And good poems are often written from bad places. This book of poems by Chelsea Martin is both a re-examination of a failed relationship and a kind of addendum. Martin’s protagonist isn’t working to get the last word like a selfish lover hoping to exonerate herself, but more like a sociologist interested in her behavior both during the relationship and how she is choosing to pick through the nuclear-fallout level rubble. She writes, “I wish you could see all the backspacing and retyping I’ve done to get here. Maybe things would be different if you knew about all the backspacing and retyping.” She’s not editing her past, only filing the report on it.
The poems remain prose-y throughout, but the tone shifts constantly from analytical to emotional to detached to whimsical. Occasionally Martin’s work reads like a one-liner and some read as short slice-of-life scenes. Through the variety in the voice, Martin is able to keep the same protagonist for the whole of the work—the unnamed “I”—while heaping a complexity upon this character that keeps the wonderings interesting. For instance, these two poems juxtapose one another:
It’s possible that I am hearing something different from you than what you think that you are saying. It’s possible, in a world where it isn’t possible to confirm that we are seeing the same colors in the same way as one another, it is possible that certain breakdowns in communication are possible.…It’s possible that you are experiencing the word ‘commitment’ differently than I am. How could it surprise me, given how layered and complex the world is, and how our personal experiences interfere with our perception?
There is something about you that makes me want to cry into the phone and possibly yell and then use what you say to try and calm me down against you at another time, or gossip about it later behind your back.
The shift from analytical to emotional lends a depth to the characters. Their emotional headspace is foreshortened because of the backward-looking perspective but enough is hinted at for it to appear full. As the book moves along, we are taken away from the relationship and are moved toward solitude. Even when the protagonist is describing going to work or out in public, she seems largely alone.
The voice throughout echoes in a recently vacated world with words so honest and provocative we wonder if they’d be spoken if there was anyone left to hear. The protagonist says, “Please accept this poem as a formal cryptic nameless public half-apology. It means something to me to see the words written out, like I have a choice to believe them or not.” As a reader, sometimes it feels like eavesdropping, but even though the words aren’t meant for us, they are still emotive.
Toward the beginning of the book, some of the relationship between the protagonist and “you” is relived. There is conversation and scenes that depict shared experiences, which seem to share basically nothing else besides the concrete facts of the scene because of the huge gaps in perception between the two characters. When the “I” and the “you” are together, they are fastened, but only loosely, by a geographic convenience born out of a shared past that has since disintegrated. What was mutual—a love, we suppose—has been stripped down to a one-sidedness that is lost, wondering in the washed-out landscape of their relationship.
As the book goes on, the “you” is more often relegated to absenteeism. This leaves the protagonist alone with her word processor and her language. She refers to things she said—terrible things, she confides on a few occasions—but direct quotes and conversation largely disappear. The protagonist seems more and more incapable of interacting with anyone but herself and the version of her past lover she has meticulously constructed.
Not that she doesn’t attempt communication. In this world of constant e-mails and online dating, it’s easy to reach out in a rash way and to accept the low-to-nothing consequence of not being responded to. The protagonist wonders, “Is it overbearing of me to text you more than once per year asking if I still have the correct phone number? / If you don’t respond, what is the maximum number of follow-up texts I can send within the month? / Does this number change if I e-mail instead of text?” The work here speaks for itself. It’s funny, analytical, and obsessive. Martin is not afraid to keep pressing an idea where another writer might stop.
Throughout the book, Martin surprises us with the turns she takes in her poems. For instance, she writes:
You said that my queef sounded like the end of a ketchup bottle and I somehow felt happy about that. It’s like I’m trying to hard to feel happy.
Sometimes I’m so aroused and all I can do is frantically eat birth control pills.
I meant for that to sound more punk rock.
The inward turns in this poem are unexpected and allow us to view the protagonist as a complex being who encompasses a self-defeating sense of humor, a subtle depression, and unfulfilled lust. However, in the next poem, the turn is a little more familiar:
I am the strong, female lead in my own currently-in-development novel, and I can do anything I put my mind to, even if it is remaining in a very difficult and frustrating relationship with low emotional payoff.
Not that that’s what’s happening.
I found this to be much more predictable, maybe a little bit lazy. The originality from the first stanza is obscured when we come to the familiarity of the second.
However, in this back-pocket sized book, there are many introspective moments that hit a note exactly right. Martin’s writing portrays an all-too realistic version of what happens when someone moves on and another person has stalled out while trying to do the same. The protagonist often fails to find the right words, but even saying the wrong things—we hope—might lead to some sort of learning, growing, fortification.
Martin’s protagonist struggles to think about the future due to someone else having a head-start on it, like they are already occupying the space that the other is trying to move into but now cannot. So, instead, the protagonist pries into the past, mulling and stalling, with the language lending life and color to an otherwise salted earth. She says, “I think I must have some kind of thing for romance. Some kind of sick thing.”
Even Though I Don’t Miss You, by Chelsea Martin. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Short Flight/Long Drive Books. 112 pages. $11.95, paper.
Sam Price lives in Philadelphia, PA.