The Experience of Reading Poetry

D. S. Martin’s Angelicus: Ambitious, Daring, Worth the Price of Admission.

Guest Contributor / 7.12.21

Thankful for this review from Brad Davis:

I studied sociology in college. Took a few Lit courses, a few theology. Bombed Stats, loved my senior seminar on Jacques Ellul. Regret having taken the Chemistry core option rather than “Physics for Poets.” Over the next two decades I earned two masters — theology and creative writing — and by the turn of the millennium, was teaching both in a boarding school. I don’t often review books. Would rather make books. Always suspected I was ADD but grew up before testing became de rigor for underachievers. I do not miss not taking more philosophy, though recently read a piece on phenomenology and suffered a mini-pang of regret, a slight but vivid first-person reading experience. Reading poetry is a first-person experience. Sometimes it’s a dud, other times meh, every now and then downright engaging. Once, in 2010, Sonnet 29 saved my laid-off life.

In D. S. Martin’s ambitious new collection of poems, Angelicus, the poet has taken a road very much less traveled by nowadays.[1] Every poem in the volume is a dramatic monologue — a type of poem somewhat out of fashion and whose speaker is not the poet. In fact, every speaker in Martin’s sequence is not even human. Angelicus: of or pertaining to angels. Yes, every speaker in Martin’s daring book is an angel speaking to a human, a “child of clay,” “descendent of dust,” “little one.” This strategy of direct angel-to-human address contributes, for better or worse, to the cumulative effect of the poems upon the reader, and in many of them, Martin leaves for the reader the task of figuring out, from allusive hints, whether the one addressed in a given poem — the “you” — is a biblical or historical character or a more generalized human other. Or the reader herself.

Another major effect of the book’s sixty-four poems derives from the reader’s encounter with two prominent stylistic features: a paucity of punctuation and unpredictable rhythms and rhymes. Right away in the opening poem, “Of Angels Speaking,” the speaker-angel admits to being challenged by “translating…from / tongues of angels… / to your sheenless existence / …in your slippery language.” Open to that poem, and the first stylistic feature is visible right away; there’s no punctuation. In fact, the only punctuation used in the book is the question mark. (But why only that?) Otherwise, pauses and stops are managed by line breaks, mid-line cesuras, and implied by capital letters. Which suggests that, for Martin, angel culture may be without writing, a supposition that would provide effective cover for the angels’ willful disregard for standard punctuation. Surprisingly, this did not affect this reader’s getting of where thoughts began and ended.

The second stylistic feature that stands out in the sequence is sonic — the poems’ rhythms and rhymes. It is as though the ageless angels’ desire to speak in the 21st century is informed by a familiarity with hip hop’s sonic sense, but, given hip hop’s distance from however angels talk amongst themselves, its influence is faint. The rhythms in the lines and stanzas throughout Angelicus, though most often conversational, here and there slide between a jazzy or waltz-like vibe and a steady iambic stroll and back again. Like the rhythms, the rhymes occur deliberately yet with an accidental feel, as if the speaker-angels know humans enjoy it when words in poetry sound similar, but, being angels, they’re unencumbered by any need of conformity to human rubrics for how and when to make rhymes happen. Again, from the opening poem, the angels “confess” that their attempts to craft speech with “fluent sound / making new use of shopworn words” only manage to achieve “limited success.” But that doesn’t stop them from trying to realize whatever success they may in their divinely-ordered service to our kind.

Poetry, like all the fine arts, begins with experience, first the poet’s then the reader’s, and there is no wrong experience of art. Of course, poets would love readers to love their work. It’s a triumph when that happens. But when it doesn’t, when a reader reaches a limit, stops reading, and vows never to return, it is not a disaster. It may feel awful, but a poem’s words don’t suddenly vanish from the page. The painting doesn’t slink away in shame from the gallery wall. Art remains, and the gallery goer, the reader moves on to her next experience, making room for those who follow to encounter the artist’s work. (Need encouragement? Check out Bill Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29.”)

Speaking of shopworn, a poet’s book — say, Martin’s — is like a gallery, the poems like paintings. I always enter a gallery or book hoping for an experience that will lift me out of myself and startle me with a provocative subject, technique, or compositional feature. As I move through an exhibit, I look for the one piece I’ll award with my personal best-in-show, and then make mental note of the honorable mentions. I have never exited a gallery or book having loved or hated all the pieces. Or without a best-in-show.

So do I have a few favorite poems from D. S. Martin’s new collection? Absolutely. Are there any poems I didn’t get or like as much as my favorites? Of course. But to mention here either the fav’s or the others might ruin the experience of the next reader. And Angelicus, a tour de force of unexpected grace, is certainly worth the price of admission.