Review: “Purgatory” by Amelia Martens

Purgatory by Amelia Martens

I will admit that my first reading of Amelia Martens’s poems left me nonplussed.  Each poem is a single paragraph, largely narrated in the second-person, with no line endings.  A cynic would say this isn’t poetry at all, but prose.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether we call it poetry or prose; these boundaries are elastic, if not completely arbitrary.  Nevertheless, I found it difficult to take more from the collection than a series of jumbled impressions.  The refusal to make any concession to poetic form seemed to strip the poems of meaning.  The overriding impression was a collection of vignettes: people trapped in a never-ending gameshow, or perpetually waiting for the unemployment office to call back–irritating perhaps, but hardly purgatorial.

A second reading reveals how wrong I was.  At first individual lines catch my attention: “This morning your house exploded” begins “This morning your house exploded and in a separate incident a coop caught fire“; “There are ration lines”, meanwhile, ends “She has two white hairs growing from her chin, which she uses like the strings of a sad violin to play a song you once knew.”  The deadpan humour is easy to miss on a first reading; but once it catches the reader, other details emerge.

The poems present a collection of isolated moments, redolent with sense impressions.  “You realize your appearance is an illusion” contains the line “You close your eyes and imagine a parka, something long with fur around the face“; in “You wake up to the sound of the cradle rocking” we are told “Your house is 48 degrees and falling… Everything you need is out of batteries.”  These seem like commonplace images, but the second-person narrative puts the reader inside the poem.  Whereas much poetry encourages the reader to empathise with the narrator’s love, or envy, or raging thirst, here the narrator is absent; the reader is invited into the poem, but then left to experience it alone.

My initial impression of individual vignettes was correct in one sense.  These poems depict individuals trying, but failing, to make contact.  In “They replaced the switch with a dimmer”, we experience a telephone conversation: “The voice on the other end of the line is, always, your mother… She says your father is sitting upstairs with a loaded .45 … The line goes dead.”  We experience a mixture of uncertainty and grief: the implication is obvious, but not stated, but why is it “always… mother“?  Is this a real situation or a recurring nightmare?  We don’t know, because we don’t need to know: it is the moment that communicates.

Is this collection “purgatory”?  The final poem, “There are almost seven billion people”, describes “knobs… turning and doors… creaking open like casket lids“.  It could be purgatory, or it could be real life: surrounded by other people, but forever feeling that we haven’t quite made contact with anyone.

Purgatory is published by Black Lawrence Press and is available on Amazon.

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Having spent most of his twenties trying to be a musician Jason Jawando was finally forced to give up and get a proper job.  He began writing fiction and poetry in his early thirties and has been published in a number of print and online publications.