As a reader for CBC’s 2011 poetry competition, I judged 286 anonymous entries. My second- and third-highest picks were, it turned out, sequences submitted by Garth Martens, both of which appear in his GG-shortlisted 2014 debut. The work stood out, both because of subject matter (commercial construction and the toxically masculine culture of the job-site) and because of Martens’ style: densely percussive, displaying a range of registers and a fiction-writer’s penchant for voice, character and incident. An intangible quality Martens’ work also exuded was ambition; these were poems straining, as the portentous title of his book suggests, to be not merely good, but important.
A handful of pieces in Prologue for the Age of Consequences demonstrate why Martens’ work, which won him the Bronwen Wallace Award in 2011, has turned jurors’ heads. Smartly front-loaded is the book’s finest lyric, “Everything That’s Yours,” a poem whose rhythmic engine is anaphora and whose music is graced with well-placed occasional rhymes: “It comes from the bus / and the strangers in their sleep, / aspens like wicks in a flame. // It comes from the bird and the bird’s chain.” Also excellent is the eight-part sequence “Johnny Lightning and the Apprentice,” which showcases Martens in full command of the vulgar spoken voice, with all its swagger and verve: “another part-time worm who shovelled shit / uphill or tripped in two-inch holes.” “Dreamtime,” a page-and-a-half prose poem (one of eleven prose pieces in the book), is a beautifully condensed oneiric psychodrama.
Condensation, however, is atypical. A leitmotif of Prologue is the tower, both literal building project and archetype, whose mythic precursor is Babel, icon of human hubris. Like the tower, this book strives and sprawls and, just as Martens’ edifices burn and fall, so too do his ambitious verbal ziggurats sometimes collapse in fiery ruin. Russell Smith has praised Martens’ language for being “frequently right on the edge of conventional meaning,” but a larger sample size shows him cataracting over that edge. Swinburnian phrases like “a troved beguilement breaking greasily in hand” and “the devouring bright with its indentations of anguish” don’t refresh language’s sense-making dimension, they ignore it. A range of registers is an asset, but Martens doesn’t always know how best to mix his dictions. On dismayingly frequent occasions he is guilty of more straightforwardly purple overwriting, as when a man “jawed a shredded hash, its hissing / evisceration of sausage and egg.” Which is less dull than “chewed his breakfast,” but doesn’t actually render breaking fast more dramatic. Several poems are clotted with dull narration that could have been cut away, and whole poems (e.g. “Effluvia,” about job-site shithouses) serve as merely anecdotal colour; other pieces might have been more profitably constructed in another genre (memoir or short fiction). Even with its painfully small typeface, Prologue drags its steel-toes over a hundred-plus pages; like a double-overtime work week, this has the effect of rendering each page duller.
The good news is that the failures of this debut are, like its shining moments, the products of its young author’s reach. If that reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, as long as the ambition remains focused where it matters most—on the perfection of skills in the service of beauty and truth—we have a lot to look forward to from Garth Martens.
Zachariah Wells (www.zachariahwells.com) lives in Halifax.
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