A Million in Prizes and Voir Dire

by Justin Marks
New Issues 2009/Rope-a-Dope Press 2009
Reviewed by Jackie Clark

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In his essay “Writing,” W.H. Auden puts forth some observations about what a writer is.  One observation is that one should be able to arrange a writer’s work in chronological order from oldest to newest just by reading it.  Auden writes, “Every work of a writer should be a first step, but this will be a false step unless, whether or not he realize it at the time, it is also a further step.”  Each poem a poet writes should help the poet arrive at the next poem.  I’ve thought about this a hundred, thousand times, mostly in relation to my own work, but also in relation to the work of others, and have marveled at how different the poems I was writing five years ago are from the poems I was writing last month.  Though, on a greater level, we can know that change in oneself and one’s writing will always take place; seeing its delicate augmentation take place on the page is something of a wonder. This type of progression is apparent in Justin Marks’s book A Million in Prizes and chapbook Voir Dire.

Justin Marks’s first book of poems, A Million in Prizes, chosen by Carl Phillips as winner of the 2008 New Issues Poetry Prize, is an earnest gem of self-consciousness and naïve wonder.  The first two couplets in the first poem of the book state:

I wanted to create the ocean, the sky
the intricate structure of a leaf

and thought by now
I’d have come close.

While these lines are painstakingly sincere, there are also riotously funny.  To not only want to create something as vast as the ocean, but to think that one would have “been closer by now” speaks to many complex layers of narcissism and naïveté and proves the expectation to be hilarious in its acknowledgement. This is what most of the poems in this book are doing: declaring the infinite and learning the possible.  It’s like that New Yorker cartoon where the guy sitting at the bar, clearly looking tormented, says to the bartender, “I know I’m nothing, and yet I’m all I can think about.”  It’s that morbidly framed humor we eventually find behind immature uncertainties—hopefully, that is.  And yet, we marvel at its discovery every time. 

The poems in the first section of A Million in Prizes, called “Life is Elsewhere,” concern themselves with past selves and childhood: the poet reflecting on who he has been, who he thinks he will be, etc.  And while they feel very young, there are moments throughout this section when the poet betrays his own naïveté and writes aphorisitc lines like “now that no one will ever love or hate you as much as you already do.”  This feels almost wise, something that only a very brave person would be able to tell his-/herself.  Or in the poem “Childhood,” when the poet writes:

I hated
being a child.  My shame
is having been one at all.

This is a succinct gesture toward owning past embarrassments.  A necessary declaration to get oneself past childish hang-ups and to prepare oneself for life after adolescences and adolescent psychosis.  

The poems in the section “[Summer  insular]” catalog just what you would expect them to, the events and surroundings of the poet during one encapsulated summer.  These poems are sometimes mundane, sometimes obvious, which I guess is a lot of what life is most of the time.  Certain poems act as a journal, a way of capturing even the most uneventful days:

Rain   Not much
Not for long

Technically
according to the calendar

it’s still spring
May.

These poems don’t necessarily push any boundaries but are a result of a common impetus: I am here, I am real, and things are happening.  As often happens when working through the day-to-day, a sort of wisdom bleeds through if you keep paying attention. Marks arrives at the ability to say what he really means at many instances in this section, specifically because he’s paying attention: 

And what is there
to love about each other

but our stories
the ones we’ve made

might make
what we’ve left to imagine.

This is a very real conclusion to arrive at after being alone long enough with your thoughts.  These poems are the result of accumulated thought, thoughts one returns to again and again while alone in an apartment, watching a bustling city through the window.  A likeable and genuine persona becomes more apparent during this section, for instance, when the poet writes: “I’ve written out that Roethke poem, folded it and placed it in my pocket.  Should I die, it will be found on me, and that, aside from the fact that I will be dead, might mean something.”  The conviction behind such an earnest desire for personal meaning is both comforting and slightly embarrassing.  Not embarrassing in a pejorative way, but in a very vulnerable way; it is these moments of vulnerability in the text that are worth waiting for.

The poems in the third and final section of this book, “The Voice Inside the Cheerleader’s Megaphone,” are very clear and direct.  While still self-conscious, they are delivered in a less apologetic way.  It could be because they are more or less prose poems and that the rhythm and pace of the lines steer the poems forward with force.  These poems hint at the type of poet Marks becomes with the publication of his chapbook Voir Dire from Rope-A-Dope Press.  Voir Dire is more experienced, more mature.  For example, the poet writes in “Lives of the Young and the Tragic,” “I was unpracticed, and I guess a nice enough person, indiscriminating professing my love for people and thing of which I knew nothing.”  This voice sounds realistic and unabashed and this serves as a likeable arc for a first book, when the book begins in one place, written in one voice, and ends with a more mature narrator.  The poet is getting on with saying real, true things learned through experience and observation, perhaps having only been able to arrive at the real, true things by writing the other poems first.  Hence we return to Auden and his idea of the logical progression of an artist; these poems are often self-assesments, moving from surprise to reconciliation at the poet/person’s own limitations. 

Voir Dire, which is essentially one long poem, exists because A Million in Prizes exists, and is all the better because of it.  The poem rambles and moves forward with an ADD-like quality, but it is the sheer amount of life surrounding the poet and the desire to take it all in, that gives this poem its energy.  At some points the poet speaks with obvious affection for his wife:

I share a pizza
and movie with my wife.
She is like a carrot
and I’m a little rabbit.
Our babies will be orange.

At other points the poet wanders into thoughts like:

In a different life
I’d like to have been
a B-movie star.

In each of these instances humor is coupled with seriousness, with sincere commitment to the life he is living and the person he has manufactured.  The poem still retains a certain type of narcissism—“The immense joy I receive / when reading my sent emails”—but this is a friendly narcissist.  A voice that ultimately wishes you well as much as it wishes itself well.  The poem returns to memories from childhood, but does not do so in a longing or scarred way as it does in A Million in Prizes.  The poet reasons that:

         …Most
of my good fortune
is a fluke.
The bad as well.

The poet’s lack of personal accountability is alarming, but the conclusion is comfortable; I don’t think that the poet who wrote A Million in Prizes would be able to arrive at such a conclusion without needing to know what it means.  Not that the voice in Voir Dire doesn’t want meaning, but that it just has a better sense of how the world out there can operate without a hint of concern for you.  And it’s not a bad thing to learn.  At the beginning of Voir Dire Marks writes, “It’s good to feel good,” and I’d have to agree.  Here’s to everyone that for at least one moment they get to experience that feeling.  Voir Dire is a manifesto to that.

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