Those jagged shapes drew pictures on the sky— fabulous fictions: bridges, skyscrapers, toy building blocks arranged by alien hands…
from “From a Greyhound”
So begins section two of Marc Alan Di Martino’s second collection of
poetry: on a Greyhound zipping alongside the swamps of New Jersey. It is
a quiet poem, but one that nonetheless crackles with a child-like
excitement. To peer out the window alongside Di Martino is to look past
the industrial hell of our own creation and into a gorgeous vision of
urban mythologies. It is to see smokestack dragons spitting fierce
plumes into the air. It is to see crowds of people reduced to nothing
but ants. Through Di Martino’s eyes, a city is a playground of quartz, a
tiger, a dollhouse, and great Camelot itself, rife with adventure. This
poem, much like the collection as a whole, is a homecoming to the New
York City of Di Martino’s youth.
Anything but still, Still Life with City (Pski’s Porch 2022), takes
you by the hand and whisks you backstage into New York City’s breathless
underworld of “tramps, vamps, and Frankensteins.” It is, at once, a
dazzling performance—of intellect, of the fast-and-loud lifestyle, of
the self—and a tender contemplation on the fabulous fictions of youth.
“There is no rest” Di Martino writes in “Second Self”—after all, how
can one rest in a city which refuses the very suggestion of sleep? A
city teeming with Harvard-educated artists, 24-hour discotheques, and
open mic nights? How can one rest when there is always more work to be
done in order to afford a six-pack of beer, a quick slice of pizza after
work? What Di Martino constructs here is a mythos of the modern artist
moving through a uniquely fast-paced and tumultuous era. For the artist,
the city is not only a home, nor is it simply a muse. It is an
ever-shifting maze, and one’s personal identity must evolve rapidly to
accommodate the fast-moving lifestyle. In spite of the mask of
adulthood, there is always more to learn. No matter how familiar the
walls become, both the city and the self remain an enigma. They are
things to be navigated. With such compasses as David Foster Wallace,
Henry Miller, and Charles Bukowski, our hero moves through “block after
block after block” of exploitation and addiction, managing to hold onto
his faith and his sense of wonder no matter the circumstance. One place
this is clearly illustrated is in Di Martino’s exquisite use of verbs to
describe even the most mundane and gross parts of life. In “Crawlspace,”
for instance, breakfast cereal laden with insects creeps from its bowl.
In “The Existentialist of Nassau Avenue,” the speaker “rupture[s] with
humanity” over a pubic hair in his crab rangoon. In “Caravaggio Was Our
Matchmaker,” poetry adorns.
The poems I wrote you, too, were of inferior metals
melted down and cast into new forms. Today they adorn you
in this bright band.
—from "Caravaggio Was Our Matchmaker"
Even in the aftermath of “our terrible future,” as is outlined in the
titular poem, when the book swings down into its most contemplative in a
post-9/11 America, Di Martino’s language is rich, saturated with
irresistible flashes of sound. The verse is haunted by the ring of
unanswered telephones. Shadowy whispers populate the avenues until we
are left with nothing but “the silence / of the loudest city on Earth.”
But New York is not the only city in this still life to be rendered in
such fine detail. From live shows in Dallas to the snow-covered lawns of
Mystic, Connecticut, Di Martino chronicles experiences and captures the
character of each place he visits. And this collection is not limited to
the Americas, either. In the stand-alone four-page poem comprising all
of Section 3: Passages, our protagonist is back on a charging train. He
is on yet another adventure, leaving behind the unique struggles of the
cities of his youth in favor of the Rome of his paternal grandmother. He
has grown older and more reflective, yet he continues to paint the
places he visits with a tender hand, cataloging their beauty before they
are destroyed to make way for tchotchke shops and war machines.
The meaning of these photographs is absence.
—from "Her Mother's Clothes"
In short, Still Life with City is a collection bustling with life even
in grief. It is an exploration of art—whether it be poetry, punk
music, or great paintings of yesteryear—and how it empowers us when we
are at our most vulnerable. To be an artist is to create in spite of
tragedy, attempting to preserve a still life which is impermanent by
Ashley Wagner is a queer writer based in Baltimore. Her writing has appeared in JAKE, Foglifter, and Paperbark Mag, among others. Her debut chapbook is out now with Bottlecap Press. You can find her work at ashleywagnerpoetry.com.