Two Minute Hustle

February 17, 2014

2013-10-20 18.03.06 Acetelene in Wilderness (2)

Poetry often begins with some event a poet wants to remember, but frequently develops into events the poet can’t seem to forget. So it is with two terrifying volumes I read this Valentine’s weekend, Hustle by David Tomas Martinez and Two Minutes of Light by Nancy K. Pearson. They are both declarations of the humanity, severity and intelligence in worlds we generally struggle to culturally and physically erase, gangs, violence, illegal drugs, and personality disorders.

In 1994 I was between personas and took a job in Galveston, TX at an alternative school. I did my lesson plans for classes des Refuses taught in T-buildings in what I quickly came to know as G-Town ISD. I had a curriculum, but I was nowhere near prepared. No one was prepared. Thug Life was as ascendant as an epidemic on an island roughly the size of Manhattan. After school the student’s walk home was divided like a layer cake between sets of Bloods and Crips. Depending what you claimed, every three or four blocks you either held up your pants and ran like a bitch, or slow strolled with your cuz, or folkz, or dogz. The school was cobbled together and run by an extraordinary man, Lawrence Thomas. For G’s old, young or wannbe, that school became the safest place on the island. For six and a half school hours there was a truce that included a hot lunch and PE. That’s not to say there wasn’t occasional violence, but it was a mistake or highly ritualized. Even from this vantage it’s impossible to convey what was accepted as day to day reality, for example according to school district policy gunshot wounds were regarded as an unexcused absence. We held class in a collective trauma somewhere between Tupac and Dickens. Lil Twin, Pookie, Pyroo, Big Baby, and Junior were names “the game” gave to children who were murdered, others graduated high school, matriculated to prison, most disappeared. Every day we began again, taking out our journals amid constant violence, drugs and common homework of criminality. I bargained Homer for Master P. Classroom discussions of the battles in The Odyssey, or my overambitious staging of the fights in “Romeo & Juliet” were barely figurative. I was an adult. 1,500 miles away David Tomas Martinez was in training to become a “no limits” soldier in San Diego.

Hustle, (2014, Sarabande Books) is the first volume of poetry by David Tomas Martinez and leans heavily on the unspoken spiritual precepts of growing up within the sphere of gangs, abusive machismo and a culture of abandonment. The poems of Hustle wander the territory of transgression, but not in exploitative dramatics, or as a vernacular persona such as rap boasts, but use that background as a philosophical shorthand of macho noir.

In the eleven sectioned opening poem “Calaveras” (skeletons) the poet focuses lyric gifts on animating the bones of a failed revenge murder. Like any skeleton, it is incomplete, macabrely detailed and still containing some truth for the living.  It investigates the catastrophe within a near catastrophe. Section 7 “Tonight I can write the most violent lines.”  echoes Neruda’s XX of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair  [Tonight I can write the saddest lines] or “the art of shame so short and healing so long” [Calaveras 7,line 21] [Love is so short, forgetting is so long]. Martinez investigates, as did Neruda, the limitations of the healing power of poetry, but also investigates the poetic capacity to create emotional distance enough for survival. In a 11/10/2010 version of “Calaveras” I found on YouTube [ ], the poem is literally confessional, more directly bound to explain in narrative form the act of not committing murder as an event of redemption, which of course it is.  Many of the poems of this volume struggle within that dialectical distance to remake memory into a more tolerable form of song. As in the elegy “Forgetting Willie James Jones”, “Shed” or the prose poem “Motion and Rest” Mr. Martinez sets in motion a complicated mobile of memory, guilt, nostalgia and escape and allows the reader to watch the interactions shift.

