Juxtaposition is finished: Ian Martin’s Climbing Out of Other Peoples Hands

ian martin other peoples hands

Climbing Out of Other Peoples Hands
Ian Martin (website), In/Words, 2016
$7 (Buy here)

Archive of Google Searches from August 2013

instructions on opening yourself up
instructions on cutting yourself open
top five safest methods of self-surgery
ways to clean dried hand lotion off a human heart

protective covers for important organs
materials stronger than skin and bone
is it possible to lacquer organic matter
is it possible the heart cannot withstand being protected

is there anything inside my body worth keeping safe
utilitarian body modifications
heart shaped box site:amazon.ca
literal heart shaped box site:amazon.ca -nirvana

is the heart just layers caked on something hidden underneath
is the heart just layers all the way down
can i tear the heart out and start over
can i tear the heart out and start over -lyrics

is a heart made out of anything but other people’s hand lotion
best types of hand lotion
places to buy hand lotion
places to buy hand lotion ottawa

Google is today’s Delphic oracle. We ask the white cave our questions, and the answers come in a garble of collective talk the search bots help us make sense of. Not just the direct stuff about restaurants and slime mould, but the existential: am I sick? How can I be healed? A search history is as naked as a transcription of a prayer. Consider what you find typing a few of poet Ian Martin’s queries into the engine yourself: through “instructions on cutting yourself open,” you’ll find an 8-step guide to wrist-slitting that gently outlines the process before concluding “Nothing is worth dying for, and there are many people who want to offer help and love to you“;  from “is the heart just layers caked on something hidden underneath,” a story about previous iterations of the Mona Lisa discovered beneath its surface. Perhaps every question has already been asked, but the more idiosyncratic and personal ones still force the search algorithms to spill out junk like a gutted tiger shark. It watches what you click and files that information away, that it might give the next seeker a better answer. It’s not a great leap to see an analogy to writing poetry in that.

In a Weird Canada interview last year, poet Jacob McArthur Mooney talks about the effect on young poets of growing up immersed in the web. I’ll quote it at length:

“I think that [“millennial” poets are] so used to the repetitive smashing together of cultural products: near and far, high and low, old and new, that the reach of their metaphors can be so much more ambitious and natural than for poets born even a few years earlier. A lot of this is the internet but it’s also the Internet of Thoughts, you know. It’s how those technological gadgets reconfigure the brain if you’re young enough to be born into them. Juxtaposition is finished, I think, it doesn’t exist anymore. So you get crazy shit happening out there with people like Kayla Czaga and Michael Prior and Vincent Colistro (or Jessica Bebenek or Liz Howard or all those people in Vancouver) where an amount of figurative reach that might seem showy or performative for even our more culturally-literate older poets (McGimpsey, Rogers, Babstock) just flow off the tongue and there’s no ta-dah attached, it’s just culture speaking.”

I think that’s as good an explanation as any of why Martin’s writing works so well. Another poet’s take on “Archive…” might’ve leaned harder on the irony of a tender, melancholy lyricism being mediated by an indifferent technology, with the search-speak asides (“site: amazon.ca” etc.) representing a clash or threat. In Martin’s hands though, the emotionalism and the punchlines are of a piece, both ironic, both sincere. Any web user can relate to how imperceptibly the poem slides from existential crisis to banal distraction. It’s a tone that’s all over Climbing Out of Other Peoples Hands—a wry, accepting sadness that understands things don’t have to be okay all the time for a person to get along.

That naturalism is what marks the collection’s standout poems, “Leander Makes the World’s First Kickstarted Journey into Space” and “Leucates Prepares to BASE Jump Off a Cliff.” Each brings into the present a minor figure of Greek myth, but once again the nudging irony you might infer from a poem with “Kickstarted” in the title is absent. The psychological reality of the ancient Greeks is lost to us, time being infinitely more estranging than distance. (Consider for example that the word “empathy” only entered the English language in the year 1909.) Yet we still have their stories, which retain the intense suggestiveness that has kept them alive through the ages. We know that a young man named Leucates, lover of Apollo, once threw himself from a cliff that would later be consecrated to that god; and when we as contemporary people try to imagine what he might’ve thought or felt, at best we can put ourselves in his place, facing those far-down waves as they shatter like panes of glass against the rocks:

leucates looks at his knees and sees grass stains.
he heard once that every man apollo loves
is doomed. he doesn’t feel doomed,

not right now. leucates looks down at the white rocks and
sees his body lying bloody and mangled. it doesn’t
feel like a premonition so much as a reminder.

An ancient Apollonic cult once made a yearly sacrifice of a convict “to put an end to the longings of love”. They would strap birds to the man and hurl him from that same cliff, the idea being that the desperate flapping of the birds would slow his descent. Below, sailors awaited, ready to retrieve the man and, if he lived, remove him from their lands. Martin’s Leucates has one better, in the form of a parachute. But more than that, he has the freedom to deny the tragic inevitability of the ancient story; the thought of his own corpse a reminder of that freedom, rather than a fatal premonition. When he hurls his chute into the sea and elects, for the moment at least, not to jump at all, there is a seed of hope.

Martin’s Climbing Out of Other Peoples Hands is a very promising first collection, and the editors at In/Words both past and present deserve great credit for continuing to nurture emerging writers in Ottawa. It’s worth noting though that the production quality of the book leaves a lot to be desired, especially at a $7 price point that potentially limits the number of people likely to give Martin’s words the reading they deserve. The sloppy folding job on the chap makes it cumbersome to thumb through, and the spine of my copy is already almost worn through after a handful of readings. In/Words jacked up its prices a few years ago during Chris Johnson’s tenure as co-editor, but books like JC Bouchard’s Portraits and Selina Boan’s An Act of Distillation were lovingly-made items that compared well with other artisanal (read: pricy) small press publications. The current eds should be encouraged in their exploration of printmaking techniques, but they need to reconsider whether their books-as-objects merit their asking price. It’s telling that You Are a Bad Person, the bonus .pdf e-chapbook included with Climbing Out of Other Peoples Hands does a much better job of presenting Martin’s poetry than the physical product does.

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