Dionisio D. Martínez: Climbing Back
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This is a book of contingency plans. Also a book of interstellar (and intercultural) nightmares, a crashed party called civilization. As it says about our appetite for traffic: we have been written and we've been erased., but we sprout again from cracks in the road. It suggests you try deciphering that foreign tongue in your mouth. It suggests you have been mightily distracted and might want to try to find (under conditions that are impossible, of course, or "only possible elsewhere") your way home. Where time goes when it's not in a hurry. Where thought revisits itself. Where you are the stranger you pass on the street, your own second chance. Forget gravity, being here is the only chance you have, selfhood the beginning of something insistently circular: go home. It's all a shortcut—immortality, chance, improvisation, faith; it's all uphill (Satchmo dropping his lyrics midsong) (story striking back like a snake) (rain and words scatting off each other); it's all souvenir, this tale of dazed survivals told by a child with absolute pitch, wearing a body inside out, turning the heart into a public spectacle. Heartbreaking, overstuffed, seeping with history, lonelier than imaginable and truly in-the-face of American culture, Climbing Back's debris-field of prose poems tries with all its heart to outrun cultural paradigms and ends up refining our spiritual ignorance till it's our most gorgeous attribute.

—Jorie Graham, citation for the National Poetry Series

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Every year since 1978, the National Poetry Series has published five books of exceptional contemporary poetry. The inclusion of Guggenheim Fellow Martínez's volume among its 1999 selections validates the series' commitment to extraordinary American poetry. Martínez here collects the prose poems about his character, "The Prodigal Son," that have appeared in poetry journals throughout the US, and organizes them into an elusive but fascinating commentary on life at the turn of the millennium. He places the pieces into four thematically linked sections: three describe the stages of the Prodigal Son's spiritual and intellectual journey, and one interlude speaks in the Prodigal Son's own voice. The first section tells of journeying through a fractured world in search of enlightenment; the second suggests that such quests inevitably end in frustration. The interlude dramatizes the Prodigal son's rejection of the importance of knowledge and his consequent exploration of life's mysteries. In the final section, a renewed sense of wonder leads the Prodigal Son back to his home and family. Merely to have portrayed the conundrums and paradoxes of modern life in prose poetry would have been challenge enough for any accomplished poet, but Martínez's deft guidance of the Prodigal Son through this psychic minefield into a final haven of peace and understanding marks his collection as one of the most important new works of poetry this year.

Kirkus Reviews [starred review]

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Kind of an Everyman, yet very much his own man only, the Prodigal Son of Dionisio Martínez's book-length series dances and slinks, exults and sorrows, through prose poems of such jazzily beckoning density that they hold, in their compression, the passions we'd otherwise find in a loaded shelf-full of classic American novels.

—Albert Goldbarth

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A winner of the 1999 National Poetry Series chosen by Jorie Graham, Cuban-born Martínez's collection of prose poems is a surrealistic Bildungsroman, a journey through shifting dimensions of consciousness and experience that surprises with nearly every sentence. Using the transparent persona of the Prodigal Son as a quasi-narrative tool, Martínez draws on philosophy, literature, history, popular culture, and jazz to fashion, in the manner of John Ashbery, meditations that follow a dream-logic at once disjunctive and strangely coherent. Miles Davis meets T.S. Eliot on a dark street and Jimi Hendrix invokes Kierkegaard, but the connections never seem forced. By turns clever ("Light is the involuntary subtext when the topic is refraction"), witty (interpreters are "charged with numerous accounts of attempting to obstruct a literal translation"), and moving ("In exile, home is a story that breaks your fall from grace"), Climbing Back shimmers with imaginative energy and generous—if often oblique—insights. Martínez is a true original of formidable talents.

