In 2005 The American Academy of Arts and Letters, honored Charles Martin with
the coveted Award for Literature. This year he was also appointed Cathedral Poet
in Residence at The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City.
In 2004 his widely acclaimed verse translation of Ovid's
Metamorphoses was released in paperback by W.W. Norton and received the Harold
Morton Landon Translation Award from The Academy of American Poets.
Martin’s fourth book of poems, Starting From Sleep: New & Selected Poems
(Overlook Press/Sewanee Writers Series, 2002), was nominated for the Pulitzer
Prize as were two previous volumes of poems, What The Darkness Proposes (Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1996) and Steal The Bacon (Hopkins, 1987). His poems
have appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, The Hudson Review, Boulevard, The
Threepenny Review, and in many other magazines and anthologies. He is the
recipient of a Bess Hokin Award from Poetry, a 2001 Pushcart Prize, a finalist
for the Lenore Marshall Award from The Academy of American Poets and he received
fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation and the National Endowment for
Charles Martin has also earned praise for his translation of
the complete poems of the Roman poet Catullus (Johns Hopkins University Press,
1990) and his groundbreaking critical study of Catullus (Yale University Press,
Hermes Series, 1992).
He teaches at Syracuse University and in the Stonecoast MFA Program. He frequently teaches workshops at the Sewanee Writers
Conference, the West Chester Conference on Form and Narrative in Poetry, and at
the Unterberg Center of the 92nd Street YMHA. A graduate of Fordham University,
he holds a PhD from SUNY at Buffalo. He lives in Manhattan and Syracuse with his
wife, arts journalist Johanna Keller.
“Necessity is the mother of invention.”
The other children of Necessity
Are utterly disheartened now, bereft
Of hopefulness since sweet Invention left,
Bravest and brightest of their family,
Who seemed to have no choice except to be
Original, persistent, shrewd, and deft;
For whom clear water sprang from the rock, cleft
By charms bespeaking her cool mastery.
“Ah, well,” the others say, “she will be back,”
And armed with their conviction—for they know
How unremittingly impassable
The world, confronted by what they all lack,
Must seem to her—they say, “It will prove so:
Necessity is the mother of us all.”
Victorian mothers instructed their daughters, ahem,
That whenever their husbands were getting it off on them,
The only thing for it was just to lie perfectly flat
And try to imagine themselves out buying a new hat;
So, night after night, expeditions grimly set off,
Each leaving a corpse in its wake to service the toff
With the whiskers and whiskey, the lecherous ogre bent
Over her, thrashing and thrusting until he was spent.
Or so we imagine, persuaded that our forebears
Could never have had minds as unbuttoned as ours,
As our descendents will shun the kinds of repression
They think we were prone to—if thinking come back into fashion.
And here is Victoria’s Secret, which fondly supposes
That the young women depicted in various poses
Of complaisant negligence somehow or other reveal
More than we see of them: we’re intended to feel
That this isn’t simply a matter of sheer lingerie,
But rather the baring of something long hidden away
Behind an outmoded conception of rectitude:
Liberation appears to us, not entirely nude,
In the form of a fullbreasted nymph, implausibly slim,
Airbrushed at each conjunction of torso and limb,
Who looks up from the page with large and curious eyes
That never close: and in their depths lie frozen
The wordless dreams shared by all merchandise,
Even the hats that wait in the dark to be chosen.
Tired of earth, they dwindled on their hill,
Watching and waiting in the moonlight until
The aspens’ leaves quite suddenly grew still,
No longer quaking as the disc descended,
That glowing wheel of lights whose coming ended
All waiting and watching. When it landed
The ones within it one by one came forth,
Stalking out awkwardly upon the earth,
And those who watched them were confirmed in faith:
Mysterious voyagers from outer space,
Attenuated, golden—shreds of lace
Spun into seeds of the sunflower’s spinning face—
Light was their speech, spanning mind to mind:
We come here not believing what we find—
Can it be your desire to leave behind
The earth, which even those called angels bless,
Exchanging amplitude for emptiness?
And in a single voice they answered Yes,
Discord of human melodies all blent
To the unearthly harmony of their assent.
Come then, the Strangers said, and those who were taken, went.
Steal The Bacon
“First Flossie. . . then Sean.. . and now Moe. ... “ Surely their brightest
Are bright enough to have already noticed
That every morning the one who last molded elastic
Bones and went pouring like mercury under
The molding does not return. Surely someone must wonder,
“What in God’s name ever becomes of them?”
Trap crushes snout and hind legs tap out a spastic
Coda, diminuendo, on cold linoleum,
Far from the muzzy warmth of the nest, that supportive nexus
Of sensual mouse life. Those are x’s
That were his eyes, or hers. And doesn’t anyone notice
A cherished aunt or uncle’s sudden
Vanishing act? “Let’s see now . . . Flossie disappeared one
Night last week . . . was she the first? Was Sean?
