Lessons in Camouflage, a poetry collection by Martin Ott, reviewed by Micah Zevin

Can we ever leave war behind and not remember its images, its roles, and deaths, or will it forever follow us? What goes missing and what will ever be recovered? When we exit the battlefield, there are other fights to be fought, whether of the mind or the body, or other seemingly mundane life tasks and responsibilities. In Lessons in Camouflage, Martin Ott shares serious secret truths about both kinds of war with lyrical and narrative detail as well as a rich language play, which, despite its difficult subject matter, creates an easy intimacy with the reader.

In “Unclaimed Baggage Center,” the speaker relates the lives of those recently missing as a result of war by way of their personal items, “How many are lost? / in worlds of fabrication? / Your fear to rummage / through battered purses / and briefcase because/of miniature Buddhas, / cross-eyed porcelain dolls, half masticated / gum and twin castanets.” Here Ott addresses the intrinsic emotional value inherent in the objects we carry with us; even if, for whatever reason, the owners don’t return, these things will still belong to them; they will still symbolize or remind us of who we are at present or how we once were. Whether held in our hands or simply conjured through memory, they can always be claimed. In “The Mystery of Three Things,” Ott explores the significance of three things, of “normal” objects imbued with a kind of religiosity, referencing, specifically, the Christian trinity. This work, as with many of the poems in the collection, sees these objects as simultaneously broken and missing, and/or abandoned by a father. They are often things, like a surfboard, that have been unused or untouched for a long period of time, and have a narrative to tell, often a melancholic one: “The mottled suitcase is the kind / abused by gorillas in commercials, / still holding secrets into old age, / the shell of an adventurous self.” Everyone carries hidden secrets inside the both metaphoric and actual luggage they carry with them.

In the majority of Ott’s poems, camouflage is teacher, interrogator, and executioner. In “Mile Post,” camouflage is equated most pointedly with the fears we avoid confronting in our lives, whatever form they take, whether as something we created, a bully, an actual enemy on the battlefield, or simply us: “The Army was the first time I knew / other soldiers sprinting from the partners they’d lost.” And than in another section of this piece: “I fought through the ring of children looking for blood. / Fear closes ground / only when you turn to fight it.” Although the narrators in Ott’s poems are tentative at first when facing up to and acknowledging their defeats in life, they eventually own up to them when all is said and done. In “I Lost the Robot in the Divorce,” apprehension in the domestic sphere is addressed with humor, bitterness, and irony about the self: “With one eye, tin torso, dryer duct limbs, / my thrift store doppelganger leans over / the scratched-up dining room table / dressed for the / holidays I cannot view except dim / dreams of cyborg senses.” Here, the speaker, seeing himself replaced, rationalizes, consoles his male ego, considers this cheaper version of himself he has yet to meet isn’t remotely comparable.

Martin Ott is a master of the lyric form, his poems sophisticated and suffused with a modern Shakespearean fervor deeply exploring childhood, life as a soldier carried forever, and the many costumes people wear to overcome fears and anxieties waiting in the shadows, compelling them to come out of hiding and face them.

Lessons in Camouflage, by Martin Ott. C&R Press, June 2018. 55 pages. $16.00, paper.

Micah Zevin is a librarian poet living in Jackson Heights, Queens, NY, with his wife, a playwright. He has recently published articles and poems at The Otter, Newtown Literary Journal and Blog, Poetry and Politics, Reality Beach, Jokes Review, Post (Blank), American Journal of Poetry, and The Tower Journal. He created/curates an open mic/poetry prompt workshop called The Risk of Discovery Reading Series now at Blue Cups.

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