Believing is not the same as Being Saved. Lisa Martin. Robert Kroetsch Series. University of Alberta Press. Edmonton, Alberta. 2017.
Believing is not the same as Being Saved is a quietly elegant book of poems. Lisa Martin comes to Today's book of poetry with a book ten years in the making. You can see and feel the meticulous care Martin has taken in crafting these poems, constructing this book.
This is yet another case of Today's book of poetry feeling our skill set is not quite up to the task. How can I explain how the universe of each Martin poem is a self contained marvel or how collectively these myriad universes meld into one clear, constant gaze? Lisa Martin has some serious jam.
Believing is not the same
as being saved
The summer I was fifteen a girl at my church camp
fell from the high rock where she'd been lying
in the sun. I heard the news on the phone
which rang in a room where I was trying to die
without technically killing myself: it was an age
at which much of what we did passed as pleasure
but was actually terror. The girl who fell punctured
the room with a question: is this really what you
want? Her scream loud enough to travel
an hour's hike away to where the tanned, shirtless
boys' counsellor dressing by the fire recognized
its message. He ran the entire distance in bare feet,
a pair of worn shorts, sweat rising to the surface.
He was a teenager himself -- each footfall
bearing him toward the absolute far edge of youth,
strength. he gathered her in his arms, carried her
body to camp, despite everything. He ran, even then,
though what compelled him had altered, though his
muscles changed, became the animal necessity
we need to get through. Her death cradled to him
like the child of his own he would one day hold, and no
doubt, love. The news came, in the room where I sat,
and then went. And did I gain courage? I knew
the exact quality of light on the surface of that rock.
Each night at camp, the year before, I'd walked
silent amidst the roving beams of flashlights
on the same trail of mulch, moss, rock, not knowing
the choice I would one day run toward, then --
irrevocably, turn from. After that, I absorbed
air, knowledge, like dew -- testing God against
all better judgment. I started thinking that summer
of cedar bark and stones, the texture of the path
beneath the feet of the boys' counsellor as he
ran -- I believe he felt everything -- carrying her
death and love with his body as only the
living can. I flicked off a switch that summer
as I walked. I wanted to understand
darkness, the quality of my heart:not light,
but spark. Even then, the path I was on
extended far past the limit suggested
by the way the path curved gently toward
the bright fire, voices singing softly
in darkness not inflected yet with the cry
of her voice falling impossible through air that
couldn't catch her. Even now, what I want most
isn't to walk past that song into knowledge.
Believe me: I want to sing, despite
everything. I want to believe
we all could be saved.
Birth, death, love, loss - yep, they're all in Believing is not the same as Being Saved as bold as brass and writ large. Martin understands that much of life is a paradox, that joy and sorrow are birds dancing on the same high wire. Martin is trying to concern herself with how one lives a good life, how one becomes a good person. Today's book of poetry has always thought this a noble and worthy pursuit.
Luckily for us Martin is completely up to the task. Reading these poems we know, we see, that Martin is striving for a stab at truth in each and every one of these lyric narratives. Martin is systematic and as cool as a cat with a bird in her mouth. These poems are ready to bargain you to another place, just like Bukowski's Mockingbird.
Dancing the path to understanding
Sitting in the audience tonight listening to strings
rub strings in the dark like the frenzied wings of insects
who want to mate -- and, so, survive. Though you
aren't here the memory of you is flickering in me
like filaments in light bulbs at the VIA Rail station
this morning where I left you before the sun
even rose all lit up against the dark. I'm here:
the train you're on is stopped on the tracks
squandering moonlight; I'm watching Pascal
the Quebecois fiddler working with his feet
to artfully dislodge the desired feeling, dancing
the path to understanding, like a bee before bees,
while I regard, from behind, the dark heads
of the others closest to me. Heads still as
stone monuments, yet acute with compound
longing. I'm told lens-bearing-eyes
have evolved at least seven times, so perhaps
there is still something missing, something
we do not yet see. I close my eyes
to listen, to isolate the message, that nectar
we only find if someone else waggles
revelation. That practiced disclosure, art,
is what we live on; it's what we eat, how
we love; it's what all the work sometimes
miraculously amounts to, yet doesn't
guarantee. How hard it is to break through
noise into music. The fiddle's yearning is not lonely
in the darkness but accompanied by bass
notes, the heart's acoustic strum; sadness
like ours isn't empty but filled with what
surrounds it -- as a dance contains
the path it cannot name.
