(C&R Press, 2018)
“When I was a boy, my family and I took / long forays into the woods for berries….” These are the first lines of “Morels,” a poem from Martin Ott’s new collection, Lessons in Camouflage. Venturing out, working to connect with others — these ideas propel the book. In another poem (this time a prayer) the language sounds as though it might be inscribed beneath a wave somewhere — I mean to say that when read aloud, I hear wave rhythms around the words:
Give me the patience to not pray for painful
karma to catch up to legions of near crosswalk
crossers whose mission to save a few seconds
places everyone in danger of near catastrophe.
In “Dangers Of The Road,” the speaker tells a story about a friend who fought off a stalker. This collides with the birth of the speaker’s child, and connects the characters, extending the poem past the speaker in a kind of embrace, as in these lines: “She smashed in his skull with a rock. / Life began after my daughter was born.”
But back to the beginning now, back to, “When I was a boy.” That poem keeps on in this way for a few more lines, before being interrupted by another voice: “Mom’s body is pale, tumors nestled between / windpipe and heart…” The poem alternates between woody walks and a mother’s sickness, until eventually, these lines:
…her heart followed thoughts into
a place, a time, a new home. I always sense
something lurking beneath the ferns…”
These voices interrupt each other throughout “Morels,” a poem of leavings and disruptions that is defined also by its attempt to reconnect after such things — Ott does this in a language that seems necessary yet unhurried.
And since many of these poems are defined by interruptions, afford me a few: I recently left a weekend gathering of friends who I see twice a year if I’m lucky. On the leaving day, many of us were emotional — through the course of days, we shared stories, late-night talks, and described to one another our various challenges and fears. I don’t get that in my daily life, or rather, I don’t work at it. I was, in a sense, mourning a mini-death of what was created that weekend between us. Ott’s poems glimmer most when doing this hard work of acknowledging another person, of trying to understand. Take the poem “Stranger,” in which the speaker observes a flip-flopped man carrying a boom-box:
His destination was not my place,
but the wake was felt from the top
floor to those in utero. The song
vibrated in the office park, rattled
windows and passerby, Pied Piper
in reverse, the parting of possibilities…
Another interruption: my grandmother quilts, plays cards, stays active in her small-town community. When I was a boy I lived cross town from her, with just one stop light between us — six minutes tops. Despite this, she would wave from the front porch of her double-wide trailer when my parents and I drove away.
Ott’s book, in its undulating and clear language, is a shove in the back — see that stranger…talk with them if you can…listen, do that work…
One last interruption: I’ve never seen my grandma read a book, and she seems unreasonably happy.
Lessons in Camouflage reminds me that all books are wells to dip into for a drink, or maybe for a bucketful. Ultimately, however, they’re not the source of the good that’s to be got here. That comes from other people — Ott’s book sees this, sees others, and attends to their minutiae. Is the book well crafted? Yes. Ott collides voices and characters, and the clarity allows the sentiment within his language to glow. His book reminds me of the urgent work to be done before the leavings, or the dyings, or the takings happen — before all of this is interrupted.
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Hayden Bergman lives in Abilene, Texas. He recently completed the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.