Joshua Butts

A Life Lived Elsewhere: A Review of Justin Marks’ Million in Prizes

(New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2009)

                        The shame I felt then
                        is the shame I have now, though tempered
                        by my healthy adult knowledge
                        that I was just a kid. I hated
                        being a child. My shame
                        is having been one at all.
                        Since then, I’ve been cultivating
                        an ability to look back on myself
                        as someone other than myself. Better yet,
                        no one at all. Instead, a mere body
                        moving through space under some other
                        volition, like lights from far off cars—sudden
                        shapes in shapeless nights—going down a road
                        at the edge of a field outside a bedroom window
                        each night, their headlights pointing to where
                        no one cares as long as they are gone soon.

                                                ( from “Childhood”)




Justin Marks’ first collection is called Million in Prizes, but could have as easily been given the title, “Life is Elsewhere,” the title poem of the opening section. For Marks, time, most notably the past—for whatever can we know of time but the past—is a continuous subject. But there is also (to use one of Marks’ words) a “healthy” sense that life on earth is small, insignificant, and one’s personal experiences are the best place to spot this insignificance. It is mature, Marks might say, to realize things are so. His voice features a bravura that is consistently and willfully undercut. A high-wire act, no doubt, that through cocksureness is capable of expressing, oddly enough, some democratic ideal, as in the book’s opening poem, “Matter of Fact”:


                        I wanted to create the ocean, the sky,
                        the intricate structure of a leaf
                        and thought by now
                        I’d have come close.

                        What joy I have in knowing
                        creation of that sort

                        doesn’t exist.
                        The world has little

                        use for me.
                        Its glare blinds.

                        How glad I am
                        for the orbit I inhabit.

                        A planet to the sun.


In this poem (and in the book), Marks seems to insist that one not forget the clock of monumental time, and that personal time always moves (if at all) within it.


Many of the poems risk a certain irksomeness, but they seem to trust that in the same moment they can nullify this irksomeness, as in the poem “Little Happier” that opens: “All that whiteness was still before me” and a moment later the poet describes the snow as “whiteness without end.” A poem, ostensibly about the purity of snow, eventually and profitably, changes seasons:
                        One year I forgot
                        to spray the budding
                        little apple tree in the backyard.
                        From then on worms
                        each year more freely preyed
                        on it so tenderly grown,
                        which reminded me that that tree really exists,
                        as do others. 


The poem then moves back to the snow: “[H]ow naïve I was to say, / whiteness without end.” The poet kids the opening gesture. Rather than go back, then, and change the line, he leaves it, and concludes the poem recognizing its sentimentality. This is a different brand of courage from Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” wherein the poet tells herself to “write it!” Marks’ inner voice might say, “leave it!


Because of this tone (or in spite of it), the opening section is warm, welcoming.  The best two poems of this section are coincidentally narrated from the air.  One, “Sea to Sea,” closes:
                        A little turbulence. Engines nearly inaudible.
                        A clear plastic cup on my tray table.
                        Cold water almost perfectly still. 


Here, the enormity of the land, from sea to sea, is collapsed and the water that surrounds this land is placed in the “clear plastic cup.” The poem, “Life is Elsewhere,” also examines the sensation of the big corresponding to the small, or even to the forgotten:                    
                        Looking out the window of a plane
                        at night, I’m filled with that
                        romantic feeling. The lights below
                        are indecipherable
                        letters of some unuttered language.
                        Nothing new. I’m sick
                        of the selves I’ve been.
                        Their gestures are all
                        I can conjure, a kind of
                        dishonesty, but one
                        that keeps me busy.
                        I was free
                        from disappointment
                        until I looked to the past
                        and thought: now what?
                        Trying to visualize
                        ten dimensions at once,
                        understanding reality as different
                        than it’s already unknown to be—
                        a form of magic. Do you see
                        the difficulty? I’m delusional
                        when I sleep. It’s better
                        to keep your eyes open.
                        The best time on earth
                        is one you don’t remember.


The comment on language becomes a comment upon the self. The present buckles when faced with the past. The qualitative “best time” occurs in forgetfulness. The separation, the undercutting, the distance—makes yet another poem about riding in an airplane “with that romantic feeling” possible.




