Trying Too Hard
Quirky cool not enough for debut collection to make itself heard
By Daryl Lim Wei Jie
Mayo Martin's debut collection (in English at least) of poems is, crudely summarised, about people getting on with their lives and, as the title suggests, occupations. The poems feature an eclectic cast of characters: a window-washer almost kissing the denizens on the other side of the pane; an art critic taking a dump; and an historian obsessed with Qin Shi Huang, among others. Martin's poems briefly plunge us into the lives of these characters, revealing to us the peculiarity and sometimes touching strangeness of their situations. Nearly everyone seems offbeat and quirky in some way.
Martin's attempted tone, at least in the first half or so of the book, is precisely one of offbeat, surreal and quirky cool, at times approaching the swagger of a band lyric. This tone is set by the first poem, 'Planet of Sound', where the reader is propositioned:
The same cool manifests itself in many of the other pieces. In 'Tramp', a road tramp gets on with his life:
This tone is well-suited to Martin's cast of eccentrics. Unfortunately, Martin rarely succeeds in exploiting this quirkiness of tone and content to convincing effect. A lot of what could potentially have been moving, interesting or profound in the poems is let down by this somewhat tiresome cool, which sometimes comes across as vacuity or simply a failure to explore anything in depth. An art critic on the loo observes:
The only thing makes this scenario vaguely interesting is that the aforementioned art critic is on the loo. The reader is led to wonder: is the weak joke of 'This truly is a shit job' really worth the wait? In 'A Whole New World', the situation, as far as this reviewer can make out, is that the character wishes to compare making love to an inflatable doll with the experience of
The doll, we are told, somehow 'had the look / of a miniature globe spinning'. The poem ends with the doll/globe looking like
The task of the poet is to insinuate and eventually convince the reader of the metaphor or simile he wishes to achieve, worked out through language and images. Simply slapping two images (sex with inflatable doll/spinning globe) together and hoping they will fertilise each other and emerge analogous is bound to be a sterile effort. As sterile, perhaps, as having sex with an inflatable doll. Ending the poem with a mention of Singapore seems like a particularly ham-fisted attempt to make what is a weak poem interesting. Martin's favourite technique of compounding odd/quirky/eccentric/surreal (or, in teenage parlance, 'random') occurrences and images — and hoping they achieve some sort of gnostic adhesion in the reader's mind — often comes across as tacky and simply ineffective. It is also, arguably, cheating poorly.
In fact, it is when Martin abandons this technique that his poems come alive with genuine human sympathy and interest. In 'Holiday', for example, a suffering wife ignored by her husband greets herself:
At least here more effort has been put into the simile, which proceeds to unfold beautifully. 'Reading A Letter' is tied together by the act of reading, and though there is nothing here that is breathtakingly novel, lines such as the following are pleasing enough:
Possibly the best poem of the collection, 'Pas de Deux', a sequence of seven sections about dance and the body (which is translated from the Tagalog), is lit by the sympathy the reader feels for the characters, such as the ballet dancer who loses her legs. Martin demonstrates an ability to construct moving situations and sympathetic characters — and all of this without the need to be quirky. Yet, this perhaps provides us the clue with what is wrong with this collection.
Some writers (John Updike, for example, comes to mind) are praised for writing prose with the qualities of poetry; it is a mark of distinction. Conversely, for a poet to be told that his poetry reads like prose is a sign of something going awry. The central fault of Occupational Hazards is that so much of it reads like prose — and, unhappily, somewhat bereft prose. Therefore, one cannot help but wonder whether other genres perhaps flash fiction, the short story or even prose poetry — are better suited to Martin's skills and purposes. Let us first make the case that poetry simply isn't doing adequate work for Martin. For one, he often displays a lack of commitment to the reinvention of language that poetry aspires towards. The poems 'Man and Woman' begins:
Is it really possible to seriously write poetry and use the phrases 'squealed in delight" and "caught a glimpse"? Sometimes, the reader is also led to wonder what Martin is trying to achieve, if anything, with poetic form. Take the first two lines of 'Window Washer':
That very odd line break only serves to puzzle. In another poem, 'Presence', about the invention of the telephone, we have, with little overall effect, a stanza of four lines, followed by two, then three, then five, then four, then three and then just a single line. But the most convincing proof that Martin should consider other types of writing is the extended poem, 'Mine', a sequence on an historian and the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, which must be regarded as a failure. It, too, suffers from some of the faults detailed above. Form does not seem to be doing much work for Martin here either. The same penchant for piling occurrences is displayed. Cliched phrases appear ("soaking up the view"). We are told things like (and this occupies a whole page):
Similarly, there seems to be a lack of effort, again, in the fashioning of analogies and images. He tells the reader:
This is really saying very little worth saying. In the end, 'Mine' fails to make anything or anyone in the sequence, be it the historian, his wife or Qin Shi Huang (who is — and this is another instance of uninspired description — 'the emperor with his blazing eyes'), interesting. Even the subject of Qin Shi Huang is a bit hackneyed, and Martin does not bring much that is new or unexpected to it. One wonders, then, if the space and laxity allowed for prose will give Martin more room for his characters — who are a promising bunch — to grow and develop, as poetry seems to inhibit them. Martin's clear ability to construct these characters — and to provoke the reader's sympathy for them — seems to this reviewer to signal that a shift to prose should be contemplated. Furthermore, in poems such as 'First in a Series', in which the poet's "computer analyst girlfriend" manages to write better poetry than the poet himself, Martin shows he is able to create fraught moments and situations.
If this review of Occupational Hazards has been harsh, it is only because it is motivated by the conviction that Mayo Martin might just be better off experimenting with prose or other forms. Martin's characters and the absurd situations they are caught in are tolerably diverting, but one wishes there was more care with the craft: with doing the hard work needed to construct images, to really impregnate language with meaning. Simply being offbeat, oddball, quirky isn't quite enough to make one's work engaging. At any rate, receiving such barbs and brickbats is, undeniably, an occupational hazard of the poet.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 1 Jan 2014