Am I Saved Yet Sister? Is It Morning?: On the work of Martha King
You and I – small lovers with cool skins
Share the world with what is not ourselves
- Martha King, from Seventeen Walking Sticks…
Martha King’s novel, Max Sees Red, is a gripping thriller, with fully developed characters, authentic American dialogue that rings true to the ear, a complex narrative, with many sub-plots, and is compulsively readable. But it is also a poet’s book. What was most fascinating when I was reading the book, was her concise prose, her sense of rhythm and pacing, and her poetic descriptions, which show her consummate skill as a prose writer. King is a essentially a minimalist: each word, each descriptive sentence or piece of dialogue is carefully measured, for sound and effect and is essential; there’s no ornamentation or “clever” sentences. It’s a kind of writing which pays attention to the breath and the weight of a line, a word, as I will show later in this essay. The novel also deals with issues of gender, race, and class, which are themes running throughout her work, such as Separate Parts, Little Tales of Family and War, North and South, as well as her books of poetry such as the selected poems, Imperfect Fit.
In Max Sees Red there are strong and complex women such as Charlene, Betsy, and Mitzi. They fight for what they think is right and are fearless and gentle by turns. In Little Tales of Family and War, there are also figures like Babs Nolan or the porn star, Wanda, who in their own way are sexually liberated, even though such freedom frequently comes with a price. In the present novel, we find among the working class, women like Fran, who is not going to be taken for a fool by Max’s questioning of her, or Caroline the “Virgin Queen,” a barmaid who is mysterious and kind and wants to help Max. She is Artemis. This is King’s description of Caroline: "She had earned her name. She was the ice-mountain of the fairy tales, the one the knights all tried to climb without success. And how they tried. Under her apron she wore a leather skirt just over the knees and sheer purple stockings over her beautiful legs. Her hair hung brown, glossy and ruler straight to the middle of her back and her face was tough, sad, and sweet by turns."
King is sympathetic to the plight of bartenders, barmaids, and waitresses and the various patrons of these establishments, though often these places are a hotbed of potential violence, racism, Anti-Semitism and homophobia. Sharkey, the bully and violent man who murdered Shirley is the product of such a world, of such a life derailed by bad life choices, drugs, alcohol, and sometimes unwanted teen pregnancies. In North and South, an argument erupts around the Anti-Semitic statements of one of the patrons of a luncheonette, a “moron,” but everything returns to normal the next day. King writes that “the force for equilibrium insinuated itself. Equilibrium drinks up the odd, saves the social, exhausts the world.” Sometimes, crimes go unpunished, also; and even if they don’t, innocent people are not spared the pain. Every small town has these types of kids who grow up to be either bullies, cops, or priests. It was the kind of middle class town I grew up in. I escaped that vicious small town sensibility by going to college and mixing with many people from different cultures; it lead me to see the world as more complex and even problematic. I made a short film, in 2010, where I interviewed a homeless vet, and former drug addicts in rehab on the Lower East Side. When a selection of photos from the film, which eventually became a book entitled Street Level, was published in “Oyster Boy Review,” I wrote, “There is an increasing divide between the everyday ‘normal’ life of the average American and the ‘extraordinary’ life of the privileged. Many of these men and women live outside these two worlds. They are invisible. But they all have something to tell us. And we must listen.” I could have been talking about an artist.
The following passage from the story, “The Scene in 58,” from North and South, shows the complex choices a woman in the late 50s had to make in an attempt to assert her freedom against the dull and mediocre, white and straight, middle class world : "Should I go somewhere else when there isn’t all that else? What will be mine? … Should I get a job, and pin my sanity on the orderly irrelevant schedule that a job demands? Should I love my friends? …Their story isn’t mine. Should I have stayed there anyway instead of running? Who’s going to tell me what to do?"
It is these kinds of choices that artists have to make when seeking a life free to practice their art. But this freedom comes at a price not many are willing to pay. Time is money. But hopefully an artist can practice their art with a minimum of compromises.
