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Erik Sweet reviews

American Music
by Chris Martin

boku books, 99 E. 7th Street, # 16, New York, NY 10009

This review is 1300 words
or about 4 printed pages long

Having all the facts

In Chris Martin’s American Music, one feels the sophisticated in-joking and pathos that has come to mark much post-New York School poetry. But his is not a simple redux; instead he takes the O’Hara city poet eye in his own direction, showing a sweet vision for the distance between public and private spaces. Many of the poems in this chapbook sparkle with a tension that makes sequences of lines within poems worth re-reading again and again.

American Music is a nice staple-bound chapbook published in NY by boku books. It is great to have in hand a book without pagination and the obligatory blurb from friends or ex-professors. This gives you the ability to just dive into the work, without any preconceived notions or benchmarks. My own knowledge of Martin, before reading the chapbook, was limited to his editorial role in the excellent online journal Puppyflowers (

The trip through American Music brings us into the closeness of busy cities; it inhabits a public space that is always marked by the personal — something inseparable when cities are densely populated. In contrast to the N.Y. Vibe of these poems, we can have the post-industrial, abandoned feel of smaller northeastern cities like Schenectady and Buffalo, which have a very different city surface. The physical environment is a constant presence in American Music, but by regulating the setting to a background hum, Martin avoids having the city “become the poem.”

I also feel a paranoia vibe on the page here, reminiscent of the evil dark notes in some early Sabbath records. In “Public Space,” Martin writes, “I am mired in the intricacies / of public space, knee to hand, eye / Taking in a mouth as it talks almost / Disembodied...” A running theme in so many of his poems is his subtle commentary on the instability of language. “This is how language / Malingers harmless things, each being / Busy dreaming in their sliced self / Self-portrait skin.”

In the best poem of the chapbook, “The True Meaning of Pictures,” he admits “I never trusted in my ability / To wish for fear / Of misapprehending the implications / Of my desires...” It is here that Martin questions the narrative power of pictures and the origin of where the poem comes from:

I see pictures every day and by
God there is as much
Truth in them as in any shifting

Collection of thoughts, everywhere
I go people
Point out my wounds

And I can’t contemplate the fact
Of having trapsed
The city these few weeks

Past with a gaping hole
In my leg, it’s abominable
The way we let

Our feelings instruct
Us and yet
It is the only thing

To be done, right? Right?

It is interesting that Martin comments on the truth in pictures versus a shifting collection of thoughts, which to some can mean poetry. As Olson says, through Dahlberg: “One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.” Pictures in this case may mean stable signs; what Martin knows is that nothing is really that stable, it must “keep moving” as Olson says in “Projective Verse.” Within the same piece, he fashions a statement about being both the director and actor in a film about the “fantastic terror / of existence, a comedy / of course, .../...and the question / Remains as to who exactly / Is shouldering the camera? You? The poem?...” Once again, with the big issues, he is not afraid to admit to the comedic elements of reality.

In fact, in many parts of the chapbook, he questions that which is physically around us, and not without reason or humor. In one of the first poems in the book, “Jokes For Strangers,” he admits to writing “tender jokes” for himself and the strangers in his path

My attention for Logic
But I see beautiful
Children circumventing cruelty

Nearly every day and it begs
The question — what have you done
Lately for the safety
I may have lost

Of our feelings?

At the end of the poem, he admits to considering the safety of our feelings, but only in writing.

Through the humor in the poetry of Kenneth Koch or Anselm Hollo, we can often see the truth in things. Too often, when poets try too hard to be serious, they can miss the truth. When Martin says he sees the truth in pictures, he is really detailing that truth is everywhere: music, images, even laughter. In American Music, I respect how Martin takes on the big issues, but with a very tactful humor coupled with striking images.

In “I Am Not A Cinematographer,” a poem that is probably a reference or answer to “I Am A Cinematographer” by Palace Brothers (Days in the Wake), he builds on some of the ideas from “The True Meaning of Pictures.” “I am that dumb / Panorama, the trees, windows / The very avenues themselves and you / Are the camera...” The sense of being in-between things is here, as well as the inability to reach something. He admits to the Sisyphus-ian peculiarities of life and the accompanying strangeness we can all feel in our everyday metaphysical musings.

...all that’s left

Is to find something impossible
And spend your life trying
To accomplish it, we are constantly on

Trial, our bodies break, our needs
Consume us, I see
A darkness and I can’t believe

How strange it is to be anything at all.

It is often strange to just think about our existence... in fact, it can lead to a growing paranoia. William Burroughs once said, “sometimes paranoia is just having all the facts.”

With the world you can create with poetry or fiction, sometimes paranoia is the natural bi-product of creating. Other times, you can bypass paranoia by simply writing it out of the process. In “Fertility For Dummies,” he comments on paranoia: “Increasing my ever-present / Paranoia that strangers / Are reading the terrible things / I write about them...”

Throughout the experience of American Music, perhaps Martin is warning himself of the instability of writing, of the whole process. In “Hockey Night,” he admits to needing to just leave things unsaid sometimes. the stead

Of truth we find evidences
Not forthcoming, you
Carry a little set of demons through

The world between its words
And what remains
Unsaid, bubbles of thought

Swaying obscure
In the dusky skyscraper light

If there is a truth here, it is in the humor though, “if I was / writing the blurb for this / decade it would read miraculous / In its quack solemnity (from “Ziehersmith Dispatches”).

Perhaps he is telling us that we need to feel more of our absurdity; to laugh more and take the seriousness out for a long walk. He makes his point by beginning the poem with the lines: “The backwards fire seeps / Into its blooming / Woodpile as the poet mispronounces / Masturbatory,...”

One of Martin’s strengths is his talent for writing in great flashes of often-beautiful imagery, but not being afraid to use that description to delve into deeper questions. He is not simply describing people or presenting urban encounters. The writing reminds me at times of the music of Lorca’s “Poet in New York” book, or the quickness in thinking displayed in Philip Whalen’s work.

Through the publishing of chapbooks, poets continue the important tradition of presenting smaller sequences of work. Like with 7-inch records, or now, web-based MP3s, writers and artists can present the material when they are ready, in any size, without having to wait for the often-long process of submitting to a press or magazine. In American Music, which was only printed in a batch of 50 copies, Martin gives us, without question, his unique perspective on the everyday moments of existence.

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