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Sunday, March 2nd, 2008
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American Music

by Chris Martin

The Blur of Happenstance

A review by Michael Lindgren

With this lively debut collection Chris Martin establishes himself as a young poet with an arresting voice. American Music is a series of light-stepping meditations on city life that manage to be both profound and playful, with an unpretentious freshness that sets it apart from the usual hipster-in-the-city banalities.

Like all true New Yorkers, Martin comes from somewhere else -- in his case, Colorado Springs by way of St. Paul -- and like many before him, he finds New York City a fecund source of inspiration and wonder. Martin's most immediately identifiable literary predecessor would be the Frank O'Hara of the City Poems era. As in O'Hara, the narrative content of the poems is aggressively unremarkable: the poet is saddened by the animals during a visit to the zoo, distracted by interloping teenagers during a Chelsea gallery jaunt, and excited by pretty girls, it seems, almost everywhere -- but it is Martin's unlikely perceptions and inventive language, the effortless leap from the specific detail to the universal truth, that transcends the quotidian details. On the subway "every winking turn traps / You into thinking that life / Is a meticulous plot dimly allotted / To you alone"; a wrong number "Has not stopped / Me from feeling a consequent / Note among many." The blur of happenstance and sensory overkill becomes the raw material of verse.

Stylistically, the author has found a form that is both distinctive and austere, as all the poems consist of fourteen to twenty-six unrhymed tercets, ending with a single long line. It's a good armature, simple and flexible: the tercets are rhythmically supple, and the closing line, as with a sonnet, gives each poem a pleasing note of finality or of questioning. It takes admirable discipline for the author to stick with this one form for the duration of a full-length book, but such restraint gives the verse an organic transparency -- an uncluttered directness of expression -- and the volume benefits from its smooth uniformity of form and internal consistency.

The true appeal of these poems is located in the way the observation of gritty realities can serve as a springboard for abstract and metaphyscial considerations that would not be out of place in the work of Wallace Stevens. In "I Am No Proprioceptivist," for example, the sight of a man pissing into a trash can leads the poet to contemplate how "to be a thing / That is, that organizes other / Things into its own harmony / Or discord..." Martin has a well-tuned ear and a sprightly wit, and the poems' compactness and conversational vernacular allow them to wear their philosophical underpinnings and occasionally slightly-daft speculations very lightly indeed. American Music is a superior piece of writing, and Chris Martin is a welcome addition to the ever-expanding roster of contemporary poets.


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