By Jim Kates
Flame in a stable admits the reader into engaged life in a poetically literate, deep, familiar, passionate, playful, and witty voice.
Flame in a stable by Martin Edmunds. Arrowsmith Press, 114 pages, $20.
Several poems by Martin Edmunds in Flame in a stable remind me perhaps too closely of those of Tatiana Shcherbina, the first Russian poet I ever translated: less word-driven than word-whipped, with associations of sounds falling on top of each other in their attempt to ‘be dragged and move the reader along:
(Martin Edmunds, “Morpho”)
(Tatiana Shcherbina, “Thallus”, my translation)
So, of course, I love them. I want to spout them out loud, like one spouts Dylan Thomas before having the faintest idea what he’s really talking about. But there’s a caveat here: the whipped word can also be word-drunk, even – perhaps especially – in the poems we love. The sheer exuberance of it all can divert the urgency of content into somersaults. A first reading of Flame in a stable raise my guard. A second reading overwhelmed all my defenses. These are poems to which I will return, more and more vulnerable each time.
Edmunds’ words and lines are indeed “safe / like a flame in a stable”, able to ignite in a conflagration that turns fodder into explosive and sends horses rushing. But then, among them, there are more thoughtful, gentler pieces, those that soothe the horses and lead them safely through the smoke:
Here, where the sound compulsions (“Winterfat turns into a whisper”) draw attention less to themselves and more to the poem as a whole, the reader is invited to deepen his reflection, to withdraw from the admiration spectacular. There are a lot of them, and they often end with the same kind of backstitch as “Ice” “The life I loved/didn’t love me back”, which might seem easy in less controlled hands, but which are well deserved. here. If I could, I would quote the poem-list in its entirety”With us“, ending with lines that turn the ease of pop song into a silent triumph:
The flames that burn brightest in this stable rage against the extinguishing of the light in the first section – “Talk about boring! I do not want to die. They burn the personal with the political in the second:
The controlled passion of this domesticated voice culminates in Part V, a long elegy “For Johnny” (echoing a shorter funeral poem, “The Twenty-Twentieth Year of Our Lord” at the beginning of the book) which would not have could never have been written by a Russian. , steeped in American history that spans Vietnam all the way to Covid.
One of the advantages of mannered language like Edmunds’ is that it protects the writer (and reader) both from the dangers of discursive confessional journalism masquerading as verse and from an attitude prissy form for form. These poems are different. Flame in a stable admits me into committed life in a poetic, literate, ambitious, familiar, passionate, playful and witty voice – what more could you ask for?
J. Kates is a poet, journalist and critic, literary translator and president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia. His latest book is Paper-thin skin (Zephyr Press), a translation by Kazakh poet Aigerim Tazhi.