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Sonnets

by Camille Martin

As the no-nonsense title of Toronto-based Camille Martin’s second collection suggests, the book is made up entirely of 14-line poems, 101 in all – 53 fewer than Shakespeare, 24 more than Berrigan. The latter’s “baffling combustions” – the product of collage technique and mechanical process – inform this collection far more than Shakespeare’s sense of proportion, order, and summary wit. Martin takes so many different approaches to the sonnet, it seems the only options she’s rejected are the traditional English and Italian models.

Not all of her approaches are particularly successful or fresh. There isn’t much here that adds to innovations brought to sonneteering by such 19th- and 20th-century practitioners as Gerard Manley Hopkins, E.E. Cummings, and the aforementioned Berrigan. The sonnet has already flourished in this young millennium, which has seen numerous anthologies dedicated to the form (including one edited by this reviewer), showcasing more or less traditional approaches as well as the sonnet deconstructions of soi-disant avant-garde writers.

Nevertheless, Martin hits several bull’s-eyes in the book. She has a very good ear and is usually at her best when she leads with it, as in a fun, almost Hopkinsesque piece that begins “however you endeavour to sever the found / ground or ring of things too soon to be a boon / to a tablespoon of sable moon.” The poem flirts with nonsense, but stays syntactically coherent.

Less enjoyable are Martin’s indulgences in the “wrecked sense” of jarring collage and surrealist juxtaposition, which tend to produce neat-sounding phrases marooned in broken poems that feature “one non-sequitur after another.”

It’s true that there’s none of the lyrical self-absorption one finds in too many collections, but in its place is an equally self-indulgent preoccupation with writerliness. Martin’s poems are positively awash in references to writing (or “scribbling”) and poetry, which is something avant-garde poets would do well to recognize as one more stale convention, and be on guard against it.