An untitled sequence that gets the default bracketed title, “[Summer     insular]” makes up the middle section of the book. The sequence takes place in flashed episodes over the beginning, middle, and end of a summer that features a bit of work, a bit of play, the lines between which are malleable. But Marks does mean real work: “Word from the bosses today: three weeks to improve.” The sequence in its best moments are those that seem unforced but that feature a lineated shuttering that provides a torque in the line, as in the opening lines:
                        Summer           insular
                        season in which

                        the mind functions
                        as in no other

                        yet I’ve never
                        given myself over
                        to         I’m giving over
                        to now             in a way

                        but I can’t
                        be sure            

                        (I haven’t done this before)
                        of much more

                        than what I’ve done
                        so far

                        which is a bit
                        more than I’d done before

                        I noticed the days getting longer
                        and warm        then hot

                        nature’s           the city’s
                        abundance in full bloom.


This is quite an opening, and stylistically, the section comes as a change, and is welcome in this sense that one is happy things do change. But in the poem happiness is questioned. It is almost as if the childhood spirit from section one becomes enlightened and realizes—from the very beginning almost—that “Summer / is nearly over.” But the poem isn’t a downer; rather, there is a mood, something under the surface, what one might term a persistent, effective melancholy:


                        I feel good
                        like I’m right
                        to see things in rudiments
                        basic facts: outside

                        it is hot and sunny
                        a nice breeze blowing.
Other times, the poet takes the issue above the boards:


                        A poem about summer
                        should be happy     right?
                        Summer is life
                        in full swing


and concludes:


                        But to see        to try to see

                        some significance
                        into     I mean onto     things

                        I return to certain habits of mind
                        which are part of what I want

                        but not all     Happiness
                        for example     is lacking

                        taking a different
                        dinghy for a row

                        a good smoke
Stylistically, the corrections (“I mean onto”) makes one thinks of Creeley, as does Marks’ emotional/sexual directness:


                        A kiss from Meri
                        another     more

                        then sex
                        a nap


And yet girded into the poem is a clause that says there is “[n]o need / to name names”:


                        I am aware
                        from whom I borrow
                        (steal outright)
                        and don’t

                        No need
                        to name names


But many come to mind, and for the same reasons one thinks of Creeley, add the foodie, and you have Robert Hass:
                        For dessert:

                        pear gelato flecked
                        with flakes of chocolate.



For a poet that earlier in the book can be compared to Creeley or Oppen or O’Hara or Hass—Marks moves on to the land of Tate, or Edson. And the third section, “The Voice Inside the Cheerleader’s Megaphone,” seems a part of this deliberate progression. From self-contained poems to a sequence, in the third group, Marks shows yet another side. These poems tend towards the prose stanza, if not the prose poem altogether, and they move beyond the constructed “I” persona of the earlier sections. No panoply of voices, there is though a wider cast of characters:


                        When I was a child, my father was a goddess. Gender switching
                        was common. Now my boobs keep falling out of my shirt, which
                        really sucks, but if I were into dudes, I’d totally be into you.
                                                                        [“Another Year of My Life with Me”]


But the business of time and its ineffable face consistently haunts the book. This can be seen in “The Detonator Always Has a Red Button,” wherein Marks at once ruralizes and updates Prufrock:


                        I am merely one to whom things happen. Being a child of the
                        country, mosquitoes harassed me all the long summer nights.

                        What’s most important to me now is water, my complexion, and
                        urinating. In bed last night, I kept my genitals to myself.

                        I was going to say something about the clouds, these brand new
                        clouds. Now I’m tempted to see where a round drinks before
                        every decision will take me.

                        When people discover my rural roots, they inevitably resort to
                        calling me Huckleberry. The day crawls by like a living document,
                        the prettier for having forgotten me. 

And for Marks, life is elsewhere, or passing dumbly under “new clouds.” Nonplussed, the speaker in “Cédez Le Passage,” says “O, would you look at the time. That’s a lot gone by.” 


But back to that title: Million in Prizes. There’s even a poem called, “Million in Prizes.” It is a wonderful poem, and this is an stunning first book, well worth the price of entry. Iggy Pop sang “I’m worth a million in prizes, ” to wit, Marks might answer, in his self-mocking Eliotic melancholia: “Well, I’m not.”