The Spare Room by Dana Guthrie Martin
Blood Pudding Press, 2009
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom
"Visceral" just begins to describe the provocative, alternately and often simultaneously disturbing and lyrical poems in Dana Guthrie Martin's 20-poem chapbook, The Spare Room.
In the title poem, the narrator describes a "blue room" with a "parquet floor" that is the locus of personal horror, where, "After they pull me apart, they slide/ ligatures through my skin, sew me up with raffia" and, finally, "Epoxy sets what should/ be expunged. Knuckles only stop at bone."
"Chew and Choke" is even more unsettling, with lines like "Fry goat hearts in your own oils/ without using a splash guard" and "Ears full of blood/ you gum seal skins".
At their tightest, as above, the images are horrific yet compelling, but the poem ends on a welcome wry note, "Short jabs are best/ for softening tough meat".
Martin is bold with form as well as language. In "Kindly Wait for the Walls to Part Before Entering," she employs double colons to create the very effect the title suggests, a brilliant technique. Two later poems employing the same technique fall a bit flat, however, lacking the same context, but her tabular poems are more successful in negotiating form and function.
Two mythological allusions run as threads through the poems, the stories of Persephone with Hades and of Helen's abduction by Theseus, a lesser-known story than her abduction by Paris.
In the second part of "Two Seeds," "Persephone's Defense," Guthrie is understated when imagining Persephone's voice:
This is what he offered me, a single foreign fruit. I picked the insides clean, took all day to eat three seeds. Then his voice was sweeter. Then my body, a carrier of life. What we want is the unfamiliar, a story that bears repeating. What we don't know we can almost taste. Tell me you could have turned it down.
The same tone is used to describe more real-world events in the pitch-perfect "Excision" and the chapbook's final poem, "Molting Frequency," the stand-out poem for me, which begins with a simple conceit beautifully rendered, "I divide my thoughts about you/ into smaller units until there is only word,/ then syllable, then vowel sounds./ Vowel sounds curl from your mouth/ like a sheet of paper held into the wind./ The wind carries gulls like kites/ their bodies indistinguishable from air." and ends in the same way, "With me, you are a layer of beach glass./ Beach glass is taken by the water, returned./ As you are taken, as I return./ I return from the beach smelling/ like kelp but not like you."
After that poem, the first word that comes to mind to describe this poet is "versatile," and it will be interesting to see what she tries next.
Dana Guthrie Martin was a finalist for Best of the Net 2008 and was nominated for Best New Poets 2009. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, including Blood Orange Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, Coconut Poetry, Failbetter, Fence, Juked, Knockout Literary Magazine, and Weave Magazine. She writes at mygorgeoussomewhere.org and is the founder of readwritepoem.org.