Chris Martin’s second book of poems, Becoming Weather, solidifies his reputation as one of our most sociable poets. Encountering Martin’s buoyant, casually cerebral work feels a bit like entering a party he is hosting. You, dear reader, have never met him, but when you show up at his house, he throws open the door expectantly, gives you a bear hug and a beer, and then earnestly asks you to “accompany me / through the deformations” of modern life.
Martin owes inheritance to Robert Creeley’s desire to “find company and example” in art forms and philosophical traditions outside of poetry. And like Frank O’Hara, the magnanimous sense of self in Martin’s poems is richest when refracted through encounters with friends, lovers, and random passersby. Both Becoming Weather and American Music, Martin’s award-winning 2007 debut, feature a “Chorus” of names in their final pages—from Will Oldham to Heidegger, Henry Darger to Destroyer—whose voices Martin has remixed, whose ideas and gestures he has so internalized as to become “a thoroughfare / where various energies / transact and curve.” As artifacts of this thoroughfare, his poems achieve an inimitable fusion of the citational with the expressive, producing a lyric “I” that is effervescent, genuine, and often astonished at what it can apprehend.
Martin is certainly not alone among contemporary poets in his pursuit of polyvocality, in mashing up highbrow concept and lowbrow pop-culture, or in employing multiple registers of diction. What sets him apart, though, is his keen awareness that keeping company is always a provisional affair. For Martin, each party, each project, each poem is a time-bounded collective event that gradually cumulates, finds its form, and then dissolves, only to reassemble somewhere else, in some other form, at some other time.
In American Music, this concern with the temporal takes place against the backdrop of New York, where the urban environment is crowded, everyone is moving, and no street corner is the same place twice. Martin updates the flaneur tradition for a new generation as his speaker moves through the city with a wide aperture, delivering quotidian observations with humor and panache. His form, too, is propulsive—each of the 37 poems is written in tumbling tercets of varying line lengths, with snaky syntax, a lack of punctuation except for the occasional comma, and a single period at the end of each poem.
Ultimately, American Music yearns for meaning among the ephemeral arrangements of objects and people in urban space. Martin is often, to borrow a term from Denise Levertov, “brought to speech” by perceiving the forms of relation between objects and bodies at a moment in time. Yet he remains circumspect about his role vis-à-vis this force of the present. In “I Am No Proprioceptivist,” he writes:
“ . . . it is too
Wondrous and likewise
Disconcerting—to be a thing, to be a thing
That is, that organizes other
Things into its own harmony
Or discord, sitting on a found sofa cluttered
With posies, contemplating The West”
The recognition that being embedded in a system of provisional arrangements is both wondrous and disconcerting is the point of departure for Becoming Weather, Martin’s new collection. Here he pushes his concern with temporality even further, with poems that foreground a materialist philosophy in which all bodies and all matter, like floating clouds or flocks of birds, are always “becoming” something else.
Driven by this central trope, the book’s three poem cycles prod and challenge knee-jerk affinities for balance, equilibrium, stasis, even “the present.” The poems in Becoming Weather are wildly ambitious and very smart, taking up history, war, nature and futurity. Their topical difficulty is tempered by the humility of Martin’s voice. When, for example, he writes: “If, like / electrons, we // move fast enough / in unforeseen // directions, will / we finally // appear or disappear?” one gets the sense that this is not a performative question but a direct appeal for help to his reader, his company.
There is, of course, no time for answers before Martin’s party spills out into the street, and the occasion for his next poem arises elsewhere. But the questions posed, the terrain covered, and the surety of Martin’s figurative leaps in language will stick with the reader long after encountering his work. This is the mark of a spirited poet.
I conducted the following interview with Chris Martin over email upon the publication of Becoming Weather in 2011. It has subsequently been revised.
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Ted Mathys (TM): Can you talk a bit about the title, “Becoming Weather?”
Chris Martin (CM): The title was a sort of talisman I’d been carrying around for years. When I first began to think through the concept of disequilibrium, it lead me back to this title. I’m interested in the way weather brings its constant and intimate instability to our lives, how it keeps us humble as a species that has outgrown most other humilities. I wanted to reckon with instability and, if possible, to enter it. I wanted to seek out the atmosphere of becoming.
