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Old 10-25-2012, 10:02 PM
Michael Cantor Michael Cantor is offline
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Default Poem Appreciation #9 - Easter Sunday, 1985 (Charles Martin)

Easter Sunday, 1985
by Charles Martin

To take steps toward the reappearance alive of the disappeared is a subversive act,
and measures will be adopted to deal with it.

............. —General Oscar Mejia Victores, President of Guatemala

In the Palace of the President this morning,
The General is gripped by the suspicion
That those who were disappeared will be returning
In a subversive act of resurrection.

Why do you worry? The disappeared can never
Be brought back from wherever they were taken;
The age of miracles is gone forever;
These are not sleeping, nor will they awaken.

And if some tell you Christ once reappeared
Alive, one Easter morning, that he was seen—
Give them the lie, for who today can find him?

He is perhaps with those who were disappeared,
Broken and killed, flung into some ravine
With his arms safely wired up behind him.

(From Starting from Sleep, p. 130. First published in Stealing the Bacon.)


Many of us here have lately been writing poems based on material from news stories, so it’s more than apt for me to talk about this poem by Charles Martin. I’ve gone on record elsewhere with my admiration for it, and I’m glad to have a reason to discuss it in more detail.

Admittedly, I am this poem’s ideal reader. As a believer, struggling but still hanging on, I live the liturgical year. Easter is not academic to me; it’s a reality. I am also old enough to remember when los desaparecidos were matters not only of urgent news coverage but of activist song: the Ronnie Gilbert and Holly Near performance of “Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida” rests in the permanent archive of my brain. The epigraph connects with those firm memories, as well as with the knowledge that—to the world’s sorrow—the horror of forced disappearance in Latin America continues.

The epigraph deserves close attention, since poets wrestle with the decision to use or not to use epigraphs. This one is not optional. This one is vital; it sets the scene for the poem’s righteous rage. Its words are perfectly chosen because they show us how completely authority can fall into desperate unjustice. To take steps toward the reappearance alive of the disappeared says, without saying it, that the deaths of the disappeared were always the goal, and that not to cooperate in those deaths is subversion. Measures will be adopted to deal with it: the passive voice, the unspecified threats, of all terrible bureaucracies. That is our starting point.

The first stanza sets us up: It restates the situation that the epigraph presents, but puts the epigraph’s speaker—and every leader like him—in third-person focus, concentrating not on his power but on his fear—gripped by the suspicion—the fear that makes power tenuous and so drives tyranny. It makes this restatement in formal pentameters and rhyme, the tight containment of its form like a package that holds a bomb. The final word of the stanza—resurrection—splices the wires of the title and the epigraph, and the completed circuit sets going the poem proper.

And the poem proper is complex. It begins in ironic calm, seemingly in sympathy with the dictator (Why do you worry?) Yet its claim that The disappeared can never be brought back moves to the realm of despair. It stresses the saddest facts of such cases: Of the disappeared, one has no idea of wherever they were taken.

Then it links again to resurrection stories, denying them, despairing both about the faith of the Gospels and about any justice for the kidnapped and tortured and murdered: The age of miracles is gone forever. (Gone, it says, not “false from the beginning,” a hint that perhaps we are not wrong to believe.) Its last line references the Gospel story of the daughter of Jairus, and by reversing—effectively unsaying—the words of Jesus, it makes its despair complete: These are not sleeping, nor will they awaken.

The Biblical register of the poem’s diction is one more element that pulls everything tight. The first three lines of the sestet (and now we can see that this is a sonnet) continue the tone of controlled rage, and of despair. Speaking of Christ, the tercet echoes the words of the epigraph about the disappeared: reappeared alive. There is no risen Christ present in the world, it says, angrily and insistently: give them the lie, for who today can find him? And in the last tercet, it make two huge, dramatic moves: It locates the dead Christ with the disappeared, physically and morally, and it rivets us by ending with the ugly specifics of that image: flung into some ravine/with his hands safely wired up behind him.

