Climbing Back

Climbing Back

by Dionisio D. Martinez

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"[O]ne of the most important new works of poetry this year."—Kirkus Reviews
"Heartbreaking, overstuffed, seeping with history, lonelier than imaginable and truly in-the-face of American culture, Climbing Back's debris-field of prose poems tries with all its heart to outrun cultural paradigms and ends up refining our spiritual ignorance till it's our most

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"[O]ne of the most important new works of poetry this year."—Kirkus Reviews
"Heartbreaking, overstuffed, seeping with history, lonelier than imaginable and truly in-the-face of American culture, Climbing Back's debris-field of prose poems tries with all its heart to outrun cultural paradigms and ends up refining our spiritual ignorance till it's our most gorgeous attribute."—from Jorie Graham's citation for the National Poetry Series. "Dionisio D. Martínez's Climbing Back is an epic-poetic-cinematic response to culture, a one-book shorthand to the 20th century and beyond, a series of responses to the world that are imaginative rather than reductive."—Susan Hussey, Organica

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With a cast that includes the likes of Hendrix, Garbo, Monet, the Elephant Man, JFK, Warhol, John Lennon and, repeatedly, a contemporary Prodigal Son, Martinez's fourth collection reads less like the Bible and more like a millennial spread in Vanity Fair. Selected by the biblically preoccupied Jorie Graham (viz. this year's Swarm) for the National Poetry Series, these prose poems document a tired collision of high and low culture, drawing on Miles Davis, for example, to inform us that an artist "learning to scat is not unlike a fire learning to burn." Poem after poem piles up people and images, "a wealth of possibilities on the cutting room floor--buildings to be demolished, voices to obstruct, faces to rearrange in a crowd, faces to pull out of a crowd, fields to be filled with faces, faces to fill with bewilderment," here with a nod to Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro." The short titles in the third section (i.e. "Credo," "Fate," Faith") come as a relief after the incessant anaphora used in the rest of the book's 50-odd titles which, though individually playful, collectively flatten: "The Prodigal Son envisions nothing," "The Prodigal Son succumbs to secular miracles," "The Prodigal Son investigates the Hemmingway suicides," etc. (Resemblances to Marvin Bell's "Dead Man" may be purely coincidental.) While the combination of vernacular culture and spiritual searching will appeal to some readers, the message borne by this Son isn't quite up to its precedent. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Chosen for the "National Poetry" series by Jorie Graham, this intensive collection of prose poems uses elements as disparate as literature, philosophy, history, jazz, and popular culture to forge a surreal, wildly inventive march through contemporary civilization. Many poems feature the Prodigal Son, the Cuban-born author's alter ego, who like Zbigniew Herbert's Mr. Cogito has a series of arresting encounters that might be described as zany if they weren't so thought-provoking and cuttingly apt in their depiction of modern discontents. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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New Edition
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5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.50(d)

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Chapter One

The Prodigal Son and the two Sinatras

The first time he becomes aware of the voice, some are saying that popular music is at its nadir. Transition tends to have this effect on people. Nelson Riddle is no longer writing the arrangements. If there's a new audience, it can't sort through the complexities of a big band, the lush trombones, the way a soloist can play his way out of the chart without ever leaving it. The early voice, crooning with the Dorsey outfit, comes to his attention much later. This voice is the trombone, the solo that comes face to face with the night and comes out unscathed. Like Monk's hands on the keyboard, it stops in places where one would expect it to become a victim of its own inventions. But it wanders back nonchalantly and you forget the pauses that make it possible. He doesn't know how to reconcile the two voices before they run into each other, both of them losing their timing on the way, both of them trying to catch up with the present. They can't conceive of irretrievable losses, of hearts so still that they're no longer susceptible to music. One voice doesn't hear the other struggling like a cloud on a clear day. Neither one suspects that they will meet here, and these are not compassionate times.