TM: You mention instability, which is a guiding metaphor throughout these poems. Birds collect in the sky until one veers off and the whole flock “warps into rearrangement”; clouds come into being and disperse; and in the roil the poet emerges one whose words can only be momentarily “toward” those objects to which they refer. Can you elaborate on this ethic of movement?
CM: I wanted to begin with the premise that stillness was impossible. Without stillness, there is no basis on which to establish objectivity. Without objectivity, mapping the world (and its constituent bodies) into a flat concordance of facts becomes a deeply dubious activity. That’s the shift from the first poem in Becoming Weather to the second: embracing choreography over cartography. I was trying to reckon with the world itself as a dynamic body that allows for the emergence of other dynamic bodies, all of which are always becoming, and always becoming something else. This type of (un-dead) reckoning takes great attention, because it tracks moving targets, allows that the territories inevitably shift. My hope is that in tracking moments of ambiguity and engaging the body in the midst of its movements, I might discover opportunities where ethical thought could be rooted in corporeality.
TM: I thought your first book, American Music, was a smash for its humor and its panoramic vision of the American present, delivered in an unmistakable tone. In your new work the same generous voice leads us, but the poems here are decidedly more driven by ideas. You’ve framed the sections of this book around abstract concepts of disequilibrium, impermanence, progress, regress. Did you find that writing through these concepts in a deductive fashion changed your orientation to the poems?
CM: Absolutely. In American Music I found access to my voice through the close interleaving of others. In Becoming Weather I’m trying to extend that kind of intimacy to ideas. As I write in one of the poems: “I never learned to separate people from principles.” I tried to populate this book with ideas in the same way I populated American Music with people. It’s also a book about learning. I first came across the term disequilibrium while studying educational psychology. Piaget used it to locate the space where you can’t assimilate new information into your previous schema and so must adapt all previous knowledge to accommodate its novelty, where you might actually have to invent a new way of perceiving to incorporate it. Disequilibrium is the state where all true learning occurs. So I suppose this idea of the subject as perpetual learner, as off-balance student of the world, was key to my understanding of the voice and its personal relations to world and reader.
I wanted to complicate seeing as the primary mode of human experience and explore the sense of touch.
TM: In the opening sequence, “Disequilibrium,” the speaker confesses that “When I ate Alex’s last / balled-up one-dollar / bill, I was moderately / ill for several days.” As sad as they are hilarious, these lines invoke the merely “moderate” illness of the late-capitalist performance that many poems in this collection draw upon. The speaker repeatedly accepts the absurdity of the present, appropriates from it, and ultimately makes a bid for going “sincere in the blur.” Is there a redemptive quality to all this, a strange optimism?
CM: I’m thrilled you see this book as possessing a “strange optimism.” I actually included the coda, a sort of Utopian birthday self-portrait, to offset what I perceived as waning optimism in the final section. All along I maintained the premise that disequilibrium is a positive force, keeping things just enough off to keep them moving. This notion borrows from Ortega y Gasset’s Some Lessons in Metaphysics, where he outlines the “disturbance” that is at the heart of being (or becoming). To be disturbed is to stand in the blur, to negotiate each veer of becoming as it curves into view. At heart the book’s optimism springs from the possibility of re-seeing the world through this blur. And if that optimism occasionally falters, it often gives way to a sort of bodily affirmation, by which I mean there are always corporeal forces at the ready when intellect stumbles. My thinking around these issues was deeply influenced by Elizabeth Grosz, who traces the way Spinoza, Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze forge an alternative philosophical tradition that remains focused on the body. I seek out moments of intellectual frustration in the hopes they can shift into visceral epiphany. The body is a great hope, a site of friction where the frictionless, fictional surface of capitalism finally trips and staggers and gets digested, however ill it may temporarily make us. I wanted to access this corporeal friction through philosophy. Can philosophy be sincere? I think that question was part of the challenge.