The main commodity of the working classes, Latino, white, male or female is bodies. Bodies are the currency traded, or withheld, the transient repository of skill and injuries. There are few career paths to ascend, there is only physical desire put out in the street, “hustle”. Workers appear, they’re called by gestures, whistles, misnomer, nick names, but rarely they names they’re called at home. In the poem “Innominatus” the poem investigates responses to the sense of cultural anonymity of existing without a linguistic archaeology, of being a body merely deposited in chaos. ”Silence makes us explain ourselves” he writes in a poem wavering between disgust at male dominance and his inability to speak to his mother’s drunken oblivion on the couch.  In Hustle dozens of bodies are chest pounded, beaten, raped, invaded, traded.  However brutish and unrewarding there is always work to do. The dent puller in “Calaveras” is “from my grandfather’s tools”, the gang symbolic “bandana”, “the old man’s/shine box…”,. the tedium of putting in the work of criminal ascendency, the burnt crack pans, and plastic baggies of the dope trade, bodies incarcerated, abused, but mostly in the way…enduring the unenviable fortunes of surviving being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Themed poems like “California Penal Code 266”, pimping, “In Chicano Park” ,gambling, “The Only Mexican” aging, are designed to be muscular and proud panoramas presenting instants of connection and satisfaction surrounded by diminution.  The speaker finds another moment of revelation from Lucy, a woman welder described in “Coveralls”. She rises amid “golden ashes/ dropping from/ a chariot/ of rusted pipe/ and planks.” The poet begins the long transformation of women as objects into equals.

Hustle’s focus on detail and poetic facility in manipulating its nuance against the daily unspoken expectations of a working life sharpens the edge a poet such as Mr. Martinez. He seems bound to simultaneously respect and be alienated from the physical consequences of the life he describes. This complicated dialectic can be in turns, immediate, sentimental and judgmentally distant from the people and events he chooses as subjects. At the same time he constructs translations of this friction into the ephemeral world of academic poetry. Denial and alienation are cultural and class dilemmas of this style of code switching. The capacity to travel between cultures is not the same as the capacity to participate. There is an ethos of betrayal that pervades the tone of these poems as a nearly nostalgic lingering that is neither memoir nor therapy. In the extended sequence “Forgetting Willie James Jones” a tableaux of murder, assassination, and violation ends with the speaker’s ironic epiphany stopping a rape while having sex. “How strong I felt in 94’, when the most chivalrous//thing I could do was block a door/stop a rape.” The speaker’s moment of heroism, holding back a small mob of rapists, is blurred into self-ironic alienation, a recognition that he’s there, but he doesn’t belong. Mr. Martinez poetry is consciously crafted to depict personal contact within intimate periphery of transgression, while proposing an identity driven by a larger sense of morality than the brute masculinity that has abused him, or the clans that would adopt him so roughly…even academia.  The volume moves its arc through unexpected moments of self-awareness as in “Rebecca’s Use”, “I was twenty-two and no longer news.”. Ultimately discovering the speaker is meant to be Homer, not Odysseus, his mythmaking will be created out of words not flesh.

This poetry chooses to carry the symbolic realities of its traumatic themes like emblematic tattoos it exposes, but refuses to explain. It is both protest and intimacy of violation, both accusatory and celebratory. Like a visit to a VFW where one drinks in the thin careful conversation of living with past trauma as signals of how the evening may disintegrate or progress, reading Hustle, might require a smoke filled hours and a few bottled Buds to fully appreciate the need to repeat these war stories Mr. Martinez choses to carry out of the bar.

Ms. Pearson finds another path down a similarly dangerous, distressing, yet more intimately ephemeral road in Two Minutes of Light. She pursues the merciless lyric of a world of genuine zombies. The volume is narrated by a speaker who uses the flat intonation our time has become familiar with as the voice of dissociative personality.  It is a flat voice attentive to detail and consequence, but without empathy, rather a voice that invokes an ironic, distant self-reference. There are unspoken understandings, too obvious, too tedious to discuss, but like the brutish lives of the workers who fabricate our cell phones they precede every conversation.  This voice allows the poems in Two Minutes of Light to be capable of anything.

