O bittersweet black sheep: Camille Martin’s Sonnets
In her review of Toronto poet Camille Martin’s Sonnets (Exeter England: Shearsman Books, 2010) on the NewPages site (newpages.com), Carol Dorf begins with a question:
Can you pour new wine into old bottles?
The sonnet may not be dead, but I’ve seen it struggling. Despite the explosion of new examples over the past decade or two of Canadian writing, is the sonnet a form simply loaded with too much history to continue? For all the miserable, ordinary pieces I’ve seen by those who claim to love the sonnet, there have also been worthy and even thrilling examples, such as Stephen Brockwell and Peter Norman’s magnificent collaborative essay in sonnet form, Wild Clover Honey and The Beehive, 28 Sonnets on the Sonnet (Ottawa ON: The Rideau Review Press, 2004), Alfred Noyes, in his Compression Sonnets (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2006), Toronto poet/publisher Jay MillAr, through his ESP: Accumulation Sonnets (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2009), and the brilliant things done by New York School poet Ted Berrigan in his own collection, The Sonnets (1964), since reissued (New York NY: Penguin, 2000) and reprinted in The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan (Berkeley CA: The University of California Press, 2005). As Noyes wrote in the introduction to his small chapbook:
I do not wish to participate in the maintenance of the sonnet, like some hand-wringing relative at the bedside of a long-term coma patient. And yet something in the form will not let go. Its practice, at its best, was a form of condensation; I have sought here only to see how far such condensation may be taken. Fourteen lines, if nothing else, every student recalls at least this. What might come of only fourteen words? What of the ‘sonnet’ remains? A turn after the eighth word? At the thirteenth (a concluding ‘couplet’ of words)? What of the sonnet’s traditional themes? I am interested only in economy ― in what might be said with less. In reducing the poem until it turns in on itself, turns itself inside-out. Becomes something else. Becomes nothing. What becomes of a form and its tradition, through compression? This may be ― I certainly hope it is ― the last of what might be wrung from the very shape of literary fatigue. After this, the sonnet, shrinking in size since its heyday four centuries ago, becomes so small it disappears. The patient is to be unplugged. Goodnight.
All of this to discuss Martin’s third trade poetry collection, Sonnets, a follow-up to her Codes of Public Sleep (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2007) and Sesame Kiosk (Elmwood CT: Potes and Poets, 2001), as well as chapbooks Rogue Embryo (New Orleans: Lavender Ink, 1999), Magnus Loop (Tucson, Arizona: Chax Press, 1999) and Plastic Heaven (New Orleans: Single-author issue of Fell Swoop, 1996). So much of Noyes’ paragraph could have been written about Martin’s explorations in a form that, despite hundreds of years and perhaps thousands upon thousands of attempts, still has an awful lot of mineral left to vein. Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell has repeated numerous times the infinite mutability of the sonnet.
Martin is a poet, musician and collage artist who relocated to Toronto in 2005, soon after Hurricane Katrina, closing out fourteen years as a resident of New Orleans. It’s no surprise her work has a flavour that puts her far closer to American poetry than its Canadian counterpart, given her years south of the border, and a Ph.D. dissertation from Louisiana State University, titled “Radical Dialectics In The Experimental Poetry Of Berseenbrugge, Hejinian, Harryman, Weiner, And Scalapino.” Martin writes with the most wonderful sense of clarity, thought and play, but what effect does that geographic shift have, for a collection composed in part, if not completely, within Canadian borders? What does it mean to open her collection as it does, with an untitled poem that begins: “comatose in paradise, but happy, happy / feet! is this where i want to go?” In a further poem, she writes: “for all the inevitable / holes in my umbrella, i follow my calling / to a better history.”
In the hundred-plus pages of this collection, most poems remain untitled, and some in longer sequences, each sonnet sitting one-per-page. Throughout, Martin holds to the sonnet standard of fourteen lines while allowing for the form’s mutability, shifting her way page after page in a series of pieces that exist far more as a single, extended unit than a collection of individual pieces. What I enjoy best about this collection of mostly untitled sonnets is how the constructions and themes exist as simply this: a collection of Camille Martin’s sonnets. Everything else remains secondary, wrapped up inside, an almost means-to-an-end as she explores the rhythms, shapes and sounds of the form itself. She is writing sonnets.
Martin touches on her interest in the sonnet form in an interview with John Herbert Cunningham conducted in January 2009. But Cunningham, for some reason, infers a contradiction between what he refers to as Martin’s “postmodernism approach” and her interest in the sonnet, asking:
JHC: You’ve indicated that your next book is going to be a collection of sonnets. Given your postmodernist approach to poetry and poetics, why sonnets?
CM: Postmodernism, pretty much by definition (in architecture, as an obvious example), gives artists permission to borrow forms and styles from other times and places and to recontextualize and update them. So it’s not surprising to see contemporary poets exploring received forms and procedures such as the sonnet, sestina, pantoum, haiku, haibun, cento, epigram, and eclogue (among others), as well as inventing their own. I’ve always found the short lyric congenial to my poetics, and although variety wasn’t a goal when I began composing the sonnets, I did find myself playing with the fourteen lines to see how much diversity I could tease out of them.
The sonnet form has been favoured by those who write typically in a more formally conservative vein, but simply because a frame is used by one group doesn’t mean they claim exclusive rights. Hasn’t Cunningham seen the sonnets by John Newlove, Gerry Gilbert, bpNichol, Steve McCaffery or Gregory Betts? The argument itself reads as so limited as to render the question inert, especially one posed a year after poet and critic Zach Wells crafted his attractive anthology Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets (Emeryville ON: Biblioasis, 2008). Including poems by poets one might expect, such as Margaret Avison, Carmine Starnino, Peter Van Toorn, Irving Layton, John Newlove, Stephen Brockwell, Archibald Lampman and Robyn Sarah, part of what made the collection was the inclusion of more experimental works by Gerry Gilbert, Stuart Ross, E.A. Lacey and Phyllis Webb. But why not Martin, in the midst of perfecting her own argument for the form?
In a review of Sonnets posted online at Galatea Resurrects #16, a poetry engagement (March 30, 2011), Marianne Villanueva wonders if the pieces in Martin’s collection are “set in a southern, post-Katrina landscape,” writing:
The poems take a particular approach to catastrophe and geography: not for Martin the teary voice, the righteous handwringing of what passes for much of contemporary journalism. Instead: “a simpleton inherits a kingdom after unwittingly avoiding/ the king’s traps of boiling oil and poisonous snakes. He wins the hand/ of the lovely princess, who takes her knife out of its sheath …” Who is the simpleton? What allegorical purpose juxtaposes nursery rhymes and kings and princesses and simpletons with “bulldozed/ forest the forest where trees tall and green once/ where they once where they swayed in the wind where …”
Set, perhaps, but only abstractly, in sonnets that court leaving one geography for the sake of another. Carol Dorf’s review focuses more on where the language and actual meaning intersect, writing that:
Martin’s interpretation of the sonnet is as a 14 line poem where the syllabic count varies from lines as short as 4 syllables in part 5 of tellurium candies “bulging magma gathers,” or even the single syllable first line of “snow.” Other poems such as “a simpleton inherits a kingdom after unwittingly avoiding” have lines of more than 20 syllables. While this may make some formalists uncomfortable, the technique of varying the syllable count opens up the form for most readers, allowing for a flexible balance between narrative and image with form.
But for Dorf, it seems as though the reviewers of Martin’s book give her work in the sonnet form a great deal of credit without exactly understanding what she’s done, and what work has come before her that she might be riffing from. Touching upon authorial intent and other thoughts on meaning, Dorf continues: