Coffee House Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2011. 138 pages. $16.00.
“Disequilibrium,” the first poem in Chris Martin’s Becoming Weather, challenges the conventional wisdom that a fabled fair-and-balanced stillness is the default setting of the human world, one we artificially disrupt with thought and language, one we could return to if only everyone would drink a warm glass of milk and put on a Norah Jones album. Martin outright refuses this kind of stillness. Early in the poem, he recounts shattering a light bulb in the kitchen and, rather than tidying the mess, asks the reader “to accompany me // through the deformations.” The invitation reverberates throughout the book, positing that chasing breakage might reveal new ways of moving. “I’m asking you,” Martin continues, “if it’s possible to refuse / to go blind”: throughout Becoming Weather, refusing to go blind means taking a long, hard look at disruption and acknowledging that the “infinite or / the instantaneous” qualities of movement it triggers are as inevitable as the ticking of a clock.
A broken light bulb is a comparatively small emergency, but Martin has reverence for the small emergency without pretending it is more (or less, for that matter) than it is. This reverence is more for “you” than for the broken light bulb, and it is anything but small. In a statement for the Poetry Society of America, Martin has said that he wanted the poems in his previous collection, 2007’s American Music, “to allow a particular consciousness, however fractured or perforated, to communicate something of its experience that exceeded the transactions of prose.” He did that by assembling a vision of New York that revels in noise and messy simultaneity, even while worrying about it drowning him out in what he calls “The Harmony of Overwhelming,” a state in which he wonders if it is “in vain that I hope // To be less of a stranger.” Stopping short of making direct statements in a single line, the voice in American Music confidently and playfully overflows from its gripping pauses. Often, it sneakily emphasizes single words, directly affixing a beam on rapidly changing stimuli—which are, as Martin writes in his new collection, at once singular and “various and becoming.” Becoming Weather finds Martin’s particular consciousness still very much enmeshed in urban life, but now with a honed sense of what that “something of its experience” is. This raises a difficult question for the new collection: what happens when the thrill of disequilibrium is forced to confront the grace with which Martin leads us through it?
The precision of Martin’s guidance—its wise thrill, if you like—might seem at first like slack observation; it is in fact careful curation from an active imagination in which syntax stays a half step ahead of sense (after all, “The unconscious / is not incautious”), ensuring that play comes before postulation even when Martin maps out difficult meanings. In “The Small Dance,” Martin presses on his refusal of stillness by suggesting that in the right context even a yawn can electrify an already complex scene:
I would like to be able to describe to
you a stillness
but yawning at the funeral
was a kind of dance these flags
The first line’s triple-step dance of variations on the word “to” echoes off and coalesces into “you,” laying bare the fact that Martin’s sensitive ear for individual words is never just a clever technical tool. “You” meanwhile ends up virtually alone on a line with “stillness.” And yet, swerving along the page, Martin animates no less than a funeral (a ceremony of stillness if there ever was one) into a subtle dance with the small action of this “you.” Over the course of Becoming Weather, this Whitmanian spirit of generosity toward “you,” the reader, pairs with Martin’s razor-sharp attention to the form of the line, so the heart and brain work together to dance among the shards of the light bulb. An athletic, empathetic wit is at work, most vibrant when Martin is hungry for company:
I was out interviewing clouds amassing
the notes of a sky pornographer while patches
of the city subnormalized
by fear of fear like a reef bleaching closed
I took to the streets
looking for a human velocity
After the challenges of “Disequilibrium” and “The Small Dance,” the book’s final section, “This False Peace,” attempts to attack stillness where it traditionally still feels safe—in the cozy drone of the news. Here lines sputter across the page in mock paragraphs shot with white space, attempting to trouble prose with formal disruption. In an interview with Coldfront, Martin has explained that this poem tries to show how the language of news too comfortably turns away from the “bloody splurts” it supposedly reports. It’s a good idea—a vital one in fact—but the execution rests too comfortably on its responsible citizenship; the lines end up slipping into prosaic stillness themselves, accepting too easily that “it’s a silly conceit / that leaves need attendance.” This will not do. Martin has already proven elsewhere that such well-trod conceits as the details of autumn become transformative and troubling precisely through innovative poetic attention.
This is not to say that “This False Peace” is dull—it is interspersed with beautiful moments that rattle from within the form and make good on Martin’s affirmation of chaos in art and life. When he admits that despite our best efforts “the world persists machinic hackneyed ragged and I want you to find the little strip of incommensurate weft [. . .] air light catastrophe you don’t understand I care about the movies,” the suggestion is as genuinely urgent as the crash of all our light bulbs falling from their sockets at once. Moments like these testify to the limber transformations that can happen when thought and invention labor together, matching the heart to the shifting world.