by J.H. Martin
Reviewed by Erin McKnight
Rivers & Lakes Press, 2009
If Spring Wanderings embodies “an old dusty bowl,” J.H. Martin casts his reader in the shape of “a spoon”—this union between aged vessel and modern interpretation responsible for the “filling with rain” that renders China and its people abidingly venerable and indifferent, confident and circumspect. Bypassing the hope, however, that “a new spit and polish/ Will change anything” is the deterioration evidenced in this artifact’s chipped rim and deeply cut sides. Yet, each interpretive filling of Martin’s collection proves transformative, since the vessel may be immutable but certainly not the reader.
Trailing the poet’s contemplative footsteps through the Chinese hinterland, the reader gleans destination clues from the meditative grouping’s quiet majesty and stoic cultural persistence. From “the backs of/ So many people” who will never again be seen, to the “Brown-skin suited ghosts/ [Who] hover with beat-up plastic laundry bags/ On the side of roads,” the message echoes onward, to a place where:
The winding road ahead
Is littered with children, wives,
Ancestors and graves,
This path may slice Wandering’s landscape into native and foreign, peak and valley, yet it leads even the most uncertain pilgrim in a familiar direction. Although, like the poet, this disheartened traveler may “drown in millions of feet” when casting his or her eyes downward to “avoid the stares” of unwelcoming citizens, guidance is unearthed in the equally uncertain existence of the native farmer:
He stares out blankly
At the fields
Of the only world
He has ever known,
Stretching on out into the distance.
Lying before both wanderer and farmer, then, are “The dreams/ Of the next generation”; whether “Ensconced in those hills” rising to the sky, or within the farmland pushing against the horizon, the pull between two cultures, two ways of life, is paralleled in Martin’s measured yet anticipative writing.
Expectedly, perhaps, the collection features a strong sense of contrast. As such, in this land of controlled expression, Chinese faces may resist the poet’s presence, yet a stilted discourse remains perceptible:
What holds me here
Is a good question, my friend,
One to which I have no reply.
Martin may communicate explicitly with the rural inhabitants he encounters, yet he avoids a predictable cultural conversation. Even though the anticipated East/West poem does appear, it is the poet’s recollection of words shared in fleeting and ordinary interactions with everyday characters that offers Wanderings its impressive depth—audible in a poem like “Old King”:
Shared stories of shenanigans
Still flood my mind
From time to time,
When I’m hung-over,
Sipping coffee and sick.
You are the old king
Of a dirty but delicious
Phase of my moon.
Indeed, the collection’s language is best paced in Martin’s expression of nature, in its rendering as collusive party in this invasion by an outsider:
Moonlight staggers home with me,
Pointing its finger at time,
Certainly emerging as a dominant theme, time is brought to bear in the natural environment’s practice of patience—ironically parlayed into an ancient wisdom that calls for momentum and progression:
Everything comes too late
When you count the fallen leaves
On the road behind.
For Martin and his reader, in a rush to understand their presence and purpose, endurance emerges from the strangers who occupy Spring Wanderings’ strange space. Discovery lies in the road ahead, in the beauty and strangeness of the Chinese scenery haunting both sides of a timeworn path. Poet and trailing reader may have been filled, renewed by this journey, but it is the interpretation of “the old dusty bowl” that evinces transformative powers—expertly cast on the reader—that will best nourish the wearied, hungry souls that follow.
Erin McKnight is a Scottish writer now living in Dallas, and is Fiction Editor for Prick of the Spindle. Her writing has been widely published online and in print, in venues including flashquake, Ginosko Literary Journal, and PRECIPICe. Her short nonfiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and inclusion in W.W. Norton’s The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume 3. Erin holds an MFA in creative writing with a specialization in fiction, and is currently at work on an MA in literary linguistics.
Spring Wanderings by J. H. Martin (Rivers & Lakes Press, 2009) was reviewed by Erin McKnight in Vol 3.2 ofPrick of the Spindle: A Quarterly Online Journal of the Literary Arts.
“Prick of the Spindle was begun in March 2007 in the spirit of creating a journal whose contribution to the literary arts would be well-rounded, with an acknowledgment to the works of literary history. It is the goal of the journal both to recognize new talent and to include those who have one or more feet planted in the writing community.
Prick of the Spindle publishes poetry, fiction (from flash to novella-length), drama, creative and academic nonfiction, and literary reviews.” - Prick Of The Spindle
Home page: http://www.prickofthespindle.com/index.htm
We at Rivers & Lakes Press would like to sincerely thank Erin and Prick Of The Spindle for their time in reviewing the book and also their kind words.