—Fred Muratori, Library Journal

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Chosen for the National Poetry Series by Jorie Graham, this intensive collection of prose poems uses elements as disparate as literature, philosophy, history, jazz, and popular culture to forge a surreal, wildly inventive march through contemporary civilization. Many poems feature the Prodigal Son, the Cuban-born author's alter ego, who like Zbiegniew Herbert's Mr. Cogito has a series of arresting encounters that might be described as zany if they weren't so thought-provoking and cuttingly apt in their depiction of modern discontents.

—Barbara Hoffert, Book Reviews Editor, Library Journal,
    Best Poetry of 2000

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These muscular prose poems present the Prodigal Son as Zeno's arrow—always approaching, never arriving. Here boundaries are not so much crossed as stepped into and found to have their own expansive and confounding properties. Each title posits the Prodigal Son in a specific cultural location—"The Prodigal Son gives blood," "The Prodigal Son on a bus in New Delhi"—but each poem spirals crazily away from its seed-site. The stacked density of the sentences makes it impossible to read ahead, ensuring that the reader will be as surprised as the protagonist of "The Prodigal Son forgives his brother" when he learns from a shoe-boxed cricket "to speak Cricket the way some singers learn to sing in a foreign language: phonetically and with complete ignorance." The wondrousness of these poems derives not just from their "plot" twists but from their language. Martínez's gift for metaphor and phrasing dresses skill as serendipity; in one instance, "every cypress in the marsh kneels like a bride." Improbably, this poet's self-involved, frequently self-inverting universe provides context for the kind of truth-telling statement most contemporary poetry resists. Thus the most shocking moments of this book come not from the outer orbitals of Postmodern unlikelihood but from epigrammatic lines like "a farewell is merely an unfinished greeting finally put to rest." This volume is further girdered by its continuous thematic puzzling over the discontinuities of time, history, and personal experience. As a result of the book's sheer stamina, the Prodigal Son comes to occupy, however briefly, nearly every conceivable position in the global society he frequents. He is less exile, then, than Everyman—an example of our human dizziness, our singular selfhoods imperiled yet vitalized by investment in plural identities. "This brings us to the body, a single unanimous body wearing itself inside out."

—Joyelle McSweeney, Boston Review

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Perhaps the best thing about Climbing Back, Dionisio Martinez's fourth book of poems, is that it reveals the Cuban-born, Tampa Bay poet to be a very real friend of metaphor. Too often, many poets concerned with the same issues Martinez explores—perspective, language, similarity and difference—reduce their poems to a certain literalness or uniformity that tastes like "global culture." They either limit their concerns to just the surface of a text, or they let conventional assumptions about the transparency of language go unquestioned. Martinez, however, begins by assuming that embracing metaphor means embracing multiplicity; multiple meanings and multiple voices go hand in hand.

Multiplicity, however, frequently makes for "overlapping and contradictory theories" that make us wonder whether, metaphorically speaking, "the dots can still be connected." And Climbing Back digs deep into what Martinez at one point calls "disharmony." The very fact that this is a book of "prose poems"—a form made of apparent opposites—seems to embody how "overlapping and contradictory" ideas can and do exist.

Martinez also gives a nod to surrealism, which claims multiple ways of viewing the world, and he uses anachronisms and parables to explore the ways in which "disharmony can be a blessing" after all.

If all of this sounds fairly cerebral, well, it is, and Martinez makes no excuses for it.

Rather than simply providing a "strip of pop wisdom," as one of the poems suggests, Climbing Back argues that reading isn't passive osmosis at all but, rather, a very real act of meaning making. After "disharmony can be a blessing," for example, he adds, "Just imagine:" leaving the sentence unfinished to effectively invite the reader to complete the poem on his or her own. For readers assuming that "the ideal poem [is] a transparent pipeline of emotion," as poet/critic Alice Fulton has put it, this can be a difficult endeavor indeed.