The Prodigal Son on Green Dolphin Street

    or, more precisely, on a distant variation of it. Some things you can never apply to a life at the window, not even at one of the windows where Eliot, in his proper voice, places men in shirtsleeves, tells them to lean out, to shout something at the reader.Arudeness so mannered you know it isn't theirs but Eliot's—or Eliot's idea of rudeness in the common man—and it's Eliot's insults they shout, and Eliot's lips where they place their cigarettes and light them. Let's say it's 1958. Sounds like Miles Davis nearby—a trumpet that knows its limitations and doesn't give a damn. Jazz crosses a line at one point. On this side is the musician, his lips, his lungs. Across the line is the song, the horn, no trace of the man. Say Eliot lives down the street, or is visiting someone down the street, and hears enough to make him stay longer, to make him walk out alone. Sometimes, rereading Eliot, these men are present. Sometimes they're nowhere in the vicinity—it's all empty streets and empty windows, it's as if he meant for the men to peer from the windows only occasionally. Follow this shattered logic for a moment: Miles and Eliot run into each other on one of these streets. Maybe it's an alley, but this is not important. They brush against each other. One of them mutters something, the other looks away. This is very important. Eliot has everything by which he'll be remembered behind him and seven years ahead of him. Miles has just played the Plaza Hotel. One of the two men—hard to say which one—is doomed and the street will get the better of him.

The Prodigal Son: The treadmill effect

    is not limited to walking uphill during a landslide. A man can scat. A man can believe the simple story of Satchmo dropping his lyrics in midsong. The story can strike back like a snake, biting the man on the neck. A man can scat until the sounds make sense again, until the words come back to the page he sets under the one small leak. It rains and the words talk to each other in a peculiarly intimate language. A man can listen even if he doesn't understand. A man can go on listening even as he declares war on what he hears. He can scat successfully only if he doesn't know it is the art of coming undone. Crumbs of sound snap off until the air is empty. A man can scat for help when the journey is longer than the road. A man who believes in Satchmo watches him drop his horn and his lyrics as though this were also the art of falling. Not falling apart or falling out but simply falling. A man can believe that from an accident an industry rises. Scat acquires properties one would expect to find in the synthetic counterpart of speech. A man learning to scat is not unlike a fire learning to burn. The man picks up the lyric sheet and the horn. Satchmo walks away like a landslide. The man improvises a story.

The Prodigal Son: German postcards

I. Ella at Deutschlandhalle, West Berlin, 13 February 1960

This is how you wing it when identical souvenirs are exchanged. His hands and the object in his hands immediately turn a single color and texture while her hands refuse to be transformed (though solid, the object conforms to the cupping of her palms, to the fingers following the curve that begins at the center of each palm; a childish instinct records every gesture, leaving out the implicit dangers, so the thought that a corner of the world is safe is more convincing tonight; the object proposes a compromise, the hands decline or dismiss the proposition; she watches the whole affair as if the hands were not hers, as if the hands were empty, as if, as though, as opposed to; she brings her hands together, interlocking fingers falling into place like some military formation, and the object becomes the gap we assume exists between any two things that are joined, no matter how close the union) or the transformation is too slow to be relevant. You be the judge. You in your wing chair. You in your slippers. You reading in your sleep.

2. Brandenburg a cappella, 9 November 1989

Sometimes a great architect works undercover in the wrecking crew. He chisels for the enemy. Wall to rubble, rubble to dust. His sweat is genuine, almost biblical. Mercenaries who've joined the project fall until there's no one left up there, nothing to fall from, only fallen men covered with a film as taut as a good alibi. They rise and join the night like coal miners who accidentally save themselves and stumble into their own parade. Even when they grow comfortable with the floats and streamers and the band marching silently behind them, the miners are still surprised to see the wives and children of the victims waving from the sidewalk as if these dazed survivors carried in their dust the essence of the dead.

The Prodigal Son: Kierkegaard at face value

The child with absolute pitch forgets Mozart, and music stops seeping out of that room where the fire escape skips a few rungs. The silent child wants to panic but can't find the appropriate expression. The crowd appears to grow sensible in the confusion though nothing actually grows; no visible sign of sensibility—say, a third eyebrow—makes a spontaneous appearance in the crowd to assure us that it's finally tame. This brings us to the body, the single unanimous body wearing itself inside out. One wonders what pulls it all together, how this and this compensate for a lack of that; why no single part is a threat—to the whole or to the other parts; why there is no sign of a system or hierarchy. The one he follows home stops to ask for directions, consequently turning into a public spectacle. A crowd installs itself to watch or to be seen.