In Max Sees Red, and throughout her work, King speaks of the complex and often tragic life of artists navigating a world based on competition and careerism. At the memorial for Shirley, Max tries often to avoid, unsuccessfully, certain older artists living out their younger fantasies by either acting as “guru” to naïve and stoned teenage girls (like Jack, who Max thinks will “come to my funeral with a drug-sick girl and a batch of stoned-out poems to read” or Mike, in North and South, who is with a teenager, “too awed and too slow and too stoned to have any idea what was happening to her,”) all in an attempt to escape either their own depressing reality or perhaps because of the realization of their fading virility; or as a result of being unable to escape the capitalist system: “…No assembly line for me…ah, there’s got to be another way. Not this violence, not this stupid brute force. So where’d I go different? To art? Brute force makes art, makes pictures work. Plus I’ve even got a quota. Do twenty paintings every year or my contract with Quorod goes belly up. Assembly line no shit.” And the bottom line is: “Money and art, they circle like a bad love affair.” Think of Carl Rakosi or John Wieners, or even Olson at the end of his life.
King rips the mask open on the real intention of these contemporary writers who are the product of writing programs throughout this country. Who is the real “avant-garde” writer today? In “Conversion in Connecticut,” from North and South, King draws a portrait of one such artist, a novelist, whose name is Mike: “People in Mike’s book [who was famous for a hot minute, and then fell from grace with the literary world] torture cats, murder prostitutes, thrash their kids with belt buckles,” but “then weep and dream of the power their cruelty never gives them. People in Mike’s books are loved by their author. By Mike. It’s his love that infuses the rank unsparing language. Have I made it clear that Mike is an artist?” It’s about power: where have you been published, where have your books been reviewed, what prizes have you won, where do you teach, etc.? And after all, King writes: “Academics hate writers…”
But the artist’s desire for fame does not stop with failure. In Max Sees Red, Juan Carlos states, “An artist is the most ruthless person in the world,” and continues: “one is taught sentimental myths about the sensitivity of an artist…but when this ‘agonizing’ sensitivity is matched with a desire to 're-order the universe' then it becomes a matter of “competition” and the person becomes “ruthless.” This ruthlessness can be located in the middle class, who rose to power after the war, and who abandoned a certain type of existence that sought a freedom in risk-taking, and adventure, like the great nomads of international modernism, such as Artaud or Michaux, or those from Black Mountain College who practiced a kind of communal living largely unknown to the ego-centered artist of today.
In an earlier book, Separate Parts, she writes about the artist Jim Rosenquist, and speaks of two different ways of life: “His was not the America of Charles Olson or Paul Metcalf, that wild amalgam of clan pride, agrarian ethics, and millennial vision. Not Cotton Mather. Not Doc Holliday. Jim was the American mercantile middle.” She continues: “A life in art could be had by clean-cut normal Americans, willing to work hard.” For their MFA’s and Phd’s. This leads to careerism, to poets who are academics, who, from their comfortable chairs in an office publish essays on radical revolutionary politics, race, and the working class, etc. I think of King’s words in North and South: “Following a century of natural feelings naturally denied. Now following what? The distant wars today. We absorb them like any other tiny TV picture. A movie star, a toilet cleaner. No pain. Not us. Not here. Not beginning. Not ending. Our natural feelings naturally magnified, and we are safe, warm, and worlds away.” But these new artists are politically savvy, and know how to cash in by selling out; they know who are the right or wrong friends to have in the poetry world; they know how to fight for tenure; they are also the ones who pay the fees to submit their manuscripts in an attempt to win a prize based on competition. But if you pay to get your book published, isn’t that like publishing with a vanity press?
Throughout her books, King’s comments on race are perceptive and powerful, and relevant for these times. Siddy, the daughter of the murdered woman, Shirley, is the result of a marriage between an African-American man and a white woman. She, now grown, remembers her mother on the first page of novel: “My mother was not only my mother, she was my white side and that doesn’t show. We’re instant black, all us mulattoes, and then we have to put up with white people insisting that we understand and forgive them because somehow we’re white (we must be) even though we are not!” In Separate Parts, King writes:
America is usually more complex than white Americans suppose. Bob [Thompson] said his family members had skin colors ranging the human rainbow, having collected genes from all over Europe, Africa, indigenous North America and Asia. White Louisville considered the entire family “colored” but there were a few things they didn’t know. Moreover, Bob’s parents were educated and well off, so he slid easily along the margins of many intersecting worlds long before he came to live in the New York art world.