The title of every poem invokes the biblical character of the prodigal son, which ends up making this a book of parables about exile and hopeful return. Martinez fills the poems with all sorts of debris from our culture: Miles Davis, the grassy knoll, Las Vegas and planned obsolescence as well as philosophy, religion, art, math and astronomy. And by having a "Prodigal Son" negotiate these details as one would sort out the nuances of metaphor or multiple perspectives, Martinez implies that actively examining our culture's debris lands us in exile as well—physically, perhaps, but emotionally, psychologically and intellectually as well.

There are some difficult poems in Climbing Back, which was selected by Jorie Graham as a winner in the 1999 National Poetry Series Competition. But then Martinez sets out to do some difficult work.

"There is a wealth of possibilities on the cutting room floor," he writes in The Prodigal Son edits a newsreel. And it doesn't hurt us any to help sort them out.

—Mike Chasar, The St. Petersburg Times

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Climbing Back is a collection of complete yet accessible, surprising, emotionally charged prose poems by Dionisio Martínez, one of our most consistently interesting mid-career poets. An engaging and satisfying work on a number of levels, the book works beautifully as a collection of individual poems and as a set of intricately linked lyrics whose whole feels greater than the sum of its parts. In their wide, enthusiastic embrace, these poems might serve as a refreshing antidote to the cloying monotone of so much contemporary American poetry.

The prose poem becomes here a vehicle for lyric thought, a vessel for containing and controlling the improvisational dance of poetry—and not, as some have charged, merely another example of contemporary poetry's formal laziness. These poems, in fact, articulate a robust engagement with the inner and outer worlds, with science and culture, politics and pleasures of daily life. And, unlike most prose poems, they sing. They do what good poems have always done: engage imaginatively with the real world and in doing so allow us to see and feel in ways that are familiar and surprising, expressing insights that carry a frisson of recognition that moves and charges us.

The Prodigal Son appears in each of these poems, unifying the book. He observes the mundane and the profound in "The Prodigal Son and the Two Sinatras," "The Prodigal Son Edits a Newsreel" and "The Prodigal Son Buys a New Car," among others. In this wide, nearly Whitmanesque embrace, we see the world in fragments that connect to other fragments that finally create experience.

The works leap daringly from image to image, ultimately making sense in a way that cannot be paraphrased, cannot be reduced to any language other than their own:

From "Bees": "There's a mathematical illusion that, if performed correctly, makes two halves mirror one another. We've seen enough disparities within the whole to know better. Some female bees mate only once. Carrying enough sperm for a lifetime, they continue to reproduce without further need for the male. Don't let the well-stocked shelves of the hardware store fool you: the part you need is never available. This is why the house deteriorates: hairline cracks appear, compromising the integrity of the structure, and your solution is another coat of paint. Door frames buckle and the doors never shut comfortably again. In one species of the mining bee, some females are never inseminated because their work is more valuable than any possible offspring. Pipes burst, filling the basement with water, and you can't find the right joint."

As strong and various as contemporary American poetry is, our poems too rarely challenge with language or ideas; they even more rarely engage us with the force of revelation. And it is revelation that Martínez is after here, an ambition that sets his book apart. From "The Prodigal Son Forgives His Brother": "When summer gets too loud, they collect crickets. They put them in a box and give them leaves to eat. And poke holes in the boxnot to let them breathe, as one might reasonably assume, but to be able to see what goes on inside. In one of those rare moments when bewilderment binds the two boys, they peek through holes at opposite ends of the box and wink at each other."

As Jorie Graham says in her introduction, these poems take us "where time goes when it's not in a hurry. Where thought revisits itself. Where you are the stranger you pass on the street, your own second chance." It's a journey well worth embarking on.

—Michael Hettich, The Miami Herald

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Reason is the self-sufficient animal that devours itself in order to survive.
—from "The Prodigal Son confronting Zeno's paradoxes"

I see a lot of movies, maybe too many, but I have no doubt that the way movies tell stories has changed how we look at stories and interpret them. In Psycho we see a murder reduced to a series of shots in a bathtub; in Gandhi we see a man's life reduced to three hours, a figure sitting on a porch with a loom. Movies tell their stories in a smooth, two-dimensional evocation of emotion that rarely references the world outside; for example, a film might tell a story by showing a man walking across a field, and then creating the context in which that action is coherent.

