BILL SCALIA Reviews
Comes Up to Face the Skies by Steve Gilmartin
(Little Red Leaves Textile Editions, 2013)
The recipe behind Gilmartin’s projects seems to be this: take five Emily Dickinson poems and rewrite them in three different versions, while keeping Dickinson’s form intact. The poems Gilmartin chooses are “Further in Summer than the Birds,” “I Dwell in Possibility,” “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers,” “Sang from the Heart Sire,” and “The Soul Selects Her Own Society.” All the poems (except for “Alabaster Chambers”) have Dickinson’s typical hymn stanza. Gilmartin might have chosen any group of like poems; I’m not sure why he specifically chose this group.
Harder to determine, though, is the poet’s attitude toward Dickinson – for it is impossible to read these poems on their own. Gilmartin’s poems not only copy Dickinson’s stanza and meter, but also her punctuation (including dashes and exclamation marks), capitalization, syntax, slant rhymes and off rhymes. The poems, then, seem not only to invite, but to require comparison. The poems are not satire (there is not a hint of Dickinson’s wit), nor strictly imitation (they seem to want to say something different), nor irony, nor response. For lack of a better analogy, they seem more like a translation – from mid-19th c English to early 21st c. (There may be some truth in this; the author’s bio lists among his works a “mistranslation of Cesar Vallejo’s Trilce”).
The book walks the thin line between meme conceptualism and derivative hubris. As a meme work, it utilizes the concept of crawling inside another poet’s work and repurposing it (that is to say, exchanging Dickinson’s cultural – such as they were – trappings with those of the 21st c; two of Gilmartin’s repurposed poems address war specifically, which Dickinson never did, even though she lived and wrote during the Civil War), but it lacks the sense of genuine curiosity one sees, for example, in Angela Genusa’s work (Genusa employs a concept and uses it to push beyond the boundaries of genre and form in perceptual terms). While Genusa will ask, What would Tender Buttons look like in computer code, and performs this task to render a visual work, one gets the sense that Gilmartin asked, What would Emily Dickinson write if she were alive today, and is so caught in the question that he never seems to escape it. One wonders whether Gilmartin might have achieved the same effect by rewriting Death of a Salesman in blank verse, for example, or On the Road in dactylic hexameter, or The Moviegoer in terza rima.
What makes this concept so tantalizing is the fact that Gilmartin renders some remarkable writing of his own, verses that would, and perhaps should, stand alone as his own work. For example, “Today is an Empire / Where weapons have Voices,” which was likely as true in 1860 as it is in 2014, is fine on its own; as is “The tongue fills her like Noon – / When worship is still warm”; “Worlds Acrh in the to star Lake.” These images hint at realties much larger than their language circumscribes and invite us into unique experiences. But I can’t help but feel I’m being asked to compare them with Dickinson’s form. Not only is the comparison unreasonable, it’s unnecessary. This is the anxiety of influence writ large, conspicuous, and not wholly escaping. In a way, if Gilmartin is acknowledging this anxiety and attempting to negate it by repurposing its damaging force, he has succeeded in negating his own skill.
This is not to say that the book is without worth. The concept is bold, and in short bursts, succeeds – as in “Alabaster Chambers” when Gilmartin translates Dickinson’s original “Diadems – drop – and Doges – surrender” into, successively, “Crowns – fallen – Dogen – surrendering,” “Crowns cascade off a Family / system Frozen in the Snow,” and finally “Drop the Crown Victorias, the Dodge.” One can see clearly here the poet enlivening the concept, not speaking for Dickinson, not speaking in Dickinson’s voice, but speaking in his own. But, in the same poem, “Alabaster chambers” becomes “the Carbonate of time,” which strikes the ear as rewriting more than new-speaking. As well, Gilmartin passes on the chance to reinterpret some of Dickinson’s most cryptic images, such as “Valves of her attention,” “members of the resurrection,” and he ignores the pelican imagery in “Sang from the heart sire.” Gilmartin’s skill as a creator of evocative images is in evidence such that I wish he had presented an homage to Dickinson rather than a rewriting of her; that is, I would rather hear Gilmartin’s voice than to rehear an repurposed Dickinson’s.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.