Amelia Martens & the Year of the Snake

Amelia Martens
photo: Emily Margaret Okerson

Each of the poems in Amelia Martens’s The Spoons in the Grass are There to Dig a Moat is a surreal scene, just a paragraph in length. (Well, okay, some of them are a few paragraphs, but let’s not quibble). A poem like “We Will Be Long Gone” unfolds with the logic of the answers to a child’s persistent bedtime questions, while others, like “Collection” or “Tuesday,” place Jesus in the midst of unsettling but largely recognizable tableaux—in the case of the haunting “Newtown,” all too recognizable. In this guest essay, Martens reveals a key influence on the dream-like specificity of her vivid imagery.

As an extremely near-sighted person, I have a history of up close experiences with the visual. Literally. Without my glasses, no one has a face. As a kid I read at night without my glasses and the pages brushed my cheek. I have also found it necessary to visualize—what I’d like to have happen in a given situation, what might happen, how a machine (or IKEA bookshelf) is put together, how much of everything I own will fit into a U-Haul so that I can drive it from California to Indiana. I’m a nearly blind visual person. Perhaps this is the reason imagery is a vital concern. Words make pictures; the right words make readers not notice the picture being made; instead we are sucked into the feeling. The visual becomes visceral.

In my second semester of the IU MFA program, in our poetry workshop, Maura Stanton assigned several collections that we were to read. Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Year of the Snake, which had recently been published by Southern Illinois University Press with a glossy half tattoo/half black cover, had my attention immediately, as I had acquired a new tattoo just weeks before leaving the west coast. Visually, this was not a book of poems written by a dead white man. And I am a monkey. Okay. We were born in the year of the monkey. Monkey twins with parents who incorporated cosmology into our upbringing. All of this to say, Roripaugh’s book had me at the outset.

I read these poems as a newly minted poet; somehow being in a poetry program made me “official.” I read them as a woman who had just moved from the Pacific Ocean to the Midwest. I had never been as weird as I was when I arrived in Indiana. People talked about California as if I’d come from Mars. What’s it like there? Do you surf? In Roripaugh’s poems I found encouragement, for my strangeness. And delight in the line as an image splitting tool.

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11 April 2016 | poets on poets |

Eliot Pattison: The Power of the Historical Novel

Eliot Pattison
photo: Ted Ferguson

If you’re a fan of hardboiled detective fiction, I’ve got a left-field recommendation for you: Eliot Pattison’s Blood of the Oak is a historical novel, set in pre-Revolutionary America. It’s the fourth novel in a series featuring Duncan MacCallum, who came to the colonies as an indentured servant but now lives on the edge of Britain’s penetration into the New World. In this story, he’s compelled by both a request from a dying Iroquois friend and an attack on a British comrade to investigate a series of brutal murder and, much like our modern private eyes and single-minded police, slowly but surely finds himself wading into deep tides of corruption and evil. I’m as engrossed by this plot as I’ve ever been by a Robert B. Parker or Michael Connelly novel, and Pattison’s fantastic at making 1760s America feel simultaneously strange and familiar. Which, as he explains in this guest post, is something he works hard to accomplish…

America has misplaced her history. Studying our past has been dropped from many required curricula in our schools, and our students score lower in history than any other subject—which should come as no surprise to anyone who has turned the sterile pages of modern texts. Those pages squeeze the life out of history, rendering it an arid dump of dates and statistics, as if the story of mankind were just a scientific experiment of interest only to technicians.

But we are not composed of dates and data, we are not constructed of factoids to be reduced to graphs and charts. The DNA that makes us possible was bestowed on us by people who lived incredible lives, who endured unspeakable adversities, engaged in staggering adventures, suffered abject tragedies and celebrated boundless joys. We all swim with them in the same great ocean of humankind, separated not so much by beliefs, appetites, and interests as by technology and time.

Stories of our forebears and tales of the struggle to be human have been a vital part of every culture. They are part of our spiritual DNA, and our institutions have failed us by ignoring them. We are diminished by losing that connection with our ancestors. Our cultural gurus preach self-awareness but how can we be self-aware if we don’t even understand the legs we stand on? If you don’t know history, novelist Michael Crichton once observed, “you’re just a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” We have historical novels because our history books and our history classrooms are just not good enough.

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27 March 2016 | guest authors |

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