review by Karen Corinne Herceg

Seek the Holy Dark by Clare L. Martin

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Review by Karen Corinne Herceg
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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:
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 My only child
stares me down
with hatred
while a tube is snaked
down her throat. A black
foaming slick of pill
fragments
drains out of her mouth— (P. 50, ll. 11-18)
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            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

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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.

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Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball

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Review by Karen Corinne Herceg
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Redaction and Inquiry
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There has been a trend in recent decades of what has popularly been called New Age thinking and the idea that science and spirituality are not antithetical, challenging approaches to traditional Western thought purported since the dawn of The Enlightenment. Prior to that time of bustling scientific discoveries, technological advancements and industrialization, humans were much more intricately linked between the machinations of the physical world and the workings of the cosmos. More current views are harkening back to that conventional wisdom and, in many ways, modern inquiry can now substantiate the facts of our interconnectedness, spirit and science yoked together intricately within our experience of the cosmos. 
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There is extensive debate about the efficacy of theories supporting these assumptions, with much inability to reach consensus. Magdalena Ball’s new poetry collection, “Unmaking Atoms,” might just be the kind of unifying force that is needed. Bridging the hard, concrete world with our abstract interior one, Ball seeks to deconstruct what we use from the physical environment as confirmation and ballast for our existence in contrast to the illusive, mystical world of the unknown. She juxtaposes emotions and memory with sensory perceptions evoking a quantum leap of sorts, seeking a crossroads where answers might be possible. We need poetry to explore these seemingly inaccessible and polarized forces, amidst a mass of contradictions, in ways theses and academic abstracts often cannot.
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“Unmaking Atoms” is a very ambitious work of seven sections and ninety-one poems. There is a relentless insistency and emotional intensity in these poems, a genuine and heartfelt plea that implicates us and demands our engagement. In “The Last Report of the Day,” the opening poem, Ball invokes poetic lineage in Adrienne Rich with an deference to maternal guidance. Addressing Rich she states, “…you became every mother/I had ever lost” (P. 6, ll.13-14). In facing the inevitable demise of physical loss, this is Ball’s anchor—to grieve, seek solace and often acceptance in the creative landscape of the poet. Throughout the book Ball derives substantiation in the words of other poets and writers such as Elizabeth Bishop in “Charitable Crumb” and Edna St. Vincent Millay in “Luminous Air,” and many others in an effort to reside in good company in a world without definitive resolution. In the lovely prose poem “Essential Whites,” Ball expresses the angst and striving of a writer, the conflicts and challenges, and the endless hope for inspiration: “Writing this way, while waiting for transition is like the swipe of a hand against my face: that blessed sting” (P. 93, ll. 1-2).
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The constant tension in these poems is inherent in the exploration between perception and reality, “…as if this alien moon were the moon” (“Right Angles to Reality,” P. 10, l. 8), and with some resignation, in “Catalyst,” we remain “…subject to reactivity/and mathematical constructs.” (P. 13, ll. 28-29). But Ball continues to strive for resolution between two worlds as evidenced in the wonderful tactile imagery of “Salting the Wound” as she reflects, “A memory of moon settles/liquid and silvery into my skin” (P. 19, ll. 17-18). In “Encroachment Spells Erosion” (after James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake) the geocentric title attempts to yoke us to solid evidence as in the lines “…the world’s a cell/very ordinarily designed/a song of alibi…” (P. 32 ll. 5-7). In “Life Dreaming” she says this more directly, a scientist’s desire to see life in basic, clear terms in opposition to the discomfort of the doubtful mind: “…a secular prayer to calm the pain of change” (P. 34, l. 24). Often there is further acceptance as in “Harnessing Wind” which captures optimism in natural wonder and acknowledgement of mysteries.
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There are many poems that might have worked well as a completely separate 
volume on loss, specifically maternal loss. “Irrational Heart” is a soulful, exquisite elegy with the supplication “…anything to negotiate the hurt” (P. 26, l. 69) and with homage to lineage in “I might share this knowing with my daughter/when she’s in need of a god/and no male/armed with a pocket full of tools/will do…” (P. 26, ll. 137-141). An example of a very long poem that keeps us moving through it effortlessly with anticipation and empathy is “Hieroglyphics,” and in “Nature’s Observatory” in a reversal of inheritance, “…the air took your breath/a reverse offering” (P. 88, ll. 2-3). “Probability Waves” expresses the frustration of loss with a stubborn resistance against all reason and outcomes: “…if I never know/then all things are possible” (P. 92, ll. 26-27), and “In Situ” highlights this frustration in juxtaposed images: “…there was much to do/but nothing more to be done” (P. 94, l. 3) and serves as a nice complement to “…an aging child/counting losses” in “Image of the day” (P. 107, ll. 21-22). The theme of impermanency gathers momentum in “Past Life” with stars as hypergiants “…burning through billions of lives” (P. 12, l. 22) asking “Is the connection between us/me in this life/you in another/so tenuous/un-tethered by those bonds/we once thought permanent?” (ll. 33-38). As Ball asks us in “Atomic Mess” in direct, plaintive language, “…does inheritance/provide solace” (P. 11, ll. 25-26)? The maternal loss might best be expressed with a good balance of emotion and imagery in “Mourner’s Kaddish”:
“For me you’ll always be in motion,/standing in the bright/light of your kitchen,/the percolated aroma,/cut cake,/a ready joke” (P. 70, ll. 27-29). Ball excavates deeply in an essential and noble undertaking of dismantling bereavement, meaning and recovery.
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There are many words and expressions throughout the book that are illuminating but will likely require the reader to be curious enough to look them up, some being more accessible within the context of the poem and others less so. For example, “Mandlebrot” referring to absolute numbers (P. 9, l. 19), “Enceladus,” the sixth largest moon of Saturn (P. 10, l. 9), and “synecdoche,” (P. 10, l. 25), a part of something referring to the whole. In “Trojan Horse” there are obscure references throughout, at least to most of us, as in (P. 24, l. 15 ) “…on a Gantt or Pareto” but then followed by the incisive “…the waiting executive team/of the soul” (P. 24, ll. 16-17). “Mirror Neurons” has words like “thigmonasty,” (the response of a plant to touch or movement) quite dense to linguistically integrate for the less energetic reader.
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Occasionally there is a somewhat inaccessible joining of imagery and language such as “…running, like Buddha himself/into glory…” (P. 18, ll. 16-17) and the obvious rhyme scheme of “…from perception to conception” (P. 18, l. 6), Herceg/Ball Review/P. 6 both from “Beginner’s Mind,” but then the lovely “…leaving me with all this/responsibility/all this breath” (P. 18, ll. 19-21). Alliteration is used effectively as in “Irrational Heart” in the lines “With closed eyes, I watered the weeping/willow…” (P. 26, ll. 1-2). Imagery works well in “Static” between shocks of ghostly memories and physical evidence of those memories, and “Landscape at Pentecost” is a good example of conveying an emotion and impression through concise, accessible symbolism. “In The Frame” evokes nicely a snapshot of memory with clear, simple visuals like “…olive-hued chain” (P. 37, l. 11) and “…dusky teal” (P. 37, l. 14). And scientific references work well as in these lines from “Walking Into Eternity” which are precise yet defining: “…all things change under pressure/silica and calcium carbonate/call it entropy/that elegant word for chaos/disorder, decay…” (P. 33, ll. 6-10).
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There is the ongoing hint of conflict between the poet’s vocation and the mundane obligations of daily life in motherhood, children, running a household: “I could put something/in place to serve/a replica/doing dishes/with the same earnest/lack of care” (“Planet Nine,” P. 108, ll. 4-9). “Ascetic Stitch” expresses this dilemma of maternity, being stuck in the ordinary and commonplace, hording provisions against potential disasters, deceiving oneself: “I keep pretending I’m different” (P. 51, l. 22), often putting aspirations aside while justifying obligations. In “Orthonym” there is the poet’s potential unraveling back, possibly only to find she is  “…lost in that lonely place/where skin meets bone” (P. 17, ll. 40-41), with maternal confusion amidst marriages, names and identities. “A Cloud Withdrew” conveys a genuine sense of detriment and missed connection and has a sensuality to it: “…slippery like liquid,” (P. 72, l. 7), “…your elemental self/water vapour/my face wet/the sky empty” (P. 72, ll. 15-18); “…finding you only through redaction” (P. 72, ll. 23-24). In “Möbius Strip,” a surface with only one side and one boundary, the desire to look to the corporeal world for affirmations and how they fall short of answers bemoans loss that cannot be quantified: “…I crawl, an unborn child, blind and hungry/back around the fold towards this place of darkness/this gap” (P. 57, ll. 20-22) and, in “Dark Matter Wants to be Alone,” Ball echoes again this unknown place with options open: “As dark matter’s mysterious ghost/I inhabit two worlds/feed two hearts,/hedging bets/just in case one proves to be real/the beater; the keeper” (P. 64, ll. 37-41).
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This subtle confidence continues in “inanimate,” a wonderfully concise poem, words parsed judiciously, a hesitant homage to optimism in the observation of our interconnectedness with the elements. In fact we join in this communion and do not hold the rights to benevolence in “…that all things/even the inanimate/responded to compassion” (P. 63, ll. 20-22). Ball states directly in “Stargazy” that we are the stuff as made from stars, buoyed by science and spiritual implication, as when she observes, ”In the end,/we’re all like you/burning up our fuel/collapsing after what feels like/ten thousand years…” (P. 69, ll. 7-10). And in “Venus in the East Before Sunrise” she tells us the uninvited is “still beautiful” (P. 73, ll. 35-36).
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Unmaking Atoms is a thought-provoking work, its natural inclination to scientific inquiry applying a probative and penetrating analysis of our vast universe and the limitless spectrum of its human inhabitants without sacrificing genuine emotion.  A nostalgic longing permeates these poems, where the pragmatic mind examines and the poetic one questions. Practical applications that attempt to explain the inexplicable as in “Most of Everything is Nothing,” emphasize the striving: “I watched my tools float/soundless down some river” (P. 41, ll. 7-8). Ball navigates the frustrations well and laments “…there are some places/even a poet can’t go” (P. 92, ll. 15-16). She even states directly, in “Fractals of Fractals,” that “I wrote this book myself/at the atomic scale of pain” (P. 110, ll. 12-13). With “Intelligent Equations,” the last poem of the book, the poet confesses she is “…lost in time/waiting for answers” (P. 114, ll. 29-30), an honest, heartfelt admission. Ball manages to examine and rest in that space most admirably.
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You can find the book here:
 
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About the reviewer: 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.