Review: Future Perfect by Charles Martin and Homage to Mistress Oppenheimer by Steve Kronen

Spencer Hupp

September 2018

Charles Martin’s newest offering, Future Perfect, deals principally with things past. The book’s material includes sources as disparate as Euripides’s Medea, the Voyager 1 space probe, the mystery of Weldon Kees, Giuseppe Belli’s sonnets, four-million-year-old hominin footprints from Tanzania, and Petronius, who appears in the collection’s third line. Martin is a classicist by inclination, and his 2004 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a standard text in any college-level Latin-poetry-in-English course. He’s no mere antiquarian, however; like any intelligent poet, he writes in a contemporary idiom, with contemporary figures, on contemporary themes and anxieties.

Future Perfect is best initially understood through its title, which strikes at the heart of anyone like me who suffered through, or, more rarely, relished, high-school Latin. In Indo-European languages, verbs conjugated into the future perfect tense translate into English with the prefix “will have . . .” as in I will have read the book by then. There’s an ambiguity in the future perfect construction, implying that something is expected, not promised or resolved. So the twin threats of expectation and assumption that haunt this volume are evident from the outset. In the book’s second poem, “When We Had It All,” the speaker imagines a not-so-distant, not-so-ideal future, a world where even automation is obsolete, where “Some of us still wave / Those plastic cards we used to buy our stuff” like talismans against scarcity. “All we had,” it seems, “was never quite enough.” Never quite is telling; those two words summarize the collection’s hang-ups almost as well as the words “future perfect.” Here, the future is neither doomed nor redeemed, instead falling somewhat short of both, and by no means perfect.

Then there are these lines from “A Happy Ending for Ithis and Ianthe,” which follow a catalogue of transformations from the Metamorphoses:

 

“. . . these

Are all immortal singularities,

 

Whose transformations are involuntary

And always meant to frighten or appall

With consequences which, of course, will vary;

And though they entertain us and enthrall,

The endings are unpleasant, even scary—

But happy endings? There are none at all.”

 

Cold comfort. But he continues:

 

“Yet Ovid goes along with happiness

Will settle, so it seems, for nothing less.”

 

And then:

 

“He’d move us past all deities descending

In their spectacular machinery,

No matter what they may have been intending;

He’d find that broken space where irony

Helps us to evade an imposed ending,

A happy ending most especially.”

 

In simplest terms, the poem expresses the possibility of free will, a modern illustration of an Enlightenment ideal filtered through Ovidian figures (the poem itself is thereby temporally metamorphic, a gesture toward universal truths). It affirms the “human freedom we still struggle for” and rejects predetermined outcomes, be they pleasant or appalling. Thus, poetry and the ironies of art, in Ovid’s hands and, by extension, Martin’s, confound fate.

I’m still vexed by the poem’s final line: “Let Ovid have whatever word comes next.” Is Martin speaking to Ovid’s continuing influence on Western literature? And who is speaking to us when we read Ovid, the poet or his translator? If we read him in Latin, which Ovid are we trained to read? The elegist, as Quintilian would have it, or the fabulist that Shakespeare preferred? (I first encountered Ovid in Martin’s translation, as a companion text in a college seminar on Shakespeare’s sonnets.) It’s a challenging line, and it provokes an exquisite juxtaposition. What “comes next,” as it happens, is one of the four poems in this collection featuring Weldon Kees, whose 1955 disappearance—most likely a suicide; his car was found abandoned on the Golden Gate Bridge—retains some mystery six decades on. This two-thousand-year jump is typical of poets invested in the classics, but given this collection’s preoccupation with things past and future (if not present), it’s difficult to chalk up the pairing to coincidence. Kees’s disappearance was a transformation, a minor metamorphosis, from rising poet of the postwar condition/minor abstract painter to tragic suicide case/silent fugitive to Mexico or parts unknown. While not quite as compelling or (beg your pardon) poetic as Daphne’s last-resort laurelization, Kees’s self-mythologizing, intentional or not, figures into a recognizably Ovidian scheme.

Kees acts principally as a foil to Martin’s historical fixations. Here’s the late US Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky to clarify: “[Kees’s] poems display neither the incoherence of nostalgia for some mentally palatable past nor, however vaguely charted, the possibility of the future. All he had was the present, which was not to his Muse’s liking, and eventually not to his own either.” Of course, Kees’s “present” was that of the late 1940s and fifties, hardly contemporary to 2018. But Kees’s concern for the “present” of his given time and place reveals something of Martin’s project in Future Perfect. Where Kees writes on Robinson, his midcentury everyman, embodying all the fresh existential anxieties the nascent nuclear age entailed, Martin tries to contend with our present, the world that people resembling Robinson, with their outward cosmopolitanism, closeted misogyny, and muted despair, have made.

“The Afterlife of Mr. Kees,” an adept villanelle, is the best of the four Kees poems. It opens with a controlled, ordinary, and therefore devastating metaphor for suicide: “The phone was ringing and to make it stop / he answered it.“ There’s something funny in the thought that death might have a telephone. Consider the first line of the last stanza of “The Afterlife . . .” which puts Martin’s now-characteristic gallows humor on fine display: “Waves still spread out from Kees great belly flop.” That the great poet’s last act was an aerodynamic blunder is dark, funny, but hardly cruel, since those “waves” testify both to the persistence of our interest in Kees’s disappearance, and to the generational trauma of his probable suicide. Martin handles this death with humor, intelligence, and that rare quality, dignity.

