Book Review: The Beds by Martha Rhodes

The Beds by Martha Rhodes
Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2012
ISBN-13: 9781932870534

Reviewed by Mike Walker

This slim volume by poet Martha Rhodes gained my interest for several reasons but none as immediate as the titles of the poems it contains, titles like “Who’s Ill Now?” and “The Pleasures and Inconveniences of Being Detested”. Sure, many a contemporary poet can entitle a poem “Sex” or make reference to a physiological condition (“Thrombosis” in Rhodes’ case here), but Rhodes is the first to tell me of the pleasures, never mind the inconveniences, of being detested. I liked this woman before I read hardly more than a title, and what is more, her photo on the back cover has to be the most sullen author photo I’ve ever seen but I tend to think that was her goal, too. Here is a writer who is not, for the most part, a happy camper throughout her book, but she makes the very best of her condition under the sign of Saturn. Her photo even bespeaks that: she’s sincere. She’s in this for the long haul.

If you listen to music, if you read the popular press, at some point you must wonder what bounty we’d have if all those emo kids who formed their glum bands and wrote lyrics of doom, bygone love affairs, and angst were actually good writers: after reading Rhodes, I feel I’ve seen a hint of what people who are morose yet not bitter, gloomy yet purposeful in it, and had actually confronted real aspects of despair in life could contribute via sincere poetry. There is an element close to theatre also in Rhodes, plus an aspect close to quality legal writing—you feel in places she is jotting down the sins of many and the evidence to back up her claims for some holy judge. Her work, in the words of a reviewer quoted on the back cover, is constantly “unsettling”; I would call it “dark” but those emo kids and aspiring poets below Rhodes’ own high caliber have co-opted that term to the point it lacks the weight it would require to be an adjective fit for Rhodes’ own writing.

In Rhodes’ poem “After a Long Time of Not”, she makes explicit that she’s not attempting darkness anyways, but simply demonstrating life as we often overlook it:

The pink of his earlobes as he sleeps,
is what she’d reach to touch.

Does he wish for something of her?

You have no business writing a poem that short unless you really, really, fully know your craft and thankfully, Rhodes knows it inside and out. She’s told us little, but from it I conjure a woman divorced or perhaps just left somewhere or maybe a younger woman such as the girl in Saint Etienne’s great song “Like A Motorway” who was tricked into a short love affair then her lover vanished, leaving her with the memories, the loss. In Cristina Garcia’s novel Dreaming in Cuban, there is an old woman who sits on the balcony and writes love letters to a man from decades in her past—letters never once answered, yet she keeps on writing. Rhodes called up all these thoughts in my mind via a few short lines. That’s not luck, that’s skill all the way.

Of course, not all her poems are such short little things, with most actually taking up a whole page. They are however all filled with sadness and beauty at equal turns, as is witnessed in the opening of the final poem of this book, “The Jade Plant”:

I want to go to the room
where the jade plant thrives

on the white pine floor. I want
to sit next to the plant all day.

This is the perfect entry to a closing of souls, a closing and cleaning out of rooms, an approach to renewal that’s filled with fits and starts, delays and encumberments like a train making its way through a New England snowstorm. We have read throughout The Beds of people in trouble but often trouble none of them can really complain of—or at least trouble no one will listen about—and they need healing, but where? Perhaps here, this zen spot too perfect except made real and original via Rhodes’ skill with words. This woman is actually good press for bad events, a winner beside the rest of the soft-sculpted horror stories of pity that poets try to tell. Some of her peers should just give over to writing penny dreadfuls already, but Rhodes discerns ample merit in what poetry can offer those interested in misery, and she knows the antidote is to also—with due realism—offer hope.

Rhodes’ poem “Come to Me, His Blood” is one of the best poems I’ve read all year but would be impossible to do justice to via a short quote in a review yet is too long to include here in full. It is within itself reason enough to purchase this book: if ever a collector spent millions on a Rothko, then it’s worth spending less than twenty bucks or so for The Beds. There is in a poem like the above a reasoning of art, a mandate for what art should be at its best. When does a poem reach that level? How about when it is something, like the color-field painting, to which you return again and again and again, just to view it and believe in its quality.

“I don’t want an ice chip to ever travel from my finger to my heart”. With that line, found unexpected and almost hiding in the middle of one of her poems, Rhodes explicates in a sense what this book is all about: the way we interact with others, the love lines and hate lines that we travel in various romantic and familial relationships. She is an old hand at verse but at times a young heart, crafting out truths that we do not always desire to acknowledge but we cannot fully escape. Poetry like this can be difficult for Rhodes never is one to shy away from tough topics: the death, illness, and long-lasting longing. However, these are the topics that in one way or another our canon of literature is built upon, are they not? They are topics that are universal, emotional, and compelling because we all can identify with them at length. It takes a very expert poet to take on these foci and do it in a manner both original and resoundingly honest, but Rhodes has accomplished that feat in The Beds.

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