Review of Signs & Wonders by Charles Martin

Charles Martin. Signs & Wonders. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. 96 pp. $30.00, cloth.

The poems in Charles Martin’s new collection, Signs & Wonders, speak with the voice of a tipsy father-in-law—jolly, solicitous, and prone to oddly charming rants. It’s a pleasant way to squander a few hours. Martin, an award-winning translator and poet, has indulged in a few of the privileges of renown without allowing himself the worst. How many tenured poets, primping their laurels, overflow volumes with joyless poem-slurry, intoning for all the captive strivers every memory, whinge, and bad dream over decades of a mutually humiliating dotage? Martin, at least, is not among them. Though he doesn’t mind the sound of his voice, he’s got manners enough to keep things entertaining.

He is unselfish in other ways as well. Of sixty-five pages, he dedicates twelve to translations or versions of other artists’ work, including a treatment of Ovid’s valediction to his Tristia: “Books are well made when fortune’s favor pours / down on their authors—as it won’t on yours.” His rendering of Pessoa’s much badly-translated “Autopsychography” is snappy and elegant, and his caption to Alfred Kubin’s painting “The Foreboding” makes the sort of puncture wound left only by good epigrams:

What dark form has awoken
over the sleeping village
in the early morning chill?
It will have no rest until
below lie only broken
bodies among the pillage.

Martin salts this collection of mostly longer poems with a handful of short pieces. Like most class clowns, he can be bashful about his feelings, but the jokes in Signs & Wonders are far less potent than the elegies. In avuncular poems like “Theory Victorious” and “Who Knows What’s Best?” Martin lets his whimsies grow lecturesome. In the latter, a deft trio of triolets, Martin’s accomplishment is not so much political insight as personal restraint. (In few other poems does he so palpably resist using broken or procrustean rhymes. Elsewhere one cringes to hear such rhymes as “Face the wall” with “Provisional- /ity,” “Heimat” with “I’m at,” and “poison” with “noose en- /circling.”) The poem is a riff on George W. Bush’s memorable declaration “I am the decider and I decide what’s best.” Martin presents this claim as not just petulant but insidious, with mentions of bombings, torture, and imprisonment. Although the subject matter is serious, the poem’s real meaning—as with most political poetry today—is the poet’s own cleverness. Quips such as “The ones we bomb to liberate / have really got an attitude” provoke no feeling and permit no discovery.

The poems of this sort, though, are blessedly few. Delightful as Martin’s wit can be, his poems are most accomplished when he forgets he’s holding forth. In the translations, he allows the original speakers to opine while doing his own work quietly. The charge thus conducted is usually greater than when Martin tries to generate his own. And in odd moments, between laughter and punch-line, he lets the raised eyebrow drop. The sonnet “To Himself,” glows with skill but never dazzles. No syntactical mousetraps snap. The feminine endings nod with uncertainty fitting in a poem about the lives we fail to live:

Those other lives, our creations,
Weightless themselves, oppress us until we falter;
So, weakened by their effortless evasions,
We learn this late that the only way to alter
That situation is to leave off pursuing,
And try to begin to do what we are doing.

Martin finds stillness again in the lee of the second section with “The Twentieth Century in Photographs.” That era’s unsurpassed crimes have inspired many a poet to set in verse his mediocre passion. But in the sober quatrains of this poem, Martin performs something like ekphrasis, examining the official documents of one atrocity. He treats his subjects with care and mostly refrains from interpretation. Instead he names what can’t be said:

Impossible to read
These inexpressive faces and recover
The thoughts of those who have been so long dead,

Who died, in fact, before the photographer
Had time to fix them in his clear solution.

Martin’s best stuff comes like the famous lines from old verse dramas, in moments of digression. Many poems in Signs & Wonders ramble over several pages, and though they have their swamps and forests, some open—if only briefly—onto clearings of surprising grace. “East Side, West Side,” a two-part poem in loose alcaics and sapphics, wanders for quite a while through descriptions of art and posture before producing a handful of exquisite stanzas, near but not quite at the end. These lines alone don’t add up to a poem, and they probably couldn’t have come without the rest. Maybe this is all right. Poetry is a tradition of surviving fragments. Almost all poems, good or otherwise, get obliterated. For a poet like Martin, who’s spent decades with antiquity’s splendid leftovers, the goal is not to write no bad lines, but rather to write a few that might be worthy of the ages. His subject is the ample, if provisional, world of daily life:

Yet it’s elegiac, this summer party,
for, though the (mostly) young are clearly taken
with one another and their situation,
none has yet noticed

how very cool the colors of the room are
in the fading light, and how the wind that’s just
stirred the lacy curtains has somehow also
lengthened the shadows.

All too soon, that moment of watches glanced at,
looks exchanged; of thanking the host and hostess,
as with a show of genuine reluctance
guests make their exit.

Matthew Buckley Smith was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia and earned an MFA in poetry at Johns Hopkins University. His first book of poems, Dirge for an Imaginary World, won the 2011 Able Muse Book Award. His poems have appeared in various publications, including Beloit Poetry Journal, Commonweal, Iron Horse Literary Review, Sewanee Theological Review, Measure, Verse Daily, and The Best American Poetry 2011. He lives in Baltimore with his wife, Joanna Pearson.