King complicates the issue of race and shows how an artist can navigate many different scenes if he has the money to do so, regardless of the color of his skin. But, in another way, this creates a world where the artist is no longer any different from the capitalist. He is a factory worker, generating books as commodities; but he owns the factory; he is his own boss. If he becomes the “writer of the moment,” or wins a prize, he can finally afford that large house in the suburbs and show the world that the poet can also be as competent as as businessman (Findlay, in the story, “Findlay at Home,” in North and South, observes that “Jerrie Lee’s husband was eccentric and overbearing and it was his impression that she wasn’t very happy in spite of all her luxury.” His mother says: “Money is no substitute for happiness”); who ever said a poet couldn’t dine in fancy restaurants, and manage his stocks, and be a good citizen of the United States of America! These are the kinds of deals struck with the devil that have been going on for a long time. But the devil will have his due when the eventual fall comes, like what happens to Mike, and it will come in one form or another.
In the factual story, “Inheritance 1946,” set in the pre-Civil Rights South, King talks about the policy of sterilization that was an attempt to avoid “socially inadequate offspring.” It is one of her most powerful and terrifying stories. This kind of thinking also applied to race. Imagine a time when people in the South thought in this way: “Pauline looks more like an Indian than a black woman, and she probably is, my mother says. But Willie, though skinny, is far darker than Gracie, a polished black-coffee color. There is a lot of talk about color, and darker is always worse.” In Virginia such ways of thinking with regard to sterilization, to a greater or lesser extent, persisted until 1972. Hard to imagine. King continues: “…sterilizations continued well after the trials at Nuremberg, where German defense lawyers cited the Virginia program as a model for their own.” Robert Duncan spoke of America’s “unacknowledged, unrepented crimes.” He was talking about the Vietnam war, but the crime of slavery, and the forced regulation and disciplining of people with “alternate sexual lifestyles” or who were “mentally challenged” are also “unrepented” crimes, and, sadly, we see, in present day America, a resurgence of racism in the form of police violence.
King also shows the dynamic of class consciousness in the scene between R.T. and another man in a bar. R.T starts the discussion by saying his father was able to raise six kids on the money R.T. makes today so why is it that he’s “just barely keeping ahead of the bills.” But his main complaint is that the times have changed. He’s nostalgic. The other man fires back: “R.T.’s kid graduated high school last spring, and he gave him a brand new car. That’s how much he is hurting.” And this kind of back and forth goes on in all the bars across America between working class people who ultimately can’t come to terms with the Capitalist system or that sneaking suspicion that one’s neighbor is better off than one is. So can what these men say be trusted? No one every speaks of their finances. King writes, “Poverty…is always a secret, even among friends. It’s always a shame even among the voluntary poor. When one is really without money one doesn’t say: I can’t afford it, I don’t have the money. That’s for the folk who have. One says, I’ll think about it. Not today. I’ve changed my mind.” The “haves” are Philly and Jim, in North and South; they live the revised American Dream: “Philly and Jim are civilized, educated people. They hold down demanding jobs. There is space in their bedroom closet, a place where the incoming mail can wait until it is opened, a mutual contract to withdraw whenever anguish hovers. To complete their picture, they wanted a baby.”
King finally writes that “Max saw R.T.’s face age into stubborn senility – a man played false by the certainty of his view of the world.” It is an observation, as we see at the end of the novel, and for different reasons, that Max could apply to himself: “What I want is to change my work. Maybe my whole life. It’s not a puzzle with a beautifully balanced ending.” Of course, the world of the super-rich is different: "The rich no matter who they are always know where the beautiful land is, Max thought. Not very long ago, one of these places had been a center for quasi-religious drug tripping; another was presently the home of an Eastern religious group with a sinister reputation for brainwashing and kidnap. Some were communes and some corporate conference centers, and some remained what they had always been, private properties for the super-rich."
