Ever since Sir Thomas Wyatt imported the sonnet from Italy during the early sixteenth century, poets of the English language have employed the form both to preserve and experiment within it. While Camille Martin's second collection Sonnets (Shearsman Books, 2010) does, at times, perform the former of these functions, it serves mostly as a platform for the poet to explore the tradition's alternative poetic possibilities.
At the most rudimentary level, each poem in the hundred poem sonnet cycle contains the requisite fourteen lines. Likewise, the speaker of these poems addresses her poems to an unnamed “you,” in a fashion somewhat similar to Shakespeare's sonnets; or, as Martin writes: “there's an ongoing you / who performs brilliant arcs in secret / weightlessness” (38).
While Sonnets certainly adheres to these conventions, it actively undermines them as well. For example, the “you” of these poems is an “unmoored you” who eventually, the speaker says, will “dissolve into the wilderness of my voice” (38). In fact, the “you” may not only dissolve into the speaker's voice, but may well be the speaker. We gather as much when we're told: “i'll morph into / you—but what if there's / no you? What am i?” (14). Indeed, a strange transference occurs, wherein the antecedents for the pronouns of these poems continually shifts and “unmake[s] the myth of you” (61), leaving us confused as to who is “you.” In other words, “our bodies / restively shift like the continental drift, our every / moment a dissonant snapshot superimposed” (87) so that multiple figures overlay one another. To this extent, Martin attempts “to release the spirit of [the] puritan / ancestor” (53) lodged within the sonnet form and, in doing so, makes room for a different, more contemporary spirit.
One could argue that the confusion of pronouns marks the contemporary spirit found within these poems. But, in addition to this characteristic, the spirit of these sonnets develops from a music predicated not upon the metrical line, but instead upon a music that “render[s] your pronounceable mouth unintelligible” (61). In fact, the music the mouth makes becomes “unintelligible” enough that the mouth, occasionally, no longer appears to be a mouth but “a rickety machine drowning / in white noise” (74). Take, for instance, the third sonnet in the “jetsam archive” series:
flinty skin slaps quick fixon public eye targeting chromaticplenum: astral scatteringof plumes, crayolas meltedon basalt midnight. exiledghost inks reckless glyphs depictingone penultimate scam or other,sharpens fetishes in frost-freeouter space. swords deftly severlinks between glittery saint and mock-stoneshrine. likely tickers ponder focalpoints of punctured wrecks.dervishes breach their zeal, twirlthe feverish dust. (104)
Given the title “jetsam archive,” one might conclude that Martin created these poems from scattered lines or images she discovered in her notebook that can be associated with “astral scattering[s]” or “reckless glyphs.”
Of course, Sonnets contains more than one “rickety machine drowning / in white noise.” In fact, there are several different types of machines located within the book, such as the series “red link,” which examines the power of radical repetition by repeating a singular word one hundred and eleven times; or “[start-],” which employs hard enjambments wherein words “over- / flow” into the following line, creating a “syn- / tax prematurely ashore” by breaking on a word's internal syllables. And sometimes, “one lucky machine greets another / at the delicate blur of a map's edge” (78) in order to build a composite but blurry sound, such as the collection's final poem that combines disjunctive imagery with a lush, ornamental diction:
night wings in the blind atmospheresprinkle the ground with dust. you areyour own muscular witness in a waystation of wandering plot. a sprintingsphinx escorts you, honey milk animalnothing, to a missing manifold. scribescroon non-copernican rubatos of carnal doubttrapped in the sticky fluorescence of bird mango.you release your most seductive wordsinto an unfamiliar house of cards. ready?3-2-1. you are now entering your foreignbirthplace. the sphinx is your guide.take this placebo and repeatafter the cagey beast: (107)
Yes, Martin releases “seductive words,” such as “rubatos of carnal doubt / trapped in the sticky fluorescence of bird mango,” into the contemporary sonnet so that it appears as “an unfamiliar house of cards” ready to collapse at any minute. But it is just this precarious nature of experimentation that enables her (and other contemporary poets for that matter) to employ a well-worn, received form to different effects.