The Todays' book of poetry offices are a little different today. Visiting poets Justin Million and Elisha Rubacha are currently snoring in the Stuart Ross Poetry and Guest Room so the rest of us are trying to keep our vibrant hum to a minimum. We have the stereo on low. This morning it is Saint Charles of Parker and Lady Day, the sublime Billie.
Today's book of poetry was recently gifted two large boxes of poetry, mostly Canadian. After culling through and finding more than a dozen treasures - we left the boxes on the floor of our office for any visiting poet to romp through and take what they please. Justin and Elisha loaded up upon arrival last night, they are in town for the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair which is taking place this afternoon. They both read at the gala last night.
Everyone in our offices enjoys taking home new poetry so the arrival of the boxes, much like that of Million and Rubacha, was like Christmas.
But there isn't much celebrating in Today's book of poetry offices this week with the departure of Odin to greener poetry pastures. As Lisa Martin helps us to remember, helps us understand, there are as many different types of loss as there are methods of grieving.
The office troops rallied when we opened up Believing is not the same as Being Saved. Kathleen, our Jr. Editor, opined that Martin was "a new kind of feminist" so of course we had to ask what she meant. Kathleen replied that Martin was a "pragmatic realist and subterranean subversive at the same time."
The troops did rally, Odinless, for an engaged morning read of Believing is not the same as Being Saved as we danced Ms. Martin around the room. You wouldn't instantly get that these poems are so robust because Martin's smart might be confused for delicate. Martin is no such thing. She is detailed, precise and certain.
Some of what we know about airports in the
Some of what we know about winter light and the flight of birds
or waiting in long queues of astonishingly ordinary people
like us, or whom we could love, or wouldn't want to. I guess I've been
heartbroken a long time without knowing it -- we do this. Go without
knowing as if the content of our propositions has anything to do
with the great fire fuelled by God-knows-what that's bruised
the horizon. Just as the flare of the refinery and all violent
condemnation makes a bruise in the heart of this terrified world.
Maybe the thing each of us doesn't want to believe in
is what fuels us, our guilt and love fluttering where the walls
meet the ceiling like those birds that live in airports disoriented
by light and warmth they can't leave, even if it doesn't nourish them.
The birds arrive as we do, through the boarding tunnels:hungry,
carrying everything we need, or believed we do, or the one thing
we were able to find. The birds are usually sparrows and enjoy
the plants and the water features, like us. It's only cold in here
because the sun's turned away. House sparrows tolerate the noise
well but suffer, in the end, from lack of darkness. Most of us have
seen them congregating up there, singing to a sky that won't be
reached by available means. Maybe we know only what we must.
Scourge of janitors, those charged with keeping up appearances, birds
can be found by attentive travellers everywhere from Edmonton to Singapore.
Inside anything, at any time:locate a container for something strange.
Geocaching in airports has reached an all-time high, despite the fact
enthusiasts are still taking more than they every put back. Most airports
sport massive viewing windows, but hardly anyone's looking through.
Even so, the sun rises over tarmac. But if you know anything
you know this. You know it's not the sun that turns away.
Today's book of poetry was newly smitten by the writing of the talented Lisa Martin and can only hope we don't have to wait another ten years to read the follow-up to Believing is not the same as Being Saved. We are certain it will be worth the wait but less sure we have another ten years in us.
Lisa Martin, get to work, and thank you.
ABOUT THE AUTHORLisa Martin. Award-winning poet, essayist, and editor Lisa Martin is the author of One Crow Sorrow (2008) and co-editor of How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood, and Loss (2013). She teaches literature and creative writing at Concordia University of Edmonton.
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