(Kenmore, NY: BlazeVOX [books], 2019)
If the chronicle of the political spectacle of the past several years has had the feel and texture of running one’s fingers over a rough, opaque blanket covering what is categorized as hard reality — the cloth bristling and harsh to the touch, the things underneath sensed and feared but not identifiable or redeemable — then Martin Ott’s poetry collection titled Fake News Poems is the aesthetic equivalent of trying nevertheless to visualize what lies beneath the blanket. It is poetry in its best form: ineffable interrogator, ethicist and chronicler of history. Ott, after serving in the U.S. military, has published eight books of fiction and poetry, and his first two collections of poems won the De Novo and Sandeen Prizes. His work has appeared in hundreds of magazines and more than twenty anthologies. In this collection, the “discovery” made possible by poetry rather than so-called “true stories” versus “fake news” places the very idea of “news” — which is, at best, no more nor less than novelty as the most jaded thing in the world — in permanent jeopardy as always potentially or actually “created.” And yet, in the slippage and space between potential and actual, Ott detects traces of the marvelous and miraculous as ultimately inseparable from the truths we need to live by. In the marvelous and miraculous status of all “truth,” Ott is saying, is our hope and indeed our salvation. Poetry is our best vehicle, maybe all we have, to speak Truth to Power. On the other hand, more lies are all we get when we allow ourselves to be disenchanted by “news.”
Few “current affairs” topics of contemporary relevance and momentous significance are left out of this collection. On the one hand there are dirges for the earth and environmental disasters, the terrors of CRISPR-cas9 technology, stories about playboy plutocrats who are literally turning into the glittering color of the object of their greed, and walls exiling humanity; on the other hand there is a running thread of mourning for personal instability like splitting of families, loosening of bonds between loved ones, and a woman claiming to be a mermaid. Who is to say that the last is not as “true” a story as all the other hard-lived, palpable experiences and events that are tarred as “fake news”? After all, the poems seem to be asking, where is the sharp cut between true and fake when, “belief is the paralyzing absence of fear.” Unerringly, scrupulously adjusting his tools to his tune, Ott reminds us again and again — in free verse, blank verse and occasional clip-clopping rhyming quatrains — of the essential instability, even precarity, of “truths” we live by or think of as unavoidable as well as unassailable. “You don’t hate the crew. / You hate the cries of those carried away” relentlessly points to the increasing banality of unchecked bureaucratic aggression that has become “normal,” in “the land of just one winner.”
Especially evident is the pure outrage and invective against the barely disguised “stewardship” of America. In “You’re Fired” — its allusion has to be obvious to most — there is no soft-pedaling in the cataloging of atrocities. A quote to make the point:
The man asked if we would pledge
loyalty, but we are not expensive toys to be fondled
and destroyed. He tells you that you are rusted and he can
find the oil to free you. The man launches
flying monkeys and writes his name in the sky,
on buildings, in a binder that you hope does not
hold your name. He wants to send you packing
if you disagree, if you were here first, if you’re sick
and infirm, if you remember how things were.
With seemingly effortless elegance, Ott chisels away at the baseboards and foundations of our concepts of “progress” and our coming to easy terms with it. The history of political satire is long and vibrant, and Ott joins a long line of classical, neo-classical and modern poets in pointing out the nakedness of the Emperor. His poetry is sharp as a blade, and his disjunctural imagery forces us to sit up and take notice of the incongruities and absurdities often touted as “news” while the truth becomes “fake” on journalistic dashboards and cutting tables.
“This is a love poem to the apocalypse,” Ott begins in “They Will Be Met With Fire and Fury Like the World Has Never Seen.” As described above, the personal always closely, fearfully, skirts the political, hence the apocalypse of the saber-rattling god is not far from the apocalypse of the mad scientist god. Excruciatingly poignant verse captures the latter apocalypse, while “We take a pen / to wars and swords to prophets to scrub / the tales and stains, the endless edits of pain. / The desire to overwrite hereditary traits / could unravel the history of unspoken / regrets in a love letter for our children.” Ott captures the many ways our kind is hurtling toward many apocalypses in our desire for “purity,” “perfection,” and “progress.”
No one could be more entitled to circle around this question than someone who has seen battle and destruction and the crumbling of the human spirit close up. As such a person, Martin Ott takes on Establishments and their duplicities, and brings the axe down on them to the rhythms and rhymes of wit, compassion, rage and cynicism all at once. Here’s a genuine bard, chanting indefatigably so we may wake up and reckon with the sublime and seductive terrors of our times, as well as the beauty of hope, ruthlessly separating the “true” from the “fake.”
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Nandini Bhattacharya has been writing fiction — mainly short stories and novels— for several years. She has received residencies and fellowships at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop, the Sarah Lawrence Summer Writers’ Workshop, the Southampton Summer Writers’ Conference, The Voices of Our Nation Arts Writing Workshop, the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop in Paris, and the Vermont Studio Center (July 2019). She has published three short stories and her novel manuscript titled Love’s Garden is under review; a second novel manuscript is in progress. Recently she was chosen as the first runner-up for the Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction contest (2017-2018), as a finalist for the Fourth River Folio Contest for Prose Prize (2018), and was long-listed for the Disquiet International Literary Prize (2019).