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.
Read more on [[https://www.arabesques-editions.com/journal/contributors/martina_newberry.html | Martina Newberry]]'s work
To order the book from online bookstores
Books from the author published by Arabesques
One of the most challenging literary events of the last decade which took place in Athens was undoubtedly the lecture of Nadine Gordimer. It was a memorable experience to hear this tiny, silver haired lady speak with a soft but steady voice of some of her country’s unsolved problems: analphabetism and semi-alphabetism, poverty, racism, the transition from the racist regime to the democratic state, about those done during the last ten years of democratic government and above all for those yet to be done, which she described as “existing and as unpleasant as a hangover after a heavy drunkenness”.
The leading South African writer - and one of world’s famous atheists - wrote her first narrative at nine. She became aware of the inhuman exploitation of the Black People from the White ones from an early age. “There is one thing I am sure of: racism is wrong”. She did her duty as a citizen. Being white, and a woman, she always felt she had special responsibilities. Denouncing Apartheid in her books was one of them, along with letting the world know of the catastrophical consequences of the racial discriminations system to the lives of the people. She was rewarded for having been the Geiger Counter of Apartheid for fifty years with the Nobel Prize in 1991.
In her amazing novel “None to accompany me”, Gordimer builds up a story which, according to American reviewers, seems to perfect match hers. Cool though strict, Vera Stark «with legal studies and a liking for order», head member of the administration in a Legal Institution founded as “a reaction against the black mess» of the black community, fights back the system with its own tricks. She will become the living example of how the collapse of an old regime allows us perhaps to abandon our old self. Maybe abandon an old personal life, too. Indeed, she will gradually see everything around her changing radically, and as consequences provoke other consequences, she will almost lose her life, after a murder attempt against her which will bring her face to face with the face of death, she will experience the fall of the frenzied racism monster as well as the transition towards a new regime with new supporters, ready like the others before them to be corrupted, the unjustified violence and the extreme poverty, she will revaluate her own existence, as a mother, as a companion and as a woman, she will watch her friends changing, she will be fascinated by the leader of the Black People and she will endure all these hardships with the stoicism of wisdom. Just like her leading character, Gordimer testified as a defense witness in the trial of eleven black fighters standing trial for treason and terrorism.
The liturgical round of the Christian church—whether Orthodox, Roman or Anglican—has inspired some of the best poetry ever written. The Book of Common Prayer, written by Thomas Cranmer, priest-confessor to Elizabeth I, contains some of the most elegant poetry in the English language, and late in the last century the Anglican poet, W.H. Auden, participated in a modernization of that work.
Now, as Auden’s Anglican Communion tears itself apart in the name of a squalid debate about homosexuality, a debate which in all likelihood one hundred years from now people will look back upon with dismay, the liturgy seems more a legacy the church shares with the people in a museum setting rather than the daily sustenance of the people, as it was meant to be.
It is this dispensation, this unfortunate aspect of life’s acceleration since the times when life centered on the cathedral, that Marjorie Maddox now sets on its head. Hence her apt title, Weeknights at the Cathedral. The cathedral was not meant to be a museum. Her cathedral is the gathering place of the hoi polloi as well as the elite. It is peopled not only by people we all know, but by their baggage, their foibles and problems. Her cathedral is not too solemn for jongleurs, hawkers, rakes and all us ordinary plodders. There is nothing showily pious or dauntingly metaphysical here. You could bring your laundry and certainly an irreverent sense of humor to Maddox’s cathedral, and that is how it was before bourgeois piety froze its heart and shelved it under glass.
Maddox lives in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, but she could be speaking of Manhattan’s unfinished Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where the clergy have labored mightily for decades to open the romanesque edifice to humanity, to other religions, even to atheists and agnostics, turning it into the vibrant center of community life that cathedrals were meant to be.
Her poems—one of them in the shape of a chalice—observe the offices, sacraments, patron saints, holy days, and challenges of the church and its faithful, even its not-so-faithful.
Her prosody is, in turns, buoyant, funny, even preposterous, meditative, solemn. It is never hifalutin, which in the case of Anglicanism, is a caricaturable curse.
Maddox, always a seeker, understands the comfortability in Roman and Orthodox dogma, as well as the modernity and flexibility in Anglicanism’s longing for the via media . She celebrates not institutions but the people’s apprehension of what gives rise to them, a divine impulse in our hearts.
For the non-Christian this is an opportunity to spend a few invisible nights in a cathedral to see what their faith means to Christians. For the Christian, whatever denomination, it is an opportunity to revisit
root catholicity. And for all of us it is a time to consort with angels in department stores, Mary remembering Gabriel, God going fishing, the patron saints of dentists and television people—a time to be glad for life’s ordinariness.
Literary and technical blogs buzz and blather these days with speculation about the nature of the book. Can the book as we know it survive the advent of such technologies as the Internet? Can the continued killing of trees to make books and newspapers and magazines be justified?
At the same time, the radical commercialization of almost everything, including human life, raises the question of whether literature itself can survive. Will there be any more great novels? Will there be any
more great, extended poems like The Wasteland and The Bridge?
Back and forth the speculative blog posts flash before our eyes. It would have sickened Gustave Flaubert who complained bitterly that instead of examining the facts people preferred to pontificate. He might have been talking about our time. Well, he was a visionary, so he was talking about our time.
Yet few people seem to focus on the relationship between poetry and the Internet. How odd this is, because in so many ways the poem is ideally suited to be transmitted to the remotest crannies and aeries of
the world with breathless speed.
A case in point. Bam Dev Sharma is a poet and department head at The Campus of International Languages in Katmandu. He had seen a poem by
the California poet, [[https://www.arabesques-editions.com/journal/contributors/martina_newberry.html | Martina Newberry]], in an anthology. So he wrote to her by e-mail. A correspondence ensued, and from this Internet
correspondence The Banyan & The Alder emerged. It’s a conversation in poetry between two poets from across the world. One wonders if any Shia and Sunni poets are e-mailing each other in Iraq.
Like everything about the Internet, any consideration of its role in poetry must be tempered by the knowledge that the technology is evolving and remains in a somewhat primitive, if rapidly improving,
For example, the structural characteristics of these poets’ work lend themselves to the Internet. E-mail will readily hold left-handed margins and simple stanzaic patterning, for instance. But if the poems
were as sculptural as, say, [[https://www.arabesques-editions.com/journal/contributors/daniel_pendergrass.html | Daniel Pendergrass]]’s 23 Karabitsi Istanbul, also published by Arabesques, it would be an entirely different and less rewarding matter, because e-mail would almost certainly manhandle
the shape of the poems.
But the vehicle of their correspondence isn’t all that commends these poets to readers.
Newberry is not unlike John Clare in her directitude. I read a book about a man who killed women/then took their skins to wear like a costume, she begins a poem called Consolations. She observes a world familiar to us, not a strangeling world sprung from someone’s head.
Sharma, on the other hand, seems to share his correspondent’s celebration of the ordinary, but he’s at once comfortable with abstraction and reminiscent of Sufi poets searching for an elixir among ordinary things.
In The Spinning Wheel Song Newberry writes, If you are being kissed, stay still. So, being kissed by the poetry, you take her advice. And then midway in the poem, she says, If you feel yourself drowning, it’s
too bad. So, you say to yourself, I have to get into the spirit of this poet’s humors. No need to worry, you already have. She’s high-spirited.