The Prodigal Son reassesses Kierkegaard

El odio como factor de lucha ...


Jimi Hendrix is playing "Little Wing" and it isn't raining yet. The house shifts a bit every season, the earth below it settling like someone old enough to refer to the town of his adult life as home. The towns of childhood are warmer and vague, and the aunt who smells like soup comes to visit every summer and stays too long. This is the bird that flies into his cupped hands when he stands on the green balcony, his aunt leaning on the piano, watching him and watching the bird fly off and back again. Little wing split in two. Clouds building. One loud dream always tugging at his plaid shirt.

... el odio intransigente al enemigo que impulsa más allá de las limitaciones naturals del ser humano ...


Let's get one thing straight. The wall keeps coming back. His father takes him to the harbor to see the famous ship that keeps its eye on the island, but he sees only sea and sky. His father points, but still he sees no ship. When they come home, the wall he has crushed like paper in so many dreams is back. Though he tries, he cannot see the famous ship, and it becomes a symbol—like God and the enemy. The wall, which few notice, becomes for him what the ship has become for nearly everyone else. He hears of other walls with some evil purpose, but he can only see this one as it turns to paper in his dreams and back to brick in this life.

... y lo convierte en una efectiva, selective y fría máquina de matar. Nuestros soldados tienen que ser así, un pueblo sin odio no puede triunfar sobre un enemigo brutal. —Che Guevara


More about the bird though not everything. He has vowed never to tell us all he remembers. He says only one town is approachable enough. The bird, he says. The green balcony overlooking the abandoned gas pump and, beyond that, the furniture store with a single wicker sofa (not for sale) in the showroom. One day, from the balcony, he watches the parade. It features an enemy plane shot down by the rebels. He notices that it has only one wing. By now he knows not to trust the rebels. This makes him the enemy. The bird flies down to the gas pump and its eyes meet the eyes of ordinary humans slowly becoming a crowd.

The Prodigal Son edits a newsreel

    for consistency and the result is enough to make a revisionist weep. It is always difficult to pin down the source of tears, the raw and moist emotion that manifests itself in the eyes. Maybe it starts outside the body and seeps in surreptitiously, swings like a pendulum in the throat. There is a wealth of possibilities on the cutting room floor—buildings to be demolished, voices to obstruct, faces to rearrange in a crowd, faces to pull out of a crowd, fields to be filled with faces, faces to fill with bewilderment. The living know instinctively how to strike a pose; everyone else has to scramble for the items needed to come up with the blueprint and a rudimentary knowledge of the language it speaks. Before the beginning, one has a scene in mind—a brook, a mote, the impression of a body on the tender surface of a recently plowed field. Some revisionists cry because they see the future and it is self-explanatory.

The Prodigal Son watches a documentary

    on euphoria and feels his body—muscle by muscle, limb by limb—fall asleep during the screening. There is an insurrection, there are lynchings, there is a highly combustible gathering of names followed by more lynchings. The time is most likely the present though the place doesn't appear to be particularly attached—in the sense place is sometimes emotionally attached (one wishes there were a more reliable term)—to anything historically or geographically measurable. Now and then, one feels on the scene the grip of something not quite scripted. Someone comes by to light the lamps along one street and then another. It is not unlike watching an automobile being pulled by a team of horses. But the glow from the street lamps is consistent with the mood of the mob: violence needs back lighting, like the face of Greta Garbo. (That contrived halo, one suspects, is a compromise hammered out from a clause of unreasonable demands in her contract.) Whether it's Garbo or a mob, the desired effect is always a glimpse of the text one expects to read in the Great Unwritten Contract. Collect enough glimpses and you have a partial image, which is the source of illusion, disillusion, the stop-action sequence of a mythological animal sprouting horns in a fraction of the time it takes you to look up its name.

The Prodigal Son, Mr. DeMille, Norma Desmond Billy Wilder, Claude Monet, et al.

