Poems by Martha Modena Vertreace-Doody
Winner of the Word Press Poetry Prize
Reviewed by C. J. Laity
Having published a new book practically every year over the last decade or so, this author is certainly a magnificent poet, though Glacier Fire is not one of Martha Vertreace's greatest accomplishments. Its 115 pages are absorbed like a huge pile of lettuce—it looks filling, but upon digestion there's not much there but water. The language in this book is rich; that much is true. Upon trying to decipher the poems, I even read a few of them out loud to myself, and there was a fantastic musicality present. But without some substance to attract the reader's attention span, the words simply fly around in a choppy fashion, never giving the reader a chance to grasp what is being said:
like the crow,
winter black, Earth-weary,
who flies from branch to branch
of an oak,
a weathered hole he is too thick to enter;
thrusts his beak
inside, the silver knife breaking eggs,
(from "Least Said")
It is poetry that needs to be decoded, so thick in its experimentation that only scholars will recognize the subtle play on form. Some of it works. For example, half the poem titles in section two put together create a poem in itself. That's pretty cool.
But in general, the images in this book flash like a bad case of glue sniffing, never offering a pause for reflection, hollow mysteries that never connect to form a completed puzzle:
. . .You make a wish
on each fair strand that coats checkered tile,
then speak of Sonoma, home, an acre of bluebirds
in walnut trees whose leaves in the aural horizon
burnish an autumnal gold when sun rises
(from "Fresh Light: Feast of One Hundred Days")
Even during moments that should break free from the abstract, Vertreace fails to hit the nail on the head. Take for example the following lines from the poem "All These Things":
Without tearing foil, you unwrap
fruitcake your mother sent, a recipe
cut each slice thin as stained glass . . .
This is one of the only moments in the book that a simile offers some clarity. With a little stretching, I can see where she is going with this. A slice of fruitcake does look like stained glass. However, stained glass is not very "thin", at least not so thin that the adjective should be used in this fashion. While reading these lines, I was too caught off guard trying to picture especially thin stained glass to connect the image to the fruitcake.
Another aspect of this poetry that aggravated me was the use of repetition. Lucia Cordell Getsi salutes the use of repeating words in her comments on the back of this book, but I just find them annoying. Okay, traditional forms like sestinas call for repetition. But when the word "ring" is used over half a dozen times in "Celestial Cartography" and I still can't see the blasted ring in my mind, something has to be missing. In fact, the image of the moon is a running theme in this book, yet I can't really recall one time that I was offered the moon in a way that touched me.
red jelly beans
from a red bag,
(from "Hearth Bread")
Only rarely in this book does Vertreace come across with something clean, clear, crisp and concise. These moments can be found when she abandons her forced styles or her wild experimentations, and she relaxes and trusts her own voice to speak:
On the eve of my wedding to you, I keen
at his grave,
the freezing spray of carnations
falling from my hands
like crystal tears, the dust of crushed dreams—
(from "Widow's Mite")
Other tricks that work quite well come when she uses the choppy line breaks to her advantage, such as in the following lines:
you see fire-
flies, bellies throbbing with cold stars;
(from "Luminary, O'Hare Airport")
I enjoyed how at first I saw flames, but abruptly, upon the next line, I saw an insect replace the flames. Unfortunately, most of the time, I found her attempts to do things like this clumsy, such as in one of her many references to Chicago:
A solar flame three times the size of Earth
showers charged particles like fire-
spurting horns into the ionosphere,
lakeside, where we train our binoculars
on gules of red and pink. We decide
to break our fast in bed. Sunrise. Chicago.
(from "Aurora Borealis")
This type of writing is just not my cup of tea, but I have a feeling it will give academics and postmodernist endless wet dreams, and they will praise it on up to the highest rafters and honor it with all sorts of awards.
Finally, just a note about this book as a physical object. If a publisher is going to represent a book this abstract, there should not be a single typo. This is not the case in this book. On page 104 the word
"Io" appears. I don't know if this is a typo, if it is suppose to say
"I" or is
"Io" a reference to some celestial body that I've never heard of. Because on page 114 the poem ends with this line: "decide to stay.qw". I'm assuming the qw is a typo, but it made me stop and wonder if it was suppose to be someone's initials. Stopping and reflecting is a good thing, I suppose, unless it is the result of something unintentional. On page 101 this line appears: "afraid your would not ask me".
How can you enjoy the poetry when you have to keep stopping to say: Huh?
--C. J. Laity
For ordering information, check out Word-Press.com.
To hear Martha's work performed live, click here to listen to her performing on PoetryPoetry for an After Hours Magazine reading.
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Note: Here is a review of Martha Modena Vertreace-Doody's "Glacier Fire".