Note the irony of that safely, which reminds us that we are still with the dictator, still in conversation with him, still in enraged confrontation.

I want to believe there is hope hiding under the poem’s political and religious despair, and in its absolute claim that holiness is on the side of murdered.
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Old 10-25-2012, 10:06 PM
Michael Cantor Michael Cantor is offline
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Comments by Distinguished Guest Amit Majmudar:

This sonnet shows us the potential of the straightforward, no-hijinx sonnet. Or rather, the hijinx are all in the obedience.

The execution of this sonnet—I know, a tasteless pun—gains force from the identification with the one who inflicts the violence. Almost all novels and poems that deal with political violence have a knee-jerk tendency to enter, and draw the reader into, the perspective of the victim. Here, it is almost a third party, or some cringing courtier or minister or lackey who secretly loathes and fears the power to which he kowtows (I’m letting my imagination go).

“The reappearance alive of the disappeared” has an appropriately Orwellian flavor to it. The epigraph is well-used; it allows the sonnet to dispense with scene-setting and place-statement—the stuff of many a novelist’s Chapter One—and cut to the image at its crux (no more puns, I promise). The verse can travel light this way. This is the kind of transparent poetry where the versecraft disappears and the thing described takes precedence.
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Old 10-25-2012, 11:27 PM
Michael Cantor Michael Cantor is offline
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This one blew me away - both poem and commentary.

The poem deals with what I regard as two of the most difficult areas in which to write a good poem that avoids cliches, or screed, or the obvious, or preaching to the choir - religion and politics (humor would be a third) - and it does so beautifully, subtly, and in a manner that touches both believers and atheists. As a sonnet it takes chances, and the result is so good and so deep that I want to nail it to certain University doors and scream - "This! This is what a good sonnet can do! Paper your walls with copies of it."

Technically, I think the feminine line endings work well within the context of the poem. The meter never thumps, but it seems to loosen even more in the final stanza, and - again, in context - that works for me.

The commentary is not only extremely graceful and knowledgeable, but involved. Poem and commentary complement each other well.
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Old 10-26-2012, 12:20 AM
Andrew Frisardi Andrew Frisardi is offline
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I agree that this poem is mind-blowingly effective. Its technique is masterly but unobtrusive--technical bravado that called too much attention to itself wouldn't fit theme. The plainspokenness of it verges on the journalistic, eerily and effectively jarring with the biblical imagery. The use of the word disappeared three times in the poem (two times as a passive "were disappeared" once as a noun, "the disappeared"), echoing the Generalissimo's Orwellian doublespeak, is the dark that sets off or is set off by the light of the resurrection language--finally resolved in that final dark line, where the arms of grace or consecration are bound by wire. A subtext is that in the Christian story no one knows where Jesus' body has gone, after they find the tomb empty; he's one of the "disappeared." When he does appear, his arms and hands are very important, since by handing out food to the Apostles they bear witness to the resurrection. Here, we're left with a question mark--will the arms stay bound, the way the General wants it, or not?

Coming back to add in: Another theme of this poem, explicitly so, given the epigraph, is the telling of truth versus the telling of lies, or facing the truth versus denying it. I recently read a book about the massacre in Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1995--and other massacres during the Bosnian War--and one of the book's main themes was how, in the war crimes trials after, and in the telling of what happened, how even the most undeniable truths were in fact routinely, brazenly denied. In this poem, truth telling is implicitly associated with resurrection, and that is why the General wants the listener to believe the arms will stay bound--to keep the truth from surfacing. All of this obvious enough but for me it goes to show how much thought is going on in these fourteen lines.

Last edited by Andrew Frisardi; 10-26-2012 at 12:46 AM.
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Old 10-26-2012, 12:51 AM
Charlotte Innes Charlotte Innes is offline
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I love this poem. I haven't encountered it before, and really, the only other poem of Charles Martin's I know is his 9/11 poem--and his translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which I also love.