He runs into Billy Wilder, the director, at the Paramount lot, and they start to chat about the state of American cinema and how life on the big screen has grown dangerously accustomed to itself. It's like putting on weight over the years, one says, and not noticing what a burden the body has become. Both men are intrigued by the notion of coming back from the dead to recount one's ordinary life. They assume that there are captive ears for this out there, anonymous listeners with equally ordinary lives. The relevance of any one thing is relative. Only relativity is always relevant. Both men have an ear to the ground, as they say even now that the expression has lost its luster. The ground will do although other surfaces are safer and more reliable. What they need is a hook, another expression that now and again finds its way to the surface of our vocabulary. Billy suggests a shot from the bottom of the pool, looking up. On the surface, like one of these dormant expressions of our vernacular, a body floats. Beyond it, the usual characters one would expect at the scene of any suspicious death. They appear a bit more distorted than the floating body, and the mansion in the background is as hazy as those Houses of Parliament Monet painted over and over. In some variations, fog dominates the composition. This should not be an impediment. The key to understanding the paintings is to know that they are all about buildings, that the presence of buildings is not particularly crucial.

The Prodigal Son paraphrases a plagiarist

    hoping to produce an echo in a vacuum, a rendering versus a carbon of the original. Salvador Dalí has a theory about the Angelus of Millet—he is not obsessed with the painting we know but with what he believes Millet paints and eventually paints over. When the Louvre finally X-rays the Angelus, revealing something like a child's coffin beneath what is now a basket on the ground between a man and a woman, Dalí says this confirms his premonition and explains why the expressions on the couple's faces bear no relation to the exhaustion of field work. These peasants are not bowing their heads to examine the workmanship of the basket or the ripeness of the fruits it contains; they stand in a room beyond grief, the door locked, grief thrashing about in the hall. Because there are too many keys and most of them are mislabeled, one tends to spend too much time in the dark hall, fighting grief for the right key. There is no mention of the original shape or purpose of the wheelbarrow behind the woman (although one would think this is an elementary problem: every coffin needs a carriage); there are no questions about the pitchfork planted near the man, how it may be a shovel in disguise. Dalí finds the key and makes his way into the room a bit too soon, casually greeting the peasants who are stunned by his appearance. While the unlikely trio denounces surrealism, one could conceivably X-ray every painting in the Louvre and become self-appointed curator of the results; one could create or attract a subculture of those who believe that the only possible art is the discovery of the thing effaced—a voice quivering beneath a still life, a nude killed by a cubist, the Millet child spending the better part of eternity upstaged by uncounted bodies in a mass grave.

The Prodigal Son gives blood

What could be more intimate? Battlefield, altar, bodas de sangre, marriage bed. If it pleases the gods, there's bound to be a con man with a shortcut nearby. The ghost of Hamlet's father is more convincing than the Prince of Denmark in the flesh. Antimatter is more theatrically inclined than matter, just as radio—despite all the arguments for the intimacy of the page or the screen's objectivity—is the medium best equipped to handle suspense. The con man keeps falling between stations, the shortwave set always on the blink, countries fading out, countries fading in, a multitude of unrelated monologues forced to share a single mouth, the listener—this means you, Mr. Con Man—never knowing where any station will turn up. (Never twice on the same spot.) "This is Radio Luxembourg." "No, this ..." And the second voice flaunts its anonymity like an echo that returns at will. If this were television and the shadow-voice an image, they would call it a ghost. A clot of massacres jams radio signals. Radio Free Europe, Radio Martí, the pirate voices from offshore—all jammed. A bloodless death is like a downtown flasher who sends his raincoat to the cleaners, waits, goes back to ask why the holdup, is told the raincoat is in someone else's hands, an honest mistake. A bloodless coup at the palace and the new leader emerges with a clean raincoat too big at the shoulders. When he waves to his sympathizers (one sees only the man but assumes he isn't waving to an empty street), his own bony shoulders wriggle inside the padded shoulders of the raincoat, they go limp like mice halfway down the length of a snake. A meal as bloody and as bloodless as a ghost. The little man, shoulders like foreign hearts pumping the cold blood of a reptile, has come to hear from a ghost what the radio will not (cannot?) tell him; stops halfway down the steps that lead to the palace gate; takes off his raincoat to beat the air, creating an illusion of wind no ghost can resist.

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