From swans with amputated purple wings, to a gnome with a hairlip, to a tired unicorn dreaming “of yelling schoolboys, Plato badly digested,” Pierre Martory's collection The Landscapist: Selected Poems is certainly one of the most unusual and intriguing books of contemporary poetry.
In his introduction to the bilingual collection, American poet John Ashbery writes that he decided to translate Martory “after I began to realize that his marvelous poetry would likely remain unknown unless I translated it and brought it to the attention of American readers.” Ashbery, sometimes under the playful guise of Jonas Berry, has translated many other French writers and poets but none with the exception of Martory and Pierre Reverdy of whom this reviewer can say “there is nobody like him.”
When Sheep Meadow Press published a substantial collection of Martory's poetry in 1994, The Landscape Is Behind the Door, also translated by Ashbery, reviews and publication began to appear in Poetry, American Poetry Review, and the New Yorker. Invitations to read came and, by Ashbery's account, Martory took particular pleasure in a poster at the Institut Français in Boston that billed him as a great poet still undiscovered by the French.
Yet fourteen years later, Martory's work remains relatively unknown on both sides of the Atlantic, despite Ashbery's best efforts. The obscure nature of the poems may, in part, account for the obscurity of the poet: “I was trying to find at the base of my cerebral convolutions / The word poem / And I always found chocolate.” But just as a reader must take time to read each line, so each poem took time to come into being: “I was trying desperately to think of something / That had never occurred to me before.” In this Poundian quest for the new, the poems risk sounding ridiculous, random, bizarre: “Monsters with armored wheels pillage the asphalt” and “great naked assassins stationed at the corner of the wallpaper far from swooning shepherdesses.”
What saves these poems from the absurd is the careful, seemingly careless way the mind drifts and, more than often, leaps, through a poem written by Martory. We follow Martory from a line such as “[m]y mother's bedroom has flowered wallpaper / Wallpaper with paper flowers” to “My mother will abort a black and red prince / A gnome with a hairlip” and we leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known. This leap to the unknown part of the mind lies at the center of Martory's work. This leap gives the poems their surreal quality.
As the collection proceeds in order of composition, the poems retain their surrealness but also become more emotionally charged: “Where I looked for you your face didn't exist. / I held out hands of trust or sympathy / But you hid your eyes the keys to your soul.” As one reviewer wrote in response to Martory's work: “While Ashbery claims the poems are sui generis, with just faint echoes of Rimbaud or Char, they seem to me, like most contemporary French poetry, firmly in the symbolist-surrealist tradition.” But unlike the French surrealists, Martory longs for leaps with feeling, and this aligns him more with the Spanish tradition of Federico Garcia Lorca and César Vallejo, which explores the emotions of the unconscious:
Under the elm for a long time
I've been waiting for you, O my soul.
Weeks follow each other like books
Perused, my thoughts elsewhere.
Sometimes these poems demand a small leap or many small leaps, or a large leap that defies apparent logic. Martory's use of mental fragmentation as theme and method, of joining images and statements together in a symbolist, not syntactical manner, is a technique that he also shares with his American influences, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot among others; however, the voice is uniquely his own.
Ashbery and Martory met in March 1956, Ashbery having recently arrived in France on a Fulbright scholarship. They soon moved in together, but a year or so passed before Ashbery learned enough French to read Martory's work: “I was also reading other contemporary and classical French poetry, and as I became familiar with its tropes, it began to strike me that [Martory's] was quite different.” Martory's poetry bears a striking resemblance to Ashbery's, especially in his use of the non sequitur (if you read Martory and Ashbery closely enough, you often can trace a parallel in how they reach their conclusions). But who borrowed from whom it is difficult to say. The two lived together for nine years and Martory, on the rare occasion that he did share his poetry, shared only with Ashbery. If not for Ashbery, neither an American nor French readership would have Martory. But perhaps the inverse is also true: Ashbery's work owes an undeniable debt to the work of Martory. One reviewer, for example, wrote of The Tennis Court Oath. Ashbery's 1962 collection dedicated to Martory, that some of the poems “were so dense and allusive, and so full of wild leaps and jarring discontinuities, that they should have come with a surgeon general's warning. Reading them gave you a headache.” Ashbery said in an interview that his aim was “to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about.” The same, as we see in this stunning collection, can be said of Martory:
He says I look at you like the image of myself
He says I am the mirror and the two sides of the mirror
He says You belong to me as I own myself
He says I don't want to be yours or mine
Jeannie Vanasco is an assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly. Her poems and reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Christian Science Monitor, Standpoint, and elsewhere.