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Matt McBride on Sparrow & Other Eulogies

Sparrow & Other Eulogies by Megan Martin

Gold Wake Press, 2011

 

Megan Martin’s first book, Sparrow & Other Eulogies, is not so much about loss as about the way absence challenges our ability to inhabit the world. Martin opens with the following lines from Ann Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, “A wound gives off its own light/ surgeons say./ If all the lamps in the house were turned out/ you could dress this wound/ by what shines from it.” And this is the project Sparrow & Other Eulogies undertakes, to embody absence, to dress loss in the presence around it.

 

Martin’s text is divided into three sections, the first being the eponymous Sparrow & Other Eulogies. It deals with a speaker struggling to find a context for loss, to place an object whose presence is now absence. Martin is starting from the “[g]ash of belly; an opening in a gutted story to swim out of; a cloud of ink-stained blood” (12). As Martin writes in the poem “Reminders of Water” which begins the section:

 

Inside the hot black pit of you, objects once ours floated on the dark. Scraps of postcard, photograph, mandolin, blooming forest: too heavy to swim up.

 

In your belly was also a pen: mine. (If I could write us out of you onto dry land? If I could write out the objects, hold them up to the sun?)

 

But writing is impossible underwater, dear; writing cannot save a life.  (12)

 

Water figures prominently in these poems and is emblematic of the loss of individuation that is death and how death destabilizes the feeling of self in those who survive, because, after all, it is they who bear the wounds of the dead, and it is they who hear the dead call from absence. In “Sparrow, Eulogy 1: Topography” Martin writes:

 

De-synchronization of mirrors, library, picture-book, letter-drawer. Of wardrobe into mismatch, relics into trash. 

 

…the bombing of Machu Pichu…kindlings of the brushfire that will render all Nebraska’s grasses speechless, grotesque, and impotent…

 

Is that your song I hear, rupturing my anchorhold?

 

(I was still chasing that old story. The one that goes off without hitch or ripple [title: Midwest])  (14)

 

We see this threat to the discrete self in the wake of loss again in “Sparrow, Eulogy 2: Leave-taking.” And, coordinate with the loss of self, is the loss of the world, the loss of a cohesive narrative to inhabit. Martin writes:

 

Some nights I slip into it like a corset, the way a ghost puts on a body of sheet.

 

For a minute I am myself. Then I hide under the desk for weeks.

 

There’s nothing uglier than the story that disintegrates along its spine, guts unraveled all over the room. Scotch tape don’t make a narrative, baby.

 

A story unhinged: is it still a story? All the pieces are there, disordered, masked, refantasized, dispersed like seeds…

 

the bandage of white space…

 

too mystical to be ordered in rational landscape…

 

I am a story without a narrative; a ghost without a sheet.  (16)

 

 And so these poems stage the tension between the call of absence inherent to death and the mandate of narrative inherent to life. These poems stage the speaker’s effort to affix herself to something, to embody herself again after loss. As Martin writes in “Sparrow, Eulogy 6: Wish”:

 

Maimed swath of day so lay in the memory-nest: tearjerked, disquieted.

 

“You’re a lucky girl today. Don’t you want to get up?”

 

Faces of post- highway-accidents, all caught up in Sparrow’s features. (Dearest, come; come see me; sea me, take me a-sea, a-new, hydroport me home?)

 

I felt the shape of a room around me.  (21)

 

Eventually, something catches, no matter how shaky, and it’s enough to start a new narrative. Or, as Martin puts it more succinctly in “Sparrow, Eulogy 7: Visitation,” “You’ve got to convince yourself of something: kneesocks ward off unclean spirits, absences makes the heartstrings nimble” (23).  This new narrative, however, will be of a wholly different character than the one it replaced.

