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Matthew Falk on Justin Marks

A Million in Prizes by Justin Marks.

New Issues, 2009. ISBN 978-1930974-814


If you’re like me, you wake up some mornings and don’t know who you are. And I don’t mean that in a metaphysical or a metaphorical way; I don’t mean feeling like you’ve lost touch with where you came from. I just mean those mornings when your first thought is, “Hmm, whose foot is that sticking out from under this blanket into this cold room?”


Exposing the fragility of identity, such moments allow you to conceive of yourself as a construct newly reconstituted from day to day. That’s the kind of morning to which the speaker of Justin Marks’ aubade, “Settling In,” awakens:


                                    …The distinctions


            between things blurring not to the point

            of being indistinguishable, but softening

            the parts of myself normally barred


            from each other. More than where

     public and private selves merge,        

     here is where the selves I might


            become are cast on

            those I’ve been. Here is where

            one learns to lay claim to nothing.


The feeling of things blurring, of ontological ambiguity, informs this whole book. Marks is a protean poet who maps out a mutable world where nothing is any longer quite what it was just a moment ago. He is preoccupied with the flow of phenomena and the observer in the midst of same. Under his gaze, objects collapse into one another. Shadows of trees become “not shadows but shade, / independent of what cast their image (“Little Happier”).


For all their fixation on flux, Marks’ poems are delivered in a consistent and distinctive voice, and it’s a voice that could hardly come from anyplace but New York City. Like Frank O’Hara’s, Marks’ cadences convey the jazzed and jagged rhythms of urban speech. It’s perhaps especially noticeable in the chatty prose-poems of the book’s third section (aptly entitled “The Voice Inside the Cheerleader’s Megaphone”). Reading those pieces, you may feel like you’re eavesdropping on the internal monologue of the friendly but probably disturbed individual sitting too close to you on the subway: “All my inner gaze does is make me dizzy. Robbers in my thoughts tell me what to think about big historic shit and my life. Prefer what’s unique to what’s beautiful” (“Last Year’s Model”).


At the center of the book, a hinge between those closing prose-poems and the lyrics in section one, is the longish sequence, “[Summer    insular].” Disjunctive, self-referential, juxtaposing philosophical musings with decontextualized descriptions of objects and tossed-off conversational statements, the poem unfolds at a leisurely pace, manifesting as a progression of obliquely linked fragments and making liberal use of white space. A page might contain only two short lines, “…coming out of / vanishing into…” or “Rise / babyface.” It is in this section that Marks achieves a unity of form and content hinted at elsewhere. In its own words, this poem (like the book it anchors) enacts a series of “negotiations / between the mind and what it sees.”


Like John Cage or Heraclitus of old, Marks sees everything in constant transition: “Shifting forms / unchanging” (“Mantra”). But he also knows how many licks it takes to reach the chewy center, the nugget of Zen, as when the speaker of “Sea to Sea,” on an airplane encountering turbulence, suddenly notices “A clear plastic cup on my tray table. / Cold water almost perfectly still.”

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