Gail Martin

Gail Martin’s work as a psychotherapist illuminates the emotionally complex poems of Begin Empty-Handed (2013). Martin’s admiration for the messy territory of the mind shines through these poems. “Life,” she writes, “is a bruise I keep pressing.” In “The Therapist Watches Birds,” Martin recounts the human suffering she encounters in her daily work, and manages to find relief in the natural world, despite its occasional indifference or cruelty: “Some nights are just too cold. I am not responsible.” Martin’s poems flash with associative imagination. The vast gulf between security and the unknown stretches “somewhere between grackles/and a white shark.” In the words of Laura Kasischke, Begin Empty-Handed is an “awe-inspiring experience for the reader: although each poem is flawlessly revised for music and meaning, there are ragged and astonishing associative fingerprints left on everything.”

Poetry Center Reading:
Fall 2016 (20th Anniversary of Perugia Press, with Lisa Allen Ortiz and Corrie Williamson)

Begin Empty-Handed

My liturgy is easy: morning’s first bird,
warm rain, the peepers’ glee. The east sky

lighting up. But still, there will be a fork
in my day, some junction of blessing

and question. Call the hawk wheeling
over the plowed field abundance,

casting a shadow as he flies. This
is not a simple economy, where loss

is the only bird at the feeder. Consider
one world––white tulips in a crystal jar,

Japanese pearl divers, skirts flaring
in the light then becoming the light.

A girl who confesses the reason she loves
elephants is because they mourn their dead.

We used to have a minister who moved
his hands to contain or punctuate.

On the one hand…and on the other…
this scaffolding a formula to say almost

nothing. Yesterday, I found deer bones, gore
gone but some fur clutched to a joint

that looked gnawed off. It takes me a while,
studying its size, the limits of its hingey nature

to determine knee. And suddenly I miss
my brother who understands all these things,

as well as the helplessness of it, the torn
full skirt of it, the spilled cold milk of it.

From BEGIN EMPTY-HANDED (Perugia Press, 2013)

Two Truths and a Lie

My father was a surgeon and my mother was a sandhill crane. Or my mother delivered babies and my father was a starfish. There were two of them. My father fed my mother peanut butter and raisin bran every morning. Friday nights we’d play two truths and a lie over and over and I learned love’s habits. Grown men held golf umbrellas over us, sensible harbors from raindrops or bee swarm, fed me peppermints warm from their pockets. Sometimes it would storm paper and the trees would flatten and turn white. Two nights ago, the bark peeled from our last living birch tree. One of us has a scar on the throat that still itches. It may be a paper cut. The family engine never sputters, though my brother has never been happy. All this yachts are leakers. My own diamond shoes are too tight, and then there is my closed heart. The rattlesnake curled on the threshold? We toss him on the woodpile near the cedars to keep down mice, their rustle and scurry on the heap. Mother dreamed she heard them playing thimbles in the eaves. Even now, I monitor the calcium and gold levels in her blood, its sweet smell and gush. And this year, for the first time, I howl as the white flowers go into the dirt, their frowsy skirts spilling over the clay pot’s lip. The landscape is cramped here, no mountains stretch their faces to cloud, no water spills its trout off the world’s edge. House house house house. Tree tree tree, you can’t see much at all.

From BEGIN EMPTY-HANDED (Perugia Press, 2013)

A Girl Carries My Blood to California, Claims the Ocean

forty feet from her door brings only dark offerings: waves too cold
and steep to enter, a fading seal, fin ripped off by some rotor, everywhere

the pitch of death. I want to say when you’re in the deep, recall the surface.
I want to say here in the midland there’s more than tomatoes caged on a deck,

more than gravity’s hands at your ankles when you try to fly in your blue
dress. More to life than liver damage, more than the scrawly crow in the yard.

So here is space for grief’s fourth rung and bed’s soft argument. Not the trees.
going green first along the river in spring, not so much potential. I know

you’re holy enough to hang icons in an outhouse. I want you scared enough
to carry bug spray and a canary wherever you go, to be a country that padlocks

the doors when death shows up. Earth holds us less securely than the bishop’s
weed by the front door, knotted runners extending down where the worms labor

and sigh. Four houses ago, I may have cared more. I know that a blue jay’s
wing can imitate a butterfly in leaves and make you think you’re seeing

something new. What form of persuasion can I scrounge from these shallow
pockets? Miracles? The fifty bones in your slender feed, the picture

of your grandmother in a pale green gown, the gardenia she wore? Far inland,
I hose down robins, count the tick tick tick of the neighbor’s sprinkler.

From BEGIN EMPTY-HANDED (Perugia Press, 2013)