But movies do not effectively evoke the culture, or show a response to culture, because that references the life of the mind which is outside the emotional life of the movies. Nor is culture a frequent subject of the modern poetry I have read, as the poems are often so caught up with the writer-speaker's responses and inner, idiosyncratic world that their statements cannot be generalized to the world outside.

Dionisio D. Martínez's Climbing Back is an epic-poetic-cinematic response to culture, a one-book shorthand to the 20th century and beyond, a series of responses to the world that are imaginative rather than reductive, that seek to show the connection between phenomena as diverse as John Cage and a Dallas grassy knoll, or Mobius and Ferris, the inventor of the Ferris wheel. To admit there is such a connection requires a sturdy imagination, but in a movie-obsessed culture—one that is glutted with images, ideas, names, histories, lies, rumors, myths, et al .—the truth becomes not an end in itself but a process, a sort of endless vacation from passivity, a license to examine not only what culture is one icon at a time, but then to combine them into stories. In Climbing Back Martínez uses snippets of situation—a conquered country, a bribed fortune teller, Zeno's paradoxes and the Biblical character of the prodigal son—as frames on which to hang his views of history, both a personal history and the history of culture. The effect is dazzling and a little overwhelming: the sense, so familiar in modern life, that too much is happening and I had better think fast or I'll be left behind. The effect is also frequently breath-taking:

The Prodigal Son is caught off guard
by planned obsolescence

A broom. The soles of his boots. The tires of his car, erasers, chalk, pencils, lead in the pencils. An ice sculpture. Stones in a river. Grain, millstone. Nothing strikes him until he comes across the man who sharpens blades for a living—scissors, axes, knives, cleavers. There's a perilous dance, a thing like courtship and sex and the wild disagreements of youth between the blade and the whetstone: their reciprocal losses will amount to so little, or to so much, in the end. He walks on. A bar of soap. A rooster's beak, a hammer's claw. His own teeth. A pterodactyl. The steps between the square and the old cathedral. Inside the cathedral, a column pilgrims have been coming to touch for too many years. Very softly, with the tips of their fingers. The holes in the column show what centuries of tenderness will do. The fingernails of the living. Starlight. Sleep. Innocence. A hoe, a scythe, a pasture.

In her preface, Jorie Graham (who chose the book as Norton's 1999 contribution to the National Poetry Series) says Climbing Back is "Heartbreaking, overstuffed, seeping with history, lonelier than imaginable and truly in-the-face of American culture." To that I would add that it is a guidebook rather than a map: it tells you the big places but not how to get there, assuming you are capable of getting there on your own.

—Susan Hussey, Organica

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In the surreal prose poems of Dionisio D. Martínez's Climbing Back, anything is possible: A magician lifts a scarf to reveal a hypothesis; a pomegranate "bites back"; "crumbs of sound snap off until the air is empty"; and "the world keeps falling through the holes in my eyes." Those odd visions are produced by the imaginative wanderings of the Prodigal Son, Martinez's lonely protagonist.

Throughout the book, there are free-association encounters with various famous figures, dropped into incongruous, often amusing contexts: Frank Sinatra, Salvador Dalí, Jimi Hendrix and Andy Warhol, among others. In one of the book's finest poems, the Prodigal Son watches Miles Davis run into TS. Eliot on the street: "Maybe it's an alley, but this is not important. They brush against each other. One of them mutters something, the other looks away. This is very important."


Martínez's cerebral ruminations and dazzling wordplay might intimidate some readers initially, but it's worth reading on. These strange poems are surprisingly moving.

—Carmela Ciuraru, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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