Eating the Heart First (Press 53) by Clare L. Martin is a haunting, lyrical collection that cannot be read in a rush, or in a single sitting. Martin cleverly divides the book into several sections, which are micro-poems in themselves: “Fables of Skin,” “A Fire of Words,” and “All That We Conjure.” Nature’s dark side is revealed: images of winter, death, and storms abound. Martin pulls us in and out of a dozen different worlds in this collection, but nature, and its ubiquitous presence even in the most ordinary, domestic moments, grounds many of the poems.
Let us take “Love in a Predawn Thunderstorm.” The TV is on, and a pair of lovers couples during stormy weather. Ordinary enough, no? But Martin’s words make this time extraordinary:
The muted TV glazes
the bedroom walls with prisms.
Lightning dissects the mirror.
Thunder rumbles in muscles.
She orbits his breast with her teeth,
breaks the glassy sleep encasing his body.
The mirror is no longer just a mirror: it is “dissected,” cut into two as the bodies join into one. The thunder of the world outside is echoed in the muscular movements, or the personification of the thunder—I leave it to you. The image of being awakened with a bite, not a kiss, and the sleep breaking apart like glass, is reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty lying in her glass coffin. The woman “breathes rain,” further cementing the image of the storm being channeled through her.
While short, each poem is a like a little vignette, such as:
Any Winter Sunday in Louisiana
She is divine and divines that she is
the circling cormorant
that dives into marshlands
and rivers then soars,
leaving snaking roads
in her wake.
Later, in the same poem, the punch of the lines, “Sweet cane burns/against the rising moon,” makes the reader wonder whether the speaker is describing a rebellion or the simple rapture of seeing moonlight illuminate the rich Southern landscape. The “hurricane” and “snaking roads” speak of a deep connection with nature; as the woman runs, she feels a connection with the cormorants, a “divine” connection, no less. Her connection with nature is so pure, so ideal, that her point of view—perhaps even her body—merges with the bird’s. “Divine” can be defined as “relating to God or a god”; here, the land and creatures themselves are the god.
Martin also shows a playful tendency to manipulate the spacing of the poem; note how nearly the lines resemble a cyclone. Breaks and em-dashes throughout her work lend a certain breathless, suspenseful quality to many of the poems, whereas “What Winter Told Me” is an unbroken paragraph. Its dense lines add to the dreadful tidings of winter: “If I raise my voice above a whisper the world will shatter. Be patient—dark is coming.” The spacing wakes the reader up; it makes you pay attention and seek the next word.
Several settings of the poems seem pleasant enough at first— the title in “Bread Making” sets up a simple domestic scene. Thoughts of bread, the staff of life, immediately come to mind, along with my own memories of making bread with my grandmother. But the whole scene is anything but pleasant:
This bread will be bitter.
It will sour and harden
those who eat it.
They will shudder
to call me mother.
In the “shudder” to call her mother, the speaker embodies the fear that pierces this collection, and it is honest and raw. One of the fears of parenthood is the idea that your children will consume, rather than enrich, your life. Surely, your children’s loathing you is am embodiment of this fear. Martin further explores this fear in “Cutting”:
I’ve been forced
to disinherit my children,
send them into winter.
If I had not,
they would have
bled me dry.
Dare we equate winter with death? Is the speaker of the poem referring to grief bleeding her dry? When the grief following a loved one’s passing eases, it always feels like another death.
A more transparent scenario, still laced with grief, is featured in “Birthing.” This poem is the dark center of the collection; it begins with the a laboring woman. The poem starts softly: “You say/how I seem a woman: full, rounded.” Yet the “fetal heart monitor screams,” a “hole is torn in the universe,” and “water flushes out, and skin and bones.” This language hardly describes a healthy, bouncing infant. In our society, it seems almost taboo to discuss, in depth, the illness or death of a child. Other parents shy away; marriages crack under the strain; a child’s death is unthinkable.
Later in the poem, the tender domestic scene of a nursery awaiting a child becomes a war zone:
Our home is a frazzle
of livewires, explosive mines
disguised as Teddy bears,
and soft, tiny socks.
We ache with the speaker’s loss. Martin takes us to depths of joy and loss within the same few lines. Her yearning is our yearning. These simple, everyday items are transformed into instruments of destruction.
Martin shows us grief and nature’s harshness once more in the final stanza of “Mute”:
When the infant died,
fell like trees
in storms from her mouth.
We see the storm imagery come through once again: the“her” in the poem is a beloved figure, perhaps a grandmother, who is deaf and later becomes blind. With the same clarity that captures a pretty part of Louisiana, Martin makes the unthinkable—the death of a child—real. Death is a storm that could, and did, fell both trees and lives. We have all felt this positively elemental rage.
Martin’s collection is not easy to sum up. It’s not easy to read at times—it is worth the effort, though. The theme of nature is extremely broad, but it touches so many of the poems, making the South itself seem like a character. Martin’s experience of nature is rich: sweet bounty one moment, winter’s harsh losses the next. Nature shows us death, birth, and love; it shows us cypress trees, and it wraps around us, in ways good and bad, in spaces we think are inviolate, be they the bedroom or the birthing suite.
Each character’s voice, too, is unique; Really, it’s like reading a collection of very short stories. From magical, divine bayou women to cups of coffee, this collection is worth the occasional bewilderment of having so much packed into each poem.
Also unique is the way Martin makes the everyday extraordinary and the way she counters the terrible losses with love. This collection has so many poignant moments, but they are complex, like squares of extremely dark chocolate melting on the tongue. Sweetness lies at the center of what seems, at first, to be almost unbearably bitter.
Mariann Grantham D’Arcangelis is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Master of Arts in Literature from the Florida State University, where she did everything from broadcasting radio news to reading for the Southeast Review. Based in Tallahassee, Florida, she loves urban fantasy, Tupelo honey, and all things feline.
Clare L. Martin’s debut collection of poetry, Eating the Heart First, was published fall 2012 by Press 53 as a Tom Lombardo Selection. Martin’s poetry has appeared in Avatar Review, Blue Fifth Review, Melusine, Poets and Artists and Louisiana Literature, among others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web, for Best New Poets and Sundress Publication’s Best of the Net. Her poems have been included in the anthologies The Red Room: Writings from Press 1, Best of Farmhouse Magazine Vol. 1, Beyond Katrina, and the 2011 Press 53 Spotlight. She is a lifelong resident of Louisiana, a graduate of University of Louisiana at Lafayette, a member of the Festival of Words Cultural Arts Collective, and a Teaching Artist through the Acadiana Center for the Arts. Martin is the founder and director of the Voices Seasonal Reading Series in Lafayette, Louisiana, which features new and established Louisiana and regional writers, and co-coordinates Acadiana Wordlab, a weekly literary drafting workshop. She serves as Poetry Editor of MadHat Annual and Editor of MadHat Lit, publishing ventures of MadHat, Inc.