The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

“Eating the Heart First” by Clare Martin * A Review by Helen Losse

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In her debut poetry collection Eating the Heart First, Clare L. Martin describes a winter world full of relentless dreams. Winter, horses, dreams; fire, sex, body; birth, death, loss — every element recurs with sustained regularity. Each poem adds layers of complexity and mystery; each verse building upon the previous one. Martin holds nothing back. The thread of narrative in these autobiographical and persona lyric poems wanders and circles back upon itself as Martin relies on the Louisiana terrain for her dark settings and deep images.  The beauty of these poems is as much about the swamps, bayous, and sugar cane fields as it is about Martin’s careful word choice, but her actual experience gives the book is depth.  Martin becomes her own persona, so that it is impossible to determine which poems were lives and which were poetically envisioned.  *For purposes of this review, “I”,  or the first person singular, refers to the “I” in the poems as Ms. Martin, although the reader knows this is not always literally true.

Written in three parts, the book begins with section entitled “Fables of Skin,” in which Ms. Martin first appears.

I am the woman
naked before the mirror
… haunted.

In the same poem, she describes her heart as “calloused” and the red roses, which she is “slav[ing]… / lopping,” as having “iron tongues.”  She burns her “bridal veil” at “midnight,” dreams “secret dreams—sexless, loveless.”  She craves more than a “morning tryst” can offer.  “I crave you—” she says.  (“Naked”) Who is you? is a question with no easy answer.

The woman wants that which is lost.  And to remember that sex can be defined as the “little death” is to follow her into visions, nightmares and dreams.  She


a hurricane

in her bed

…makes love

as the gumbo simmers.


…She roams

with coydogs         at midnight.

(“Any Winter Sunday in Louisiana”)

It is midnight again. The words are as dark and unsettling as the setting.  Rain falls, making “mud of the bayou.” (“Any Winter Sunday in Louisiana”) “A field of moons” (“Tattoo”) provides only dim light.  “[The Bone woman comes] to pray [among the] holy trees [of] an ancestral graveyard,” where she hears “a silence we all reject— ”  (“Bone Woman”)  And then there’s the loneliness during which Martin shares “only the bluest of secrets”  (“Blue Secret”)—the ones she “hear[s] in [her] inmost mind.” (“What the Water Gave Me”)  She is pregnant with her son; she “want[s] sleep….[but] someone remembers [her] sins.” (“Blue Secret”)  Martin does not hint at who remembers and accuses?  At her son’s birth “in the white sun of the room,” nurses rush about with a “fetal heart monitor” and the doctor “pierces a hole in the universe.” (“Birthing”)  Martin lets readers know a secret exists—one that is “buried, never spoken.” (“Girl Running With Horses”)

In the second section, “A Fire of Words,” the poems become noisier.  Ms. Martin longs for quiet, her frail boy, born to a world where “death can come as a whisper….He will always be frail.” (“Premature”) A daughter follows—“born in winter.” (“To a Daughter Born in Winter”) A stillborn appears in an ekphrasitic poem, “Room of Memory.”  Then her son dies.  We do not know how long he has lived.

Circled in ice, you’re enwrapped in white fire…

Your pulse beeps loss. I buzz a nurse out of the void….

I cannot watch you die….

The undertaker powders the fine
hairs of your face, seals you in secret.
(“Ice To Water”)

More secrets.  It is winter; horses are starving; Martin must let her grief go. But losing a child is never easy, and Martin must fight for her own survival.  She fights by writing these poems.

That death is our singular future gives [her] peace.

Assured the moon will still pull these gulf waves
even when no one is left living.
(“Scattering Ashes into the Gulf of Mexico”)

In the final section, “All That We Conjure,” Martin searches for resolution.  She “beg[s] the leaves / not to fall,” (“Winter”) but “find[ing] the child’s skeleton” (“Punishment’) sends her into “a fever dance.” (“Winter”); this is punishment.  But punishment for what?  Secrets still.  She plays her guitar, because “ [h]er body desires / the instrument.” (“Her Body Desires the Instrument”) Again she grows roses whose thorns “bit[e] her hands / fe[e]d on her blood.” (“Cutting”)  Add blood to her dark images.

And then, love. The sun does begin to shine, but the “unrequited / lusts” that “will be relinquished,” still make for a world in which

We become too alive…

until what is

pierces us—
(“These Private Hours”)

What a lovely, mystical image. “What is / unknowable” must be divine.   But the story doesn’t end here. The poet is awake through her insomnia, crying for the light.

Illuminate the dark room of my heart.
Pierce it with suns—

Is it God to Whom she cries?  In dreams, the sea is her refuge.  And still,

We marry into grief
and the poems pile….

Secrets hold to us

The images now become both light and dark.  “[A]ll things green die,” Martin writes. (“Father Almost Drowning”)    Then Martin is

kept by crows.
[who] beckon out of sleep,

calling come, come
be transformed….

A crow told [Martin]:

Let me be a whorl or darkness—
Let me be a fist in the sun.”

Few poets make the argument for living “the writing life” as poignantly as Clare L. Martin does in her book, Eating the Heart First.  One of the strongest poetry books I have read in years, this stellar book is the product of a difficult life lived and shared.  I give it six out of five stars and suggest readers move it to the top of their reading lists.  Clare L. Martin will not disappoint you.  You will read this book again and again.

Ms. Martin is a fist, indeed.  A fist in the sun!


Clare L. Martin

Publisher: Press 53
Publishing date: Oct 1, 2012
90 pages

ISBN: 9781935708667

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