Marc Alan Di Martino’s Still Life With City, Reviewed by Dan Cuddy

Marc Alan Di Martino, Still Life With City, Pski’s Porch Publishing 2021, ISBN-13: 978-1-948920-23-0, 86 pages

Marc Alan Di Martino’s book Still Life With City is personal, almost memoir-like, but he characterizes it as “a work of imagination.” It, as he says, took him “twenty years” to write. I would call it both memoir and creative fiction. The book is thoroughly “poetry.” Di Martino plays the chords of language and creates electric narratives and descriptions.  The City is not just one city in which Di Martino has lived, it is a number of them, though New York is a leading metropolis. In fact, the book begins with New York punk rock, a culture influence.

The first section of the book called “Bootleg” consists of three poems. The first is called “Live in Dallas” about a Lou Reed concert in Dallas Texas. It doesn’t hurt to pull up a Reed recording & listen, and then start into the poetry of the poem. You get the experience, the conflict:

……….Lou’s banter subverts expectation, Frets
……….of his Country Gentleman crackle and fizz
……….in fits and starts. Drums thump gorilla time.
……….“Is that a guy or girl?” some locals quip.
……….The band steamrolls into its opener.
……….You can hear the beer bottles clank. Demure.

……….Desoxyn-buzzed, impish, a smidgen fey,
……….the singer short and stocky in dark Ray Bans,
……….paisley-patterned shirt and Jewfro halo
……….plays Lenny Bruce straight man to Longhorn steer.
……….“Does anyone here have school tomorrow?”
……….he prods, feigning motherly concern.

……….“He shitting us?” Mugs mill around the stage.
……….Lou reaches out with an impromptu shriptz
……….about their’ Cowboys—as if this New York vamp
……….knew shit from pigskin—softening them up,
……….then cracks a nut of street philosophy
……….atop their skulls: You should give other people

……….just a little chance—in football anyway.
……….Bewilderment. Just then the music tears
……….the curtain back, staggering along
……….staccato as the Lexington IRT,
……….a swaggering yarn of scoring heroin
……….uptown, Lonestar boys, out of their endzone,

…………..

The poem goes on for 6 more stanzas of exceptional writing. Though there is only one Shakespeare, Di Martino’s use of both the vernacular and a wide-ranging learned vocabulary, and the harmonious use of

Assonance, remind me of the bard. The language is anything but flat American, though denotation never suffers at this poet’s hand.

The next two poems are titled “The Voidoids Play CBGB, Late 77” and” Verlaine Among the Stars”. What do those titles mean? Wikipedia says

CBGB was a New York City music club, opened in 1973,in Manhattan’s East Village. It was a biker bar and then a dive bar, before becoming a home for punk rock and new wave. The letters CBGB stood for CountryBluegrass, and Blues,  It became famous for the new genres, which included bands like the RamonesTelevisionPatti Smith GroupBlondie, and Talking Heads. From the early 1980s onward, CBGB was known for hardcore punk.

The Verlaine in the second title refers both to the French poet and to Tom Verlaine, the songwriter, singer and guitarist frontman for the New York City rock band Television.

Though some people may be familiar with the history of punk rock, others may not be. The point is allusions and unfamiliar names can be easily accessed these days in the age of the internet. Readers should explore the denotations and connotations of poems. It isn’t that difficult to tract references down. Little masterpieces, like these 3 Di Martino poems open up even more. Already the language, the very surface of sound and meanings work magic on the ear and in the brain. The best poems of this poet are very, very good.

Section 2 is titled “The City” Check out this magnificent imagistic opening to the poem “From a Greyhound”:

……….Those jagged shapes drew pictures on the sky—
……….fabulous fictions: bridges, skyscrapers,
……….toy building blocks arranged by alien hands,
……….a city of ants far off in the distance.
……….The Greyhound ducked and swerved the Jersey swamps
……….until we’d left the last grasslands behind
……….and entered Dis: a hell of factories,
……….smokestacks angry as fire-breathing dragons
……….roaring their poison clouds into the blue.
……….The heart beat nervous in anticipation
……….of coming attractions, airless tunnels
……….to be waded through, sheer ton walls of quartz
……….and glass erected on the other shore
……….like some faint futuristic Camelot.