The collection closes with a masterful cycle of sonnets, “A Child of the Future Perfect,” which follows the trajectory of the Cold War, from its speaker’s uneasy but outwardly secure childhood to the precarious present and the looming shadow of our renewed conflict with the former Soviet Union. Martin charts seven decades of alternating disappointment (“we, the overpassed / Forever enduring promises not kept”) and wonder (“But when Neil Armstrong stepped / Into the future . . . / . . . And gamboled in the moondust like a lamb . . .”). Disappointment eventually intensifies to despair—of time’s passage, in this case, and in keeping with the poet’s preoccupations:

 

“The future opened up for me, revealing

A present tense of phones and elevators,

Indoor plumbing, polished chrome (APPEALING

TO THE HOUSEWIFE OF TODAY), refrigerators—

And in a moment, all of it dissolves!

I dreamt of boys and girls brought up by wolves . . .”

 

Which brings our speaker to his boyhood revelation of time, the inevitability of death:

 

“It’s now time to revisit, if you will

That certain future’s odd uncertainty:

It hasn’t happened yet, and yet it’s still

Poised between ‘sure to come’ and ‘not to be’:

A countdown that began when I was three,

A sword that hangs above each conscious head . . .”

 

The future, and the inevitable death that accompanies it, is thus weaponized; those “swords” could just as easily be missiles or asteroids. The cycle ends on something close to resolution:

 

“But in the future I may come to see

How what is happening now will suffice.”

 

The sentence is a paradox: does the “what” that is “happening now” belong to our present or some future present? Whichever, it’s a feat of ambiguity.

Here’s what Martin’s getting at: we don’t hope for a future. Rather we generally expect from it one of two things: doom or redemption. The former is impossible to contemplate, the latter is appealing but seems more and more remote with every glance at the headlines. I’m often reminded these days of some lines from William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?” With Future Perfect, Martin speaks to the implications of this fear, by now sustained for over seventy years since Hiroshima. Faulkner offers some optimism, a statement that could apply to this collection and its author: “The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

The nuclear age also underscores the title of Steve Kronen’s newest collection, Homage to Mistress Oppenheimer, which makes reference to two major figures of the mid-twentieth century. The first is John Berryman, whose “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” remains one of the great unread poems of late Modernism, and the second is Kitty Oppenheimer, botanist, biologist, and wife to J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project. Again we have the twin axes of Faulkner’s Nobel speech, poetry and annihilation, but Mr. Kronen’s book is less overtly historical. Instead, it is an exercise in the possibilities of language, the manipulation of form.

Take the poem “Who Likes Magic?”:

 

We liked magic!

Cape

so dense

no light escaped

its fabric.

 

Up each sleeve?

Adam’s

mouth, and Eve’s

baffled

by the fence

around their yard.

 

Pick an apple,

pick any goddamn

card.”

 

Fourteen lines here, a sonnet in the most elemental sense, with a loose and deeply satisfying rhyme. The subject here is enchantment, one of the principal functions of poetry, and the arbitrary ways in which it manifests: the card doesn’t matter, it’s the picking that does. Another “sonnet,” “For the Long Childhood,” imagines a clock’s

 

“tick

maybe—G’night—lifting

its terrible

heft,

the bearable—

G’night, shifting.”

 

The uneven arrival of the rhymes, terrible/bearable, lifting/shifting, enacts the both the anxiety and satisfaction of time’s passing; the terrible can become bearable once we recognize its logic, its necessary order.

Kronen is a master of the taut and terse. Here’s one of the collection’s most stunning poems, “The Course of the Marriage”:

 

“Completely out of love,

they did those things.”

 

This poem can be taken one of two ways. The pessimist might require that the first line imply the couple is “out of love.” The strings of mutual affection having been cut, they do “those [bad] things”; one assumes adultery, or worse. I prefer a more innocent reading, where the first line depends syntactically on the second, producing this sentence: “They did those things completely out of love.” This graceful codependence enacts a happy marriage with eight words, balanced four per line.

Kronen even manages a good poem about talking horses, “Francis, Xanthus, and Mr. Ed.” Here he addresses their owners:

 

“Rest, Peter, rest, you have a place

at the table. Set down, Achilles,

at last, your intricate shield. And Wilbur, Wilbur,

you are sore tired and deserving of peace.

Your mothers loved you—they meant no harm.”

 

These men, Peter Stirling (nom de plume of David Stern, whose 1946 novel Francis gave the world Francis the Talking Mule), Achilles (whose Xanthus is granted speech), and TV’s Wilbur Post, express the transitive property of love, mother to her son, boy to his horse (who are eternal adolescents: lanky, wild, quick to anger, clumsily loving). That last sentence, “Your mothers loved you . . .” is a clear and powerful expression of the human project, to love and mean no harm. The poem closes with this soft crescendo:

 

“How, in the end, like rain upon your roofs—

their whispers in your ears, their approaching hooves.”

 

Here we have a sentence fragment, portending the return of those beloved horses, or something sinister: a flood from too much rain, a stampede. The semantic uncertainty of these lines grant them a certain mystic quality; they become something like spellcasting. Of course, Kronen isn’t one to wade into some vague metaphysical space. Poets are not philosophers, as Richard Wilbur was keen to point out. Instead, like Wilbur, Kronen prefers the everyday enchantments: talking horses, card tricks, working clocks. The virtues of this book—clarity of style, formal invention, imaginative depth—require little by way of explication. They are simple, and therefore profound—minor miracles become the stuff of major poetry.

Spencer Hupp is an assistant editor at the Sewanee Review

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