Martin Willitts Jr
Dos Madres Press, $17.00
Available as ebook
As a relatively new poetry book reviewer, I try to take a humble approach to the books that are served-up for my examination. And, as a poet who has only seen limited success in getting work published I need to be doubly humble when faced with a widely published, seasoned author; an author like Martin Willitts Jr and his latest book of poems The Uncertain Lover. There is a danger that I might be either too harsh (due to lack of understanding) or too kind (due to being overwhelmed by expertise) as I work through the poems. I’m afraid that this review is going to fall heavily on the overwhelmed side of the scale.
From the first lines of the opening poem we know we are reading the words of a truly fine poet. After an epigraphical nod to Pablo Neruda, Mr. Willitts launches into his title poem “The Uncertain Lover” with this couplet:
“Who among you understands the guitar? If you do not know
how it makes a woman sway, then you know nothing.”
Echoes of Neruda continue throughout this rhythmic and lyrically surprising piece until the final couplet of the poem. Other phrases such as “…a cricket in a torrid season” “I will strum on her neckline” and “Too many men carry their dares on their lips. Not me.” are set in a rhythm that is reminiscent of South American jazz music.
Following this fine opening Willitts explores the art and life of Frida Kahlo in a series of five poems, some ekphrastic based on her paintings, and others that tell her story in a more narrative way. The fifth poem in the series is a three-part gem that looks at her marriage to Diego Rivera, a turbulent business. In part one Willitts inhabits the persona of Kahlo, then in part two he switches to the voice of Rivera and finally, in the third section, he looks at the marriage from an outsider’s viewpoint, one trying to find a lesson (perhaps) in the relationship. Every one of these fine poems has the feel of Latin American jazz.
And that feeling continues through many of the remaining selections in the first part of this collection. Many of the poems have epigraphs from Neruda that do service as signposts reminding us of Willitts’ inspiration, though we don’t really need these epigraphs as the lines of the poem speak clearly enough of their origins.
The second part of this book moves away from the Latino/Spanish influence and becomes decidedly more modern North American in tone, rhythm and language. Most of the poems here are about love (marital, sexual, familial) and death, two staples of poets who are more advanced in years. All of these poems are beautifully crafted, full of surprising lines and begging to be read aloud. Some of the standout pieces are “Silent Work” “Job Applicant” “Alternative Endings” and a four-part poem called “What Happens When We Die” which begins “When we die, the body empties/ like a rust belt city.” Mr. Willitts has a gift for making plain language sound eloquent, language that awakens the reader’s mind, stirs the heart and sometimes delivers a punch to the gut.
The final section of this collection is a four-part poetic tribute/interpretation of jazz musician John Coltrane’s composition “A Love Supreme”. The author uses Coltrane’s divisions – “Acknowledgement” “Resolution” “Pursuance” and “Psalm” wisely choosing not to render the music in poetry but to consider love, using the music as a backdrop for his meditations. I read this poem aloud with Coltrane and his combo playing (earbuds plugged in, giving me an odd sense of reading in the same room as the musicians) and the words mix nicely with the music. I felt this most successfully during quiet passages with pauses where the poem’s lines dropped seamlessly into the mood of the playing.
“The Uncertain Lover” is a strong and certain collection of fine poetry. Mr. Willitts has designed cohesive, interesting groupings of poems, poems that move like a musical composition with improvisational riffs slipped in to add surprise and variation. This is a book for anyone looking for a terrific example of contemporary poetry, poetry built on a strong foundation of what has come before and poetry that points towards what is possible on the road ahead. I recommend this book, without reservation.
James Bourey is an old poet and occasional prose writer living on the edge of the northern Adirondacks. His poetry chapbook "Silence, Interrupted" was published in 2015 by the Broadkill River Press. His work has appeared in Mojave River Review, Blue Nib, Paddock Review, Gargoyle and other anthologies and journals. He can often be found in darkened rooms reading aloud.