Review by Karen Corinne Herceg
A FIERCE HEART
It may feel a bit unnatural to combine the words holy and dark, but all one needs to do is turn on the news and see well-intentioned people navigating a world of violence, and the realities of lives poised continually within antithetical forces, to realize it’s not such an unusual merger. This extends to our interior being as well since it reflects, on a microscopic level, what exists in a macroscopic equivalent. Clare L. Martin’s latest book Seek the Holy Dark: Poems was written with an intrepid pen and a fierce heart that knows all too well the many unbearable burdens of existence. A 2017 selection of the Louisiana Cajun and Creole Series by Yellow Flag Press, it embodies the inheritance of a melancholy, mixed history of those particular southern sensibilities, specifically the Franco-American descendants of colonial Louisiana, centralized in the legacies of New Orleans. It’s a rich blend of exotic architecture, authentic jazz music and Mardi Gras frenzy that belies a region fraught with ghost histories, voodoo stories, poverty and struggles evoked most recently in the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The region was always susceptible to natural disasters, rising back up on the strength of its people, its colorful history and its almost supernatural resilience. Clare L Martin seems very much a child of these legacies, internalized in unrelenting examination.
The cover of the book is evocative, and artist Agnieszka Nowinska compels with deep reds and rich, vivid colors despite its ominous depictions of inverted imagery and swirling whirlpool warnings, and represents the poems well. Martin opens with the title poem of the book written “after Jo Ann Tomaselli’s ‘Birds & Fence’” (P. 8, epigraph). If you search this photograph, you will find a stark black and white picture of birds strung along a wire affixed to a weathered, wooden fence against a gray horizon. But the most remarkable thing about the photo is that these birds appear apart from one another, each perched in its own spot, together yet isolated. Martin states, “We only surmise the fence/contains a breadth/for one impenetrable/moment” (P. 8, ll. 4-7), the illusion of support and kinship evident. This is at the core of where these poems reside. There is a deep desire for meaning and connection that continues seeking despite overwhelming discouragements. Martin knows there are hidden answers within our shadow selves, and she searches for them relentlessly but, ultimately, with little resolution. From the sparse “The Hanging Woman” to prose poems like “Embellishments,” we see the futility of false absolutions for our transgressions. Deep catholic influences migrate from poem to poem in the disappointing promises of religious icons and symbols. In “Come, a Love Poem” she pleads, “Touch my brokenness/with your miracle/with your spit and mud, and I shall be healed” (P. 24, ll. 27-30). The plea is not to any deity but to a lover, in sexual union, a human connection, the poem inspired by photographer Brian Baiamonte’s “unclouded,” where clouds rest at the bottom of the photo like violent ocean waves with rays of sun breaking through above them. But these saviors rest on the surface and not in the depths of where we need to go to rescue ourselves. She observes, “We drop through this world/into dark awakening/we, the strong –hearted” (P. 13, ll. 19-21). And it takes a strong heart to plumb the subterranean wounds of our existence. Martin continues to search less than optimistically but forges ahead nevertheless while “Sobs bully our throats/Unique fears squirm in the gut/Only sex dispels the hour” (P. 25, ll. 18-20). And these poems are candidly sexual in shattering, visceral expression. These are no romantic visions. Martin fixes us with stark, vivid images such as “A dress is silent on the floor” (P. 14, l. 11), “…bruise-colored garments” (P. 17, l. 15) and perceived losses as in “Aftermath” when she states, “My old-woman womb/flutters with illusory children” (P. 19, ll.17-18) and “crown of thorns/my own heart/brambles and thorns/jag the aorta” (P. 21, ll. 23-26). Earthy and organic, the poems are palpably anatomical in references to bodies, blood and breath, the tools by which we interact and often measure meaning.
These are poems of mourning, regret, and loss. In “Phoenix,” a prose poem with an epigraph “for Kelly,” we have a woman as “Huntress, seductress, heathen and whore made new in body, new in word” (P. 39, ll. 15-16). We all return to the earth but, for Martin, it is as if we continually bury ourselves piece by piece even before our last breath. She has a way of seeing things in the present as already past and disappointing as she states in “Refuge” when she pleads: “Please, tonight, hold me/with the remembrance of light” (P. 43, ll. 8-9). In “Of the Gone Woman” we find a clue to Martin’s despair, the poem buried within the midpoint of the book. She names her mother “the Gone Woman” and remembers her mythological legacies and “bad magic” (P. 38, l. 14), stating almost accusingly, “Mother/you skimmed your finger/along my bone/and left a print/inside” (P. 38, ll. 18-22). This poem is a scathing indictment of injurious maternal bequests and segues into further generations as in the poem “All This Remembering” where we meet a daughter:
My only child
stares me down
while a tube is snaked
down her throat. A black
foaming slick of pill
drains out of her mouth— (P. 50, ll. 11-18)
It does not get much darker than this. Loss in subsequent relationships permeates the work in deep, thematic ways, expectations undercut by failure and bereavement: “We named ourselves after mountains/but forgot what shifted beneath us” (P. 40, ll. 17-18). In “Eiffel Tower, a Recollection of Paris, 1986” the iconic landmark is never visited as the narrator remains in bed with a stranger during her visit, resting in the shadows of the city, a reminder only “of what I missed” (P. 41, l. 3). And in “Refuge” she pleads, “Please, tonight, hold me/with the remembrance of light” (P. 43, ll. 8-9), the transitory, sad expectation of loss already anticipated. People appear as translucent outlines, not wholly flesh and grounded, gone before they actually leave as in “Seeing Through” when she observes, “Your shape embosses/the far line of the horizon” (P. 45, ll. 7-8). And in “The Artist and His Model” there is a cold, removed interaction between painter and subject, as if the replication of the model is more accessible and vivid than the actual woman.
Poems such as “Thunder found me” are somewhat less original in expression but are more than compensated for in pieces like “What We Carry” that are sparse yet rich with imagery. There is a sense of constant opposition between people, desires and even the way Martin perceives the natural world as in “How it comes,” where she observes: “Today it came to me/as a bird; its wingbeat/light as a whisper, pecking/fruit in a verdant heart” (P. 36, ll. 21-24). We are alone yet still together like those birds on a fence, and our “shared transformation” seems to occur at the very point we leave our bodies. The poet “constellates with discorporate multitudes in harmonic undulations” (P. 61, ll. 29-30), as she states in “End Note” that concludes with “Holy holy holy” that is ultimately more of an imperative than a deterrent. Beyond the constant insistent hopelessness, there is “the Christ/that I need to believe in/that I am begging to take/a Lifetime’s desperation” (P. 21, ll. 17-20). But it is disconcerting, as if the narrator recognizes the shallowness of needing to believe as opposed to any genuine confidence or optimism.
Stark, unrelenting and uncensored pleas and imagery define these poems. Martin leaves nothing on the table, asking us to see the skin, bones, organs and very heart of darkness. She resides in the demi monde of duality, committed to the search, where those of us with resilient hearts and resoluteness will resolve to join her. .
You can find the book here: https://www.yellowflagpress.com/_p/prd15/4592458541/product/clare-l.-martin—seek-the-holy-dark
Karen Corinne Herceg graduated Columbia University where she studied with David Ignatow and Pulitzer Prize winner Phil Schultz. She has featured at major venues with such renowned poets as John Ashbery and William Packard. Her new book of poems, Out From Calaboose, was released in November 2016 by Nirala Publications with edits by Linda Gray Sexton, bestselling author and daughter of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton. Her website is www.karencorinneherceg.com.