In the Introduction to Clare L. Martin’s debut collection, Eating the Heart First, Tom Lombardo, Poetry Series Editor of Press 53, writes that Martin’s collection examines “what she’s seen of life—through her own life—on the bayous of Louisiana.” Lombardo’s assertion that Martin’s poems come from “her own life” immediately struck me as problematic. After all, almost anyone but a newcomer to poetry is aware that the speaker of the poem is not the poet him or herself, even, as M.H. Abrams points out in his Glossary of Literary Terms, in “personal lyrics.”
While it is true that there is something “personal” about Eating the Heart First—a collection that is significantly influenced by the poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath—Martin’s best poems are also well crafted. This is not to say that a “personal” poem can’t be highly wrought, but to argue the exact opposite. Deborah Nelson distinguishes “Confessional poetry” from other writing by “the urgency and ‘rawness’ of its revelations.” But Nelson also reminds us that this rawness results from “the artistry that creates the pose or performance of sincerity, the theatricalization of intimacy.” Martin writes about being a lover, wife, daughter, and mother: facets of personhood that don’t necessarily add up to a single person. She creates “the pose or performance of sincerity” by evoking various emotional states— not the clichéd “experience” of motherhood as such. In truth, what is that experience? I can’t predict the mood of Martin’s poetic speakers, and I appreciate that this emotional range seems “sincere.” A speaker may be euphoric in one poem and despondent in the next. Sometimes the emotions of a speaker in a single poem shift because of an earthshattering event. Consider the poem titled “Birthing”:
You say how I seem a woman: full, rounded. That we could sprawl across this day in the white sun of the room.
It could be hours before— but the nurse rushes in when the fetal heart monitor
screams. And the doctor pierces a hole in the universe. Water flushes out, and skin and bones.
Martin’s poems about the death of an infant most exude the rawness that Nelson attributes to confessional poetry. In “Birthing,” the speaker is sharing an intimate moment between herself and a partner, speaking directly to the “you” in a conversational tone. The process of birth is described almost languorously: the fullness of the speaker—“pregnant” in more than one sense of the word—exudes contentment. This is effective— isolating this moment—because the emotional state of the speaker is about to burst as though it were the amniotic sac the doctor “pierces.” When “the fetal heart monitor // screams,” the intimacy between the speaker and the “you” disintegrates, and personal spaces are invaded. “Someone” enters the birthing suite, and “our home” is compared to a warzone:
Someone in blue sews the stitches but I don’t feel anything except cool iodine….
They wheel me out. Our home is a frazzle of livewires, explosive mines
Interestingly, Eating the Heart First begins with a series of poems that are more surreal than “Birthing.” The speakers of these poems are less willing to tell us why they feel the way they do. In “Bread Making,” the female speaker is angry and crying while making bread, but it’s not clear why. One could argue that some of these poems depend too much on the context of the collection and expect the reader to carry information, especially about loss, from poem to poem. But I think that Martin is also critiquing the domestic situation— what was (and still is, in some respects) perceived as “natural” for a woman. The “she” described in “Any Winter Sunday in Louisiana” is “divine,” someone who “brews / a hurricane / in her bed, / who makes love / as the gumbo simmers.” This “she” is literally “one” with nature, but she’s an anomaly. In contrast to this portrait of the “divine” woman, Martin’s speakers are reminiscent of Anne Sexton’s possessed speaker...