Picking up some planet, the reader is greeted by a series of talismans, mostly circular: a moon, a nickel, a cosmic orb, a tooth encased in dark matter, and a hand inscribed with a pyramid. These are poems by john mortara, it says. You are on some planet.
john’s first full-length collection of poems, published by YesYes Books out of Portland, Oregon, is a thing of beauty. True to the high quality of YesYes Books’ design standards, perhaps exceeding it even (credit here goes to resident designer Alban Fischer and cover artist Anna Reser), these tokens recur in strange, small, sometimes mysterious ways within: the opening pages are dotted with space dust, headers and footers are adorned with celestial bodies, and several even pages are cupped by a tiny hand at the bottom left. These elements are unobtrusive, translucent—accents more than adornments, really—but I confess that as I read some planet on the cracked and elderly screen of my circa-2009 MacBook Pro, I may have happily imagined this month’s layer of general viscera and detritus to be an extra smattering of space dust across the pages of john’s book.
This attentiveness toward design extends to the level of care given to formatting their poems, as many do not take the overfamiliar shape of left-aligned, 1.5-spaced verse. Instead, some planet contains six experiments, a table, two quizzes with different outcomes connected by arrows a la Seventeen Magazine, a fill-in-the-blank Bible verse poem, and a DIY fortune teller—for starters. The more traditional poems in this collection often appear in block, in prose, or in verse spread as freely across the page as any e e cummings poem ever had the good sense to do.
Coming from my perspective as a peer of john’s, none of these formatting decisions felt new to me on their own (okay, with the exception of the fortune teller. And what a cute new form it is). Instead, the pleasure these forms brought me was from their accumulation. Though I’m not against a well-executed gimmick, it takes a careful writer to manipulate this array of forms not only to extend a palmful of shiny objects for the reader’s enjoyment but to actually deepen the content of their work. In “i am trying to tell you,” the speaker expresses disappointment in trying to convey facts and truths. One example, involving soulmates, reads:
and it’s hard to explain how their atoms
will never really touch
And the way it’s formatted—spaced and indented as it is across two lines, with the second line couched between hard, before atoms—gives visual resonance to the sadness of the soulmates’ lack of atomic fusion. Similarly, the final line of the poem “parse table” would not feel as weighted without the accumulations of [input]s and [output]s leading, respectively, to “leave” and “there is something you cannot take; maybe a country or a kiss; it’s only just going if you keep“.
Two of my favorite poems exist in this collection and despite everything I have just said, they both have the appearance of being quite tidy on the page. This may be a discomforting reveal of my rule-abiding, Catholic upbringing, but I’d like to think it is maybe because their contents are wild enough that john has found a traditional cage to be of use—or necessity, perhaps—in their containment of them. One of the poems is called “your whole heart is a forest” and the other is called “beach party castle bravo”. “your whole heart is a forest” is a planet the size of a snow globe harboring a portal that leads into a supermassive black hole. Told in one effortless sentence, this poem stands out in the collection for its compact power, its density in spite of its economy of words. In “your whole heart is a forest” john paints a lush, layered portrait of a broken heart if that heart was a tale told by the Brothers Grimm; in “beach party castle bravo”, john strands the reader in a language closely related to English and taking its cues from its typical alignments but alien in its programming. It begins:
sally wears nuclear bikini
cries in the bathtub
wilts brown like a palmtree
like sam motorboats the muscle beach
all cruiser military missile
sally wears hate on her patellas
this is no place to grow petunias
It only levels up, at a steep climb, from there.
There is a playfulness to john mortara’s poems issuing from these verses, these exercises and tear-out pages, but some planet is not merely a game. Full disclosure: I have known john as long as I have known of Internet poetry; our Facebook friendship dates back to May 2011, to be precise. john has been around, championing the writing of so many of their contemporaries, reading and writing about many of the same writers whose work excited me across the years and slowly accumulating their own body of work along the way. A gifted reader as well as a talented writer, it has at times felt like john’s published poems were a sprinkling of rare gems—that their support of others’ work overtook their own creative impulses, or at least their desire to publish, while others churned out poem after poem, chapbook after chapbook. So for me, it truly feels like a celebration to have this collection of john’s rarest gems in the world, to hold at least metaphorically in my hands, physically in so many others’.
john reminds us that publishing a first collection isn’t a race. While for some the first book comes out in a mad rush, picked up remarkably fast or self-published in a fit of brilliance, that—perhaps, despite the recurring rabbit imagery in some planet—for others a tortoise-like approach can actually be more satisfying or even appropriate in the long run. Of course, a four- or five-year gestation period is really not a long one when compared with the longevity of the cosmos, but everything is relative.
Also, everything is circular. After john puts us through the paces with experiments and games, throws us talismans of rose quartz and “tired-sick teeth,” we return to the beginning—or, more appropriately, a beginning, with the final poem, “how to start.” Again, as with the cosmos, we begin “in the dark.” We begin with a meditation, a poem to speak aloud to ourselves. We start with our eyes closed, and then we open them, and then we read.
some planet, by john mortara. Portland, Oregon: YesYes Books, April 2015. 74 pages. $16.00, paper.
Carolyn DeCarlo is an American writer living in New Zealand. She has written a chapbook, Strawberry Hill (Pangur Ban Party, 2013) and co-authored two chapbooks, Twilight Zone (NAP, 2013) and Bound: An Ode to Falling in Love (Compound Press, 2014), with Jackson Nieuwland. You can find her @carodecarlo.