 

Sparrow & Other Eulogies’ second section is Postcards from New Life, Vol. I, which is a series of ekphrastic poems connected to collages reproduced on the following page. And yet, while these poems are connected to the art, they are also still clearly spoken by the same speaker of the previous section. In this section, rupture becomes the narrative the speaker inhabits. Disjunction itself becomes a home. These disjointed narratives are Martin’s way of approaching the world, and not the wholesale rejection of the world critics construe non-narrative or “experimental” work to be. Absence, however, is still at the heart of these poems. The speaker addresses each to the lost “Sparrow” of the earlier section. And yet, while these poems come from and call to absence, they are about how to be present. Take, for example “Contrary to Popular Belief, She Knew He Had Not Forgotten…”:

 

Oh sickeningest, sugariest moonface: you should see this place without you! It’s just like Vasco de Gama maybe said: a whole new world!

 

In your absence I have been busying myself around the house: unknotting the miles of filthy sheet-ladders by which you ascended into my skyscraped bedroom, bleaching them repeatedly to disinfect them of memory-stench, hanging them on the wintry line where they wither and crack like geriatric skin.

 

Each morning I defrost, iron, reiron, reiron and fold before confining them to the darkest, most solitary drawer where we housed our secret, buried pleasures.

 

Winter here is a beast. Yesterday I turned thirty years old. Don’t apologize: I am sure your card is en route.  (38)

 

These poems are also about the beauty that can found in disjunction. For example, in “Contrary to Popular Belief, She Was ‘Making Do’” Martin writes, “Whenever midnight crashes too loud in the asylum (I shall forward you my new address), I encase myself in a satin nightgown, measure out three-hundred-thousand miles of kite-twine, and attend to my cemeteries. Usually bees are still howling in the distance; usually I have forgotten my earplugs” (52). For Martin, the loss of coherent narrative is not to be mourned, and her writing doesn’t cover up absence or provide a stay against it so much as move through it and allow it to move through us.

 

The last section of the book is titled Afterlives, and if the poems can be said to have a unifying characteristic, it is their questioning of narrative’s most basic tenets. This is most explicit in her poem “Self-Evaluation.” The poem starts:

 

Read the story, then answer each question by completely blackening the oval next to the correct response.

 

*Note: Story not included.

 

  1. Who is the narrator of the story?

 

a)    Me

b)   Mary

c)    God

d)   There is no narrator.

e)    All of the above.

f)     I don’t know?  (67)

 

As the poem continues, the questions become progressively more unanswerable. For example, question number five reads:

 

5.  At the climax of the story, the narrator falls from grace because she _______________________.

 

*) self-righeously misrepresents her mistakes to the President

a) forgot to consort with her lama this morning

b) fucks Pedro in the frozen food aisle, redistributing all of South America’s karma

^) could not make amends with her adoptive mother (not mentioned in story)

#) again falls in love with the incorrect answer

c) cannot find her car in the parking lot

d) all of the above  (68)

 

These poems explode narrative’s fundamental premise, that this happened and not that. Narrative is the foreclosure of options. In Martin’s poetry, manifold, mutually exclusive contingencies coexist within the same narrative.  Martin’s narratives are narratives that are at every moment open to any possibility. For example, Martin begins “A Brief History of Disaster” by saying, “Always Grandmother nuzzled her dozens so tightly to her bosom. Always they wound up busted all over the sidewalk, a moment irreconcilable, even by her beloved telepastor Herby” (76). And later, the story continues:

 

Post-kidnapping, Joel puts on fedora, chowder, 45, or __________, each of which envelops us in a unique and incomprehensible pleasure.

 

Meanwhile the man I am destined to love, whom I will later meet for exactly thirteen seconds in a dream, is crossing paths with a Girl Scout hefting a

magic cookie through the moonlight.  (76)

 

Here, the space following “or” can be filled with anything or nothing. By accepting absence as a center, Martin crafts poems which are exquisite perpetual motion engines of language.

 

Borges once said that a bicycle only has a soul when it’s moving. I feel the same goes for Megan Martin’s poetry. Something deadening happens to her work when you excerpt it for a book review. So purchase this book, and when it flies out of your hands and takes residence on the nearest rafter, let it. And when it’s hungry, leave it out a small bowl of Rice Krispies. And when it starts speaking to you in a vulgar Latin, take notes.

 

 

 

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