TM: Each poem in “Disequilibrium” contains combinations of single lines, couplets, tercets, and quatrains, though no master pattern emerges across the frames and no single poem is entirely stable in its lineation. Did you intend this to be a formal analogue to the “dis-equilibrated” content?
CM: “Disequilibrium” was born from a failed exercise in formal stamina. When I was “done” with American Music, I was not intrinsically done with the form, and somehow I knew I’d need to test the tercet’s limit before moving on. I wrote a poem in the style of American Music, but stretched it out to some 30-odd pages. It didn’t succeed on any level, but I did manage to exhaust it. Once the conceptual framework for “Disequilibrium” was set, I decided to use this long poem as source material, cutting and slicing it into fragments. The idea was that in representing the body, we tend to anatomize it, flay it, drain it and lay it flat. The body becomes a sort of paper that gets inscribed, a grid skewered by points, and this deformation helps us assimilate the body into our various systems of knowledge and information management. With the second poem, “The Small Dance,” I wanted to bring the corpse up off the table (or wall or screen) and reify it through dance. The form begins with what’s convenient and moves to what’s dynamic. I mean, we have a shared context and history for the left margin, but is that born of necessity or convenience? I felt like it was necessary to emphasize the middle, the unmoored spaces of collision that afford disequilibrium and force us to attend differently.
TM: Why is it “abhorrent / to me to know / beforehand what a thing is / / to become”?
CM: Ethical attention necessitates not knowing; it thrives on the ambiguity brought forth by forms of the middle. From a writing perspective, not knowing where the poem will go means I have to watch and listen closely, which activates a phenomenological depth. It is in the not-knowing, the disequilibrium, where we may begin to work out the complexities of our world and our work. And all things, whether they’re children or meals or poems, should have the opportunity to surprise us and grow of their own accord. I guess what I mean is, throw out the recipe.
TM: The book’s second sequence, “The Small Dance,” begins with an epigraph from experimental choreographer and dancer Steve Paxton, who suggests that standing still is, for the human body, essentially impossible. Your poems cycle around this idea, where “the middle is not / average / it’s where things pick up / speed.” What does Paxton’s work mean for these poems, and how do you conceive of his small dance in relation to language?
CM: When we view the middle as a field of activity, then it becomes the blur I spoke of earlier. Where Cage disproved silence through his various experiments with sensory deprivation, Paxton disproved stillness through his choreographic techniques. He would ask trained, professional dancers to sit down and then slowly stand up and then attempt to stand still. An hour or so later, each dancer would realize that standing still, even for the most rigorous and agile of bodies, is an impossible task. And this epiphany is confirmed by physiology, which describes how the gravitational muscles of our backs are designed to be in constant flux. To me, these disproofs aren’t just interesting from an intellectual or aesthetic point of view; they have real implications for the way we live our lives. If balance is a specious entity, why spend your life reading self-help books and trying to find it? If we don’t begin from a point of stillness, then the “disturbing” forces we look to avoid are actually the key to our ontological grounding. Why work against this movement when you could learn to dance with it? Paxton’s work is a foundational embodiment. By this I mean that his small dance allows one to begin again in the middle of the body, in the shifting seat of corporeal knowledge. It allows the thinker to resituate her thoughts in the depths of the body, not in some objective peace and not in some utter chaos, but in the real disequilibrium that brings the body into movement with the world.
TM: At the end of each of the first two sequences in the book, a single prose poem looks back at the previous section through a clinical lens. I find it curious that these two poems, “A Short History of Order” and “Toward Corporeal Order” add up to an argument about the human body and its relationship, hashed out in allegory. What was your motivation for this shadow argument about the body in a collection that otherwise largely rejects the linearity of argumentation?
CM: There were all these ideas I had been exploring in relation to disequilibrium and the body that desired a sort of linear (and not lineated) invocation. I wanted the two poems to function like signposts for the wayward reader, giving some vector of argument without necessarily explaining the territory. The allegorical tone of the first piece developed naturally and I like to think the second one functions similarly, but with an eye on the future. I hope they speak for themselves, but if I was to give them just a little more voice, I’d say the first is a kind of pre-apocalyptic poem, tracing a certain mistake in the way we relate to the body and how that original mistake made for a deformed culture of spectacularity, where the second is the post-apocalyptic response, pointing a way forward after some global event. A new path is necessitated by the collapse of the spectacle.
