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    Of meaning and metaphor

    By MIKE CHASAR

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000


    Perhaps the best thing about Climbing Back, Dionisio Martinez's fourth book of poems, is that it reveals the Cuban-born, Tampa Bay poet to be a very real friend of metaphor. Too often, many poets concerned with the same issues Martinez explores -- perspective, language, similarity and difference -- reduce their poems to a certain literalness or uniformity that tastes like "global culture." They either limit their concerns to just the surface of a text, or they let conventional assumptions about the transparency of language go unquestioned. Martinez, however, begins by assuming that embracing metaphor means embracing multiplicity; multiple meanings and multiple voices go hand in hand.

    Multiplicity, however, frequently makes for "overlapping and contradictory theories" that make us wonder whether, metaphorically speaking, "the dots can still be connected." And Climbing Back digs deep into what Martinez at one point calls "disharmony." The very fact that this is a book of "prose poems" -- a form made of apparent opposites -- seems to embody how "overlapping and contradictory" ideas can and do exist.

    Martinez also gives a nod to surrealism, which claims multiple ways of viewing the world, and he uses anachronisms and parables to explore the ways in which "disharmony can be a blessing" after all.

    If all of this sounds fairly cerebral, well, it is, and Martinez makes no excuses for it.

    Rather than simply providing a "strip of pop wisdom," as one of the poems suggests, Climbing Back argues that reading isn't passive osmosis at all but, rather, a very real act of meaning making. After "disharmony can be a blessing," for example, he adds, "Just imagine:" leaving the sentence unfinished to effectively invite the reader to complete the poem on his or her own. For readers assuming that "the ideal poem [is] a transparent pipeline of emotion," as poet/critic Alice Fulton has put it, this can be a difficult endeavor indeed.

    The title of every poem invokes the biblical character of the prodigal son, which ends up making this a book of parables about exile and hopeful return. Martinez fills the poems with all sorts of debris from our culture: Miles Davis, the grassy knoll, Las Vegas and planned obsolescence as well as philosophy, religion, art, math and astronomy. And by having a "Prodigal Son" negotiate these details as one would sort out the nuances of metaphor or multiple perspectives, Martinez implies that actively examining our culture's debris lands us in exile as well -- physically, perhaps, but emotionally, psychologically and intellectually as well.

    There are some difficult poems in Climbing Back, which was selected by Jorie Graham as a winner in the 1999 National Poetry Series Competition. But then Martinez sets out to do some difficult work.

    "There is a wealth of possibilities on the cutting room floor," he writes in The Prodigal Son edits a newsreel. And it doesn't hurt us any to help sort them out.

    - Mike Chasar works in the education department at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.

    Festival author

    Tampa poet Dionisio D. Martinez will read his new collection of poetry from 12:30-12:45 in Seibert Classroom 104 at Eckerd College on Sunday, Nov. 12 as part of the Times Festival of Reading.

    CLIMBING BACK

    By Dionisio D. Martinez

    Norton, $20

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