The opening poem “Cyclic” shifts from a romanticized scene of family fishing to self-harm with only a stanza break’s pause, “reeling in small loaves/ of sunlight, before winter//I began slicing my wrists like fruit,/ before I spent my Medicaid checks on crack,”. At the end of that jarring stanza calmly returns to “My father baits our hooks, forgetting his own.” Something has been revealed that didn’t name itself, but needed to escape.  The poet in “Shucking “describes loosing teeth in an accident while fishing, but the difference between incident and accident, coincidence and complicity is seldom clean in Ms. Pearson’s volume. “From The Motel-By-Hour” presents a series of vignettes of life as a crack addict that are debasingly confessional, but not contrite. “Hiking the Appalachian Trail” alternates between naturalist diary and recollection of a friend who on a drunken wager has fallen from a statue, become comatose and then removed from life support. The extraordinary “Two Worlds” begins with a historical epigram regarding the reduction of carbon monoxide in English public gas and the reduction of suicides in women and then explores the deadly attraction of leaping from The Golden Gate Bridge.  Through these poems we’re exploring The Myth of Sisyphus without Camus’ philosophical moral assumptions. There seems to be no purposeful act to supersede the dark pulling instinct down the slough of self-destruction.  Near the end of this lyrical fugue on suicide the poet intrudes a declamatory voice asking the rhetorical question “By what small margins do we survive?”  The speaker is only halfway to hell; once again something invisible has happened.

Following with the poem “Every Knee Bends” the speaker then embarks climbing the random toeholds of healing. Poems reflect an upward religious arc as inexplicable as the downward spiral that preceded it. She revisits her past from helpless distance of “My Namesake Is Dying” a poem,  by contrast, affected by an emotional relationship with death, conscience and regret.  Death has become less of a casual traveling co-conspirator and more of a thief. This is followed by a bucolic meditation on loss in “Laws of Gravity”.  The speaker’s redemption is cataloged by a complicated coalescence of repetitions and parallel anniversaries as in the closing of “Chasing After the Wind”, “It is your birthday/ says a word on your palm/ this is living Pile the wood.” or “Lucky Stars” a hymn to survival echoing “Track Star” a poem of disintegration, earlier in the volume. There is a steady stagger to integration. The By-the-Hour Motel, is transposed with hospital stays, “Hiking the Appalachian Trail” is balanced with “My Namesake Is Dying”. The volume continues employing this construct “Shucking” becomes “To a Clam”, “Pomace” reflects the opening “Cyclic”. Two Minutes of Light ends with the expository “Consider the Lilies of the Field” where the poet ambitiously attempts to bring many of the events of the volume a sense of closure in sixteen lines. It achieves something more of a stasis than a proclamation of redemption, or sense of cure.

There are epidemiological estimates that occurrences of dissociative disorders range from 2-10% of the adult population in the US (3-30 million people). As a human phenomenon it surpasses gang activity (an estimated 1-2 million people). It’s nine times more likely to occur in women, while gang activity is nine times more likely to occur in males. In both groups there is an onset in early adolescence and statistically some type of institutional intervention in their early twenties. To put those numbers in perspective Poetry Magazine has a total circulation of 30,000. All of this makes both of these volumes rarified and valuable. They provide a lyric intimacy into experiences that too easily are dismissed to type and cultural marginality.

What salvation frequently means is not arriving, but continuing. In a literary world filled with memoirs about becoming writers, Hustle and Two Minutes of Light present us two volumes of song about constructing personality. Most of us don’t have to think about consciously assembling a personality; we are given one with the same combination of random selection, DNA and environment that buys F-150s or wants us to join games on Facebook.  It was once a common belief, if you turned in your homework, didn’t get arrested, kept tidy and managed credit card debt, you would be allowed to tithe with the majority reality. That majority page writ large is shrinking, but its margins attract astonishing illustrations. Increasingly in our hyper self-reflection the differences between personality difference and disorder, criminality and conviction are blurred. The Harris poll estimated one in five people have a tattoo, Grand Theft Auto series franchise sold over 100 million units for on-line play, and there were nearly three million prescriptions for Abilify or Cymbalta filled in the period between October 2013 and January 2014, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar celebrated 50 years of publication with four new biographies, two films and major retrospectives in both the UK and US. Although Ms. Pearson and M. Martinez are genuinely brave and have endured much on their pilgrimages, wherever they are traveling they will not be traveling alone.

One Response to “Two Minute Hustle”

  1. nkpoet Says:

    Thank you for such a beautiful review, Dom!

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