TM: To continue this line, throughout the book the received notion of a stable and willful subject quietly implodes. In one poem the speaker stops trying to hold his breath and starts learning “how / it is that breath takes me.” In another poem the speaker’s eyes simply “tend to tend to / more removed entities . . . ” Both cases foreground the messiness between assumptions of voluntary bodily action and the pull of involuntary bodily tendency. Can you take a stab at answering your own question, “What is it a body does” in this respect?
CM: In the process of writing American Music, which was firm in its mode of observation, I became more and more critical of the gaze’s glut. With Becoming Weather I wanted to complicate seeing as the primary mode of human experience and explore the other senses, chief among them the sense of touch. Human culture has shaped experience toward sight; so much so that the other senses are generally in a state of atrophy. I wanted to redirect phenomenological attention toward touch and explore how a haptic quality pervades all sensing. Taste is readily and observably haptic, occurring only at the immediacy of the tongue. Hearing is a literal “beating” against the drum of our ear. The universe taps its endless song, one sound at a time, through the ear’s labyrinth. Smell, besides being inextricable from taste, is evidence that molecules from other beings are constantly entering the porosity of our bodies. So, to return to your actual question, I think a body does far more than we give it credit for. We think so little about how our bodies actually experience the world that we rarely have the opportunity to ask what it is they are doing, or what they are given to do. Among other things, I think the human body is primarily given to dance and to sing.
TM: In the final section, “This False Peace,” speed takes over and the poems become “the day thrown / to pieces.” Phrases from previous poems recur, but here the utterances are clipped and the words are blasted across the page. War and violence hover, and the idea of peace as desirable is itself interrogated. In their manic searching for a center amid all this, many poems here and throughout the book remind me of the late Bush years.
CM: The form of “This False Peace” was intended to echo the visual style of prose, while maintaining all the elisions and perforations that journalistic writing attempts to smooth over. I wanted the form to show how the “peaceful” consistency of prose and linear argument were only a false peace that deadens our affective engagement with violence and complicity. I also wanted to investigate a nagging feeling that the specter of peace is used to promote perpetual conflict. I maintain a deep skepticism in regard to the rhetoric of peace and whether peace is really possible given a historical record that demonstrates it isn’t. Do we desire peace or do we desire dominion? Until we can admit that peace, like stillness or balance, is a specious entity, our misguided desire for it will continue to boomerang back toward war. All relationships are dynamic, whether we’re talking about love or nationhood or global culture. In “This False Peace,” I was thinking toward a society of people looking to collaborate, to reciprocate, to implicate themselves in the ambiguity of otherness, which begins with recognizing the profound peacelessness of the body.
TM: The book concludes with a list of names of philosophers, musicians, and friends, under the title “The Chorus.” This chorus is also alluded to earlier ("Only lies slide / so I felt the necessity / for a chorus," and “The song is an answer / And this is a question / of forces”). What do you hope this choral “song” will accomplish?
CM: For me, the song is the answer and I’m fascinated by the way meaning is often portrayed as fled or scant or missing altogether. I see meaning everywhere, hear it everywhere. That’s the key invocation of the last poem: “Of course there / are answers / in the trees, why else / would they be / there?” What better way to communicate this fact than song, our oldest means of communication? By embedding the answers I find everywhere into a song, I’m hoping they will take seed in the songs of others. This reciprocal singing is how the chorus works for me. In Songlines, Bruce Chatwin wrote: “An unsung land is a dead land.” He was writing about the Aboriginal Australian belief that it was each person’s duty to sing the universe back into existence. I’d like to accept that duty, but not necessarily in the isolated walkabout form. I’d like to think there’s always a chorus travelling with me and I desire greatly that my work becomes a part of other choruses making their own wayward journeys.