This section takes the reader on a tour of the poet’s personal New York. So many good poems. Some highlights in my opinion: “Crawlspace”, “Lush Life”, “Open Mic Night” and definitely “New Year’s Morning in Mystic Connecticut”, which begins:

……….I wake up lipstick-smeared in someone’s bed.
……….Black coffee bites my tongue, still stung with wine,
……….flows down the broken throttle of my throat;
……….its acid slithers through my small intestine.
……….I crouch in the kaleidoscopic dawn
……….an animal, afraid to move, still drunk.|
……….I look around at what must be the room
……….of a kid brother—but whose house is this?
……….Which kingdom have I woken up in? Snow
……….twinkles on the windowsill while outside
……….cars sit parked like patient lemon drops
……….sprinkled with powdered sugar. Lollipops
……….are STOP and YIELD and CHILDREN AT PLAY signs
……….along the street. This must be Candyland.

Section 3 is a 4-page poem about memory and writing and being receptive to life. A few gems of wisdom in this poem are “What you live today you’ll write tomorrow.”

……….‘Nothing seems less real than an empty train station
……….just before dawn, the city asleep, when not even the sun
……….has lifted its heavy eye from beyond the rooftops.”

……….‘I let noises approach me from the street
……….through the open window, cascade over me
……….like rays of light on a solitary plant.”

Section 4, the last section is filled with poems called Epiphanies. These poems are about assorted subjects, mostly about the poet’s later life lin Perugia, Italy, married with children. Though there are many noteworthy poems in Epiphanies, a couple of poems struck me. “Transubstantiation” and “What Happened at the Baptism” relate the conflict of religions. He was raised Jewish, but his paternal relatives were Italian Catholics.  The narratives about his relationship with his Italian aunt, who never forgot that he was Jewish, did forget that Jesus and Mary were Jewish, a not insignificant fact in the foundation of Christianity. The aunt, was also hypocritical in that she wasn’t in good standing with the Church in that she was living with a married man. Could tolerance and lack of understanding human values be a rare value in the practical exercise of religion? I remember a priest at Saint Philip & James twenty years ago warning against those who used religion as a weapon. These poems illustrate that warning. Reading these poems are instructive. The poet’s aunt played the role of the Grand Inquisitor in his life. She was “pious, self-appointed, terrifying.”

Another poem, interesting for a different reason, is “Elegy on Via Giulia.” The poem is an elegy for a Robert Viscusi. Who was he? Look him up on Wikipedia. The poem gives its information but the Wikipedia gives him the prosaic context of his life & a photo. These footnotes are just that—footnotes. Sometimes they illuminate; other times they just move the flashlight beam. Can we have too much information? Not if you are curious. Also, Viscusi was an Italian American writer whom Di Martino admired as a person as well as a teacher.

In Di Martino’s book the Viscusi elegy is the next to the last poem of the book. The last poem is titled “Time Traveler.”  It is a fit ending to a poetic memoir, a very personal book.

……….You grew and grew until you stopped growing
……….and there they planted a tree to mark your height
……….existence measured in feet and inches
……….infancy meted out with a yardstick.

……….When you were tall enough, you walked away forever,
……….returning only for a holiday or a wedding
……….but soon not even those. You lost track of the tree
……….standing alone in the yard, an orchard of one.

……….Then everyone else walked away too. House and garden
……….belong to others now. The cemetery
……….is still there at the end of the road, beyond the curve
……….(the dead don’t walk away so easily)

……….near the communal gardens, cramped and overgrown.
……….Occasionally, you still pass by. Between the pines
……….Your father planted, you spy on other livesy

……….unfolding as yours once did. Smiling you wave.
……….They wave back, welcoming you to their home.

 © Marc Alan Di Martino and Dan Cuddy

Marc Alan Di Martino is a Pushcart-nominated poet, translator and author of the collection Unburial (Kelsay, 2019). His work appears in Baltimore ReviewRattleRust + MothTinderboxValparaiso Poetry Review and many other journals and anthologies. His second collection, Still Life with City, will be published by Pski’s Porch in 2021. He lives in Italy.

Dan Cuddy was previously a contributing editor with the Maryland Poetry Review and with Lite: Baltimore’s Literary Newspaper. He has been published in many small magazines over the years, such as NEBO, Antioch Review, and Connecticut River Review. In 2003, his book of poems, Handprint On The Window, was published by Three Conditions Press.

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