I haven't got much to add to what Michael has said, or the essayist. Every piece of this poem is in place, including the chilling epigraph. Combining the fate of the disappeared with Christ's resurrection is brilliant. And I love the loose, easy, conversational style of the poem, with its mix of matter-of factness and humor. Anything more overwrought would kill the poem for sure. The final three lines are heartbreaking--brilliant, again. And the essay-writer's note on the word "safely" goes to the heart of the poem--the narrator's uneasy stance between victims and dictator.

The poem's tone actually reminds me a little bit of that famous prose poem by Carolyn Forché, "The Colonel," which has the same chilling low key approach.

I love the essayist's engagement with the poem. He/she is unafraid to use personal experience as a basis for exploring the work. The writer delves expertly into the poem, and I think says everything that needs to be said, except for discussing the meter, which Michael touches on.

I actually couldn’t pin down a consistent meter here--quite a few pentameter lines, but some not, especially in the beginning stanza, which almost sounds like prose to me. The lines seem to become more strongly musical as the poem goes on, with the third stanza sounding the most musical, appropriately, because it touches on the resurrection story--although instantly deflates it. I like the casual, bumpy ride of these lines, echoing the uneasiness that winds through the poem as whole.

The essayist says: "I want to believe there is hope hiding under the poem’s political and religious despair, and in its absolute claim that holiness is on the side of murdered. "

I have to say I didn't sense much hope in those final lines, with the image of Christ being thrown into a ravine. But in some ways the essayist is right--in the same way that Forché in "The Colonel" suggests that the murdered (through the poem) will tell the world about what has happened. I get a small hint in Charles Martin's poem, in the stanza about the resurrection, that, just by mentioning it, the poet is suggesting that the evils in the world are not forever, that something good will come.

Added: I just realized that while I was writing this, Andrew was also posting his much more incisive and erudite take on the poem! I heartily agree with him that truth-telling lies at the heart of this poem, that truth will out.


Last edited by Charlotte Innes; 10-26-2012 at 12:54 AM.
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Old 10-26-2012, 02:33 AM
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John Whitworth John Whitworth is offline
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Nice work. Tell me about Charles Martin, people. I've never heard of him.
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Old 10-26-2012, 09:54 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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John, Charles is one of America's foremost poets. He's in his late sixties, I believe. He has been a great friend and mentor to me for nearly twenty years. I hate it when someone opines that a writer's work is "essential," but in Charles' case I think that argument can be made.

I know his work pretty well, so I know this sonnet. Charles has a rare gift for writing poems that engage politics and morality at the highest level. Obviously, the title of this poem engages Yeats and his Easter poem. Charles is unafraid of swinging for the fences.

He is unstinting in his generosity to youngsters, to me, to Greg Williamson, most recently to Nick Friedman. Get his Selected Poems.

I love a sonnet with a killer last line, and that word choice, "wired" is perfect.
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Old 10-26-2012, 04:17 PM
Charlotte Innes Charlotte Innes is offline
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Location: Los Angeles
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John, here's Charles Martin's poem "After 9/11" attached. It appeared originally in "The Hudson Review", and was subsequently anthologized in the The Best American Spiritual Writing 2006--along with one of mine, which is how I know about it. I was very very very humbled and delighted to share those pages with Charles, I must say--one of the highlights of my life.


Last edited by Charlotte Innes; 04-08-2013 at 02:33 PM.
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Old 10-26-2012, 05:10 PM
Jean L. Kreiling Jean L. Kreiling is offline
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The appreciator's remarks are extremely helpful, in great part because they so skillfully mix analysis and passion.

I would add that this poem packs a terrific punch even for a reader who does not share a conventional belief in Christ, but a more historical and/or metaphorical understanding of the Christian story. The injustice and inhumanity remain unutterably galling, the despair profoundly grim.
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Old 10-26-2012, 07:46 PM
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Janice D. Soderling Janice D. Soderling is offline
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This poem is what I will take with me after the event closes. Thanks to the poet, the submitter and the selector and the facilitator.

Last edited by Janice D. Soderling; 10-26-2012 at 07:49 PM.
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