Oyster Boy Review 10  
  January 1999
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Genii Over Salzburg

Robert West

  Genii Over Salzburg.
Carl R. Martin.
Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.
101 pages, $10.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 1564781860

The front cover of Genii Over Salzburg is graced with lavish praise from John Ashbery, and reading the book brings to mind two remarks regarding that New York luminary. The first is Fred Chappell's comment that no one in the South writes poetry like Ashbery's, and that if any Southerner were to try to the results would just sound silly. The second is John Koethe's more sweeping pronouncement that, for a major poet, Ashbery has startlingly few noteworthy followers, period—Southern, Northern, Midwestern, what have you. In Genii Over Salzburg, Winston-Salem native Carl R. Martin attempts to give these judgments the lie.

Like Ashbery, Martin walks a thin line between the difficult and the surreal—between a poetry that seems to call for careful reading and protracted consideration, and one that demands to be experienced more or less uncritically. A poem in the former mode is "Divagation on a 'Toy' Symphony Attributed to Leopold Mozart," which begins,

Are those the elemental boundaries
Of the thrush
Trilling in a summary confusion
As of bird and man:
Prelim of the sterling flute?

Contrast that with "'We All Crazy Sam,'" which begins by declaring that "Dogs have died their bitter death / Following the leaves and / Hemlock of the acerbic elves," and goes on to tell us that "Car-shaped balloons are waylaid / Flattened home to Miss Droom's School."

Some of these poems contain passages of both kinds. None makes the shift from one mode to the other more explicitly and self-consciously than the decidedly unerotic "Love Poem":

The ancient crater lake is
Brimming with burning volcanic
Letters formed in its gray
Sky by flocks of bees.
This isn't true, but
Neither are you, dear,
Budding phlox, piece of work
Wrought from flesh. You're in my
Limbic system, and your
Soul slumps out at me like
The lingonberry tongue of a cow.

Here we find several Ashberian trademarks: the surreal imagery ("burning volcanic / Letters"), the offbeat lexicon ("Limbic system"), the word games (the homonyms "flocks" and "phlox," the fact that lingonberries are also called cowberries), and the casual self-reflexiveness of "This isn't true" (Consider the difference if the line were "That isn't true"). Like Ashbery's most remarkable creations, "Love Poem" offers a balance of strangeness and beauty. Martin's other such balancing acts include "Just Another Bearish Downsweep," "A Cup of Wine," and "Nordgeist."

Yet some of these poems, like some of Ashbery's, offer little more than strangeness. I wince at the opening of "Caspar David Friedrich," which reads, "The incurrence of nettles / Afflicts us at the / Edge of our opprobrium"—not only because it somehow manages to be both nonsensical and redundant, but also because of its infatuation with the kind of highfalutin Latinate words that haven't found a comfortable place in English poetry since Milton. "Compassion" begins with a spasm ("Convulsive deliverance") and ends with brutality ("The fragile jaw / Detached by a blow"). "To Die Regularly" opens with ants "chocolated" with "thoughts: / Murder, primarily, succeeding / To the throne."

One of the most striking aspects of Genii Over Salzburg is suggested by its title: its insistence on working within a European context. The poems are so rife with references to Continental geography and culture that, were it not for the jacket's biographical note, one might not guess that Martin was an American artist. At times the obsession with things European reaches the pitch of pretentiousness.

But Genii Over Salzburg has the virtue of offering the unexpected, of avoiding the hardening parameters of "Southern" or even "North Carolina" poetry. Its unevenness, its embrace of European settings, even its emulation of Ashbery may testify to the violent swerve necessary to defy those expectations. Hopefully Martin will continue to cultivate his voice to the point that it sounds original not only in the South, but also in the broader range of American poetry.