing dialogue, and as we trail along, trying to be unobtrusive, we find ourselves falling in love with the dialogue, if not the woman.