Thursday, February 18, 2010

John Martone: On Squirrels

John Martone is one of the finest purveyors of the short-short poem today; he is most certainly a favorite poet of mine. His work arrives in the mail box in a variety of forms, frequently even tinier than the work I publish.

I love it when work is smaller than Lilliput Review. It makes me happy in the way eccentrics are often pleased; a blissed out, peaceful kind of smile that causes those in authority to do a troubled double-take.

And I just keep on smiling. Ban the mind-altering substance poetry if you dare.

John's closeness to nature is one of the aspects of his work that I find most appealing. His predisposition to all living things and, for that matter, natural inanimate things, reminds me very much philosophically of Master Issa. His latest little collection is tiny, indeed, containing 13 small poems centered around squirrels.

human speaks squirrel
squirrel stares back
what's a poem

One of the anomalies of the brief poem is voice - who is speaking, to whom, and does it even matter? In this case, what is the nature of trans-species communication, what exactly is happening here? Honestly, I'm not sure but I can tell you this: it made me smile.

Martone has a penchant for fine detail, the kind you should notice except if you, like me, are too busy being "out of your mind." Literally, that is.

squirrel eyes
taking you in
no whites

Of course, I had to shuffle to an image search to discover what John would have just stepped outside to see:

Having proven me as inattentive as might be, the next poem posits another thought:

squirrel has 2 hands too

So, what's the poet about here? Even I noticed a squirrel has two hands; just yesterday I watched one, standing upright on a lamp stanchion, quickly twirling the food s/he was working over, while taking in all of the surrounding environs, ready to bolt at the briefest of whispers.



Notice how different the form of this poem is from the others and why. Here is a poet, bound closely with nature, yet comparing a squirrel to humans: eyes, hands, occupations. And then this:

squirrels passing thru my life - their faces

Now this is something else again. With the implied individuation of each face, the poet extends his ongoing comparison to humans. And to see the human in the animal face is the perfect complement to seeing types of animals in human faces, a type of revelatory experience that can have the forceful impact of a solved zen koan.

One might say the zen koan, yet to say the anything when it comes to zen is a bit presumptuous, so perhaps not. And yet, and yet.

On one level, of course, these are rather plain, seemingly simplistic descriptions of squirrels. Is there another level? Can you feel the vibrancy, can you see it? When you see a stone, is it a stone? Is it alive? When you hold a leaf in your hand, what do you see?

Which makes me think, as I often do, of the transcendent conclusion to the pulp novel, The Shrinking Man (made into the iconic film The Incredible Shrinking Man), by Richard Matheson. Scott Carey, the shrinking man, has just escaped from the basement where he has been trapped for the later part of the novel, battling a voracious spider with a sewing needle and fending off a veritable flood caused by a faulty water heater, and finally wakes up on a bed of leaves:

He remembered lying on the bed of leaves the night before, and he glanced down. He was sitting on a vast plain of speckled brown and yellow. There were great paths angling out from a gigantic avenue. They went as far as the eye could see.

He was sitting on the leaves.

He shook his head in confusion

How could he be less than nothing?

The idea came. Last night he'd looked up at the universe without. Then there must be a universe within, too. Maybe universes.

He stood again. Why had he never thought of it; of the microscopic and the submicroscopic worlds? That they existed he had always known. Yet never had he made the obvious connection. He'd always thought in terms of man's own world and man's own limited dimensions. He had presumed upon nature. For the inch was man's concept, not nature's. To a man, zero inches means nothing. Zero meant nothing.

But to nature there was no zero. Existence went on in endless cycles. It seemed so simple now. He would never disappear, because there was no point of non-existence in the universe.

Though what Matheson is talking about here is quite literal, it also is metaphoric and this moment of transcendence is, even more incredibly, preserved in the film. One can make a case that the movie, despite allusions to "God" not in the book, hones the book's point to a finer edge. Notably, Matheson wrote the screenplay himself.

Somehow, I always imagined Scott Carey continuing to shrink, so that eventually he will fall through the leaf, among the atoms, and beyond.

Man presuming on nature, indeed.


Cover: Susie by Albert Huffstickler

This week's featured broadside is Dearly Departed by Albert Huffstickler, published as Lilliput Review #120. This tiny little booklet, comprised of 13 brief poems, none of which goes beyond 6 lines, is perhaps the most devastating work I've had the privilege to publish in Lillie during the first 20 years of its run. It is dedicated to fellow poet and close friend Susie Bowers who died of her own hand the previous year. Some of the poems are addressed directly to Susie and they are by turns loving, angry, and pointedly astute. Death was a muse Huff knew quite well. Though these poems are intensely personal, somehow they also speak for us all.

As always, no matter how far we venture out, Huff brings us home:

People always want
to know why
Why is just why.
It doesn't tell you


Suicide is a
great responsibility:
you take from others
so many things that
were never yours
to begin with.


I don't mind
my own solitude
but now you've
left me with yours.


I don't think I want
to understand why you did it.
I can't even deal with
not understanding.


And here we are
and here you go
leaving me
as you found me:
heart divided
words on paper.


Huff by Susie Bowers


does my star too
sleep alone?
Milky Way
translated by David G. Lanoue



PS Huff's little broadside, for with all 13 poems and both portraits, is available for a standard self-addressed envelope with a single first class stamp attached or for $1.


Brian said...

"Honestly, I'm not sure but I can tell you this: it made me smile."

Yup! Martone appears to be a wonderful poet and I'm for sure going to check his work out more.

Ed Baker said...


y'all can/might start here:

stopitus said...

just stop writing I dare you

John Grochalski said...


a great post today. If you can, hold me aside one of those Huff broadsides...will be sending my $1 ASAP!

womanimal said...

"But to nature there was no zero." and suicide poems that stun me and squirrels! This post made me think, and smile, too.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

stopitus ... I'm putting down the pen, I'm backing away from the keyboard, my fingers are slowly unfurling ...

Jay, you got it ...

Thanks, r ...