Mousebrain! Why can’t I keep them in order? I only know this:
That one by one we seem to be drawn
Forward against our wills, tho’ scampering brightly
Toward that narrow strip of light we
All of us fear. Beyond it, the high kitchen table;
Delectable odors that overcome Reason
And Prudence; blistery fragments of grilled cheese on
Stale crust; and the fatty bacon
That somehow kills, in the legend which is, whether fact or fable,
The nightmare from which we would awaken.:
Real mice in silence rise to the subtly baited
Trap not caring whether free or fated.
Springy gray squealers pulse with indecision,
Wrinkling their vulnerable noses
As they try to answer the question this poised engine poses.
And then either scamper back under the wall
Or stay to play steal the bacon—a game in which steely precision
Cracks down on mouseflesh or down on nothing at all.
Easter Sunday, 1985
"To take steps toward the reappearance alive of the disappeared is a subversive
act, and measures will be adopted to deal with it."
General Oscar Mejia Victores,
President of Guatemala
In the Palace of the President this morning,
The General is gripped by the suspicion
That those who were disappeared will be returning
In a subversive act of resurrection.
Why do you worry? The disappeared can never
Be brought back from wherever they were taken;
The age of miracles is gone forever;
These are not sleeping, nor will they awaken.
And if some tell you Christ once reappeared
Alive, one Easter morning, that he was seen—
Give them the lie, for who today can find him?
He is perhaps with those who were disappeared,
Broken and killed, flung into some ravine
With his arms safely wired up behind him.
A Happy Ending for the Lost Children
One of their picture books would no doubt show
The two lost children wandering in a maze
Of anthropomorphic tree limbs: the familiar crow
Swoops down upon the trail they leave of corn,
Tolerant of the error of their ways.
Hand in hand they stumble onto the story,
Brighteyed with beginnings of fever, scared
Half to death, yet never for a moment
Doubting the outcome that had been prepared
Long in advance: Girl saves brother from oven,
Appalling witch dies in appropriate torment;
Her hoarded treasure buys them their parents' love.
"As happy an ending as any fable
Can provide," squawks the crow, who had expected more:
Delicate morsels from the witch's table.
It's an old story—in the modern version
The random children fall to random terror.
You see it nightly on the television:
The yellow tape that winds its way around
The lop-eared bear, the plastic ukulele, shattered
In a fit of rage—lost children now are found
In the first place where we would think to look:
Under the fallen leaves, under the scattered
Pages of a lost children's picture book.
But if we leave terror waiting in the rain
For the wrong bus, or if we have terror find,
At the very last moment the right train,
Only to get off at the wrong station—
If we for once imagine a happy ending,
Which is, as always, a continuation,
It's because the happy ending's a necessity,
It isn't just a sentimental ploy—
Without the happy ending there would be
No one to tell the story to but the witch,
And the story is clearly meant for the girl and boy
Just now about to step into her kitchen.
Gaius Valerius Catullus
Driven across many nations, across many oceans,
I am here, my brother, for this final parting,
to offer at last those gifts which the dead are given
and to speak in vain to your unspeaking ashes,
since bitter fortune forbids you to hear me or answer,
O my wretched brother, so abruptly taken!
But now I must celebrate grief with funeral tributes
offered the dead in the ancient way of the fathers;
accept these presents, wet with my brotherly tears, and
now & forever, my brother, hail & farewell.
Gaius Valerius Catullus
Translated by Charles Martin
Aurelius & Furius, true comrades,
whether Catullus penetrates to where in
outermost India booms the eastern ocean's
whether he stops with Arabs or Hyrcani,
Parthian bowmen or nomadic Sagae;
or goes to Egypt, which the Nile so richly
even if he should scale the lofty Alps, or
summon to mind the mightiness of Caesar
viewing the Gallic Rhine, the dreadful Britons
world's far end—
you're both prepared to share in my adventures,
and any others which the gods may send me.
Back to my girl then, carry her this bitter
message, these spare words:
May she have joy & profit from her cocksmen,
go down embracing hundreds all together,
never with love, but without interruption
wringing their balls dry;
nor look to my affection as she used to,
for she has left it broken, like a flower
at the edge of a field after the plowshare
brushes it, passing.
Gaius Valerius Catullus
To me that man seems like a god in heaven,
seems—may I say it?—greater than all gods are,
who sits by you & without interruption
watches you, listens
to your light laughter, which casts such confusion
onto my senses, Lesbia, that when I
gaze at you merely, all of my well-chosen
words are forgotten
as my tongue thickens & a subtle fire
runs through my body while my ears deafened
by their own ringing & at once my eyes are
covered in darkness!
Leisure, Catullus. More than just a nuisance,
leisure: you riot, overmuch enthusing.
Fabulous cities & their sometime kings have
died of such leisure.