The various sub-plots in the novel, that King handles effectively, do not resolve themselves into a “satisfying” ending. Because life is not that way. Life is not a puzzle with a single missing piece, that if found, will complete the picture and make sense of the world. Motives are often inscrutable, a lead that promises good information falls on a dead end, projects fail to come to completion, the sure thing ends up being only wishful thinking. The major and minor characters seem to be in a world that defies there attempt to make sense of it. Max, an artist, an “unlikely” hero indeed, is Martha’s brilliant choice for a detective. He is willing to gamble on a hunch, goes by his instincts without abandoning his reason, searches out leads however promising they may be, and is a great friend to Robby who he is fighting to get released from prison; it this friendship that initiated his investigation in the first place.
But Max is not a cipher; he is a flesh and blood human being. When he is wrong, Betsy will defend herself, and in the novel, she will often be in the right. King maintains the complexity of relationships in the 21st century where the line between right and wrong is often blurred. King writes: “It was an old argument between them. Max would accuse her of being maternal and presumptuous – of being on an ego trip, as if without her other people wouldn’t be able to cope. And she’d accuse him of being fatalistic, of being stupid about the meaning and impact of one person’s actions on another. She’d call him cold.” In the section “topos” from the poem, “Public Books,” in her selected poems, Imperfect, she states the problem this way:
Once, a speech for men was public and the key to self-cultivation
A woman’s speech was coded as sexual
suitable for intimate emotions
it thus embraced and enclosed
Max and Betsy fall into the trap of traditional roles, in a moment of anger. These traditional roles maintain the status quo. King writes, in Little Tales of Family and War:
The objects on which familiarity insists print on pale surfaces. These are our standards. Don’t lean too hard. On the other hand, on these fragile phenomena hang all. Here twine the spectres of freedom and love, race hate, sex rage, empathy, identity, despair. Old baggages persistent enough to run easily far into the new 21st century, leaving spoor in wells and chimneys. Always altered and altering. Outworn and damaging but refusing to be left behind.
Often, Betsy appears to be the stronger one in the relationship; she tries to convince Siddy’s grandmother to give her to Mitzi and Lynn; she has the child’s future in mind; it is a selfless act. But Siddy’s grandmother will not give in, because Mitzi and Lynn are in a lesbian relationship. She is patient to a breaking point with Max’s never being at home during the investigation. In Separate Parts, King writes, “Love does not heal all things, forgive all things, endure all things.” Max Sees Red concludes with Max, out of anger, and perhaps despair at finding that Shirley died for no reason, dismisses the man, Mr. Sam, who was interested in Robby’s work dealing with Anti-Semitism. He doesn’t believe his story. He is blinded by the anger the case has generated in him. And the novel ends with Max seeing red. But “Anger is an energy,” also, as Johnny Lydon says in his song, “Rise.” When Mike in “Conversation in Connecticut,” from North and South, says that anger and bitterness have to be avoided because they create “negative energy,” King writes: "Bromides like this suck up my oxygen, and I began to argue on behalf of the devil: “Mike, don’t you believe there’s a real world out there, a world beyond the personal self,” I asked, “It’s not just a question of anger being useful personally. Which it certainly is. But, damn it, unless you refuse to look at the world or you murder your feelings about it, anger is just plain unavoidable. The world’s real and it’s a fucked up mess."
There is also humor throughout Max Sees Red, and King is at her funniest when poking fun at the art world and the world of the academy: “Robby had introduced him to the city’s literary scene – everyone from accolade-laden critic-professor la-de-dah, with expensive canapes and a white-coated bartender, to a speed-freak post-modernist with a bathtub full of pornographic manuscripts.” But that joke isn’t funny anymore when it comes to being paid as an artist, especially in a world where the “middle class is bold and middle-class parents pay for clean art schools and MFA programs that have good cafeterias and health services. Career ladders and fellowship systems grind up the young and, every June, duly pump out a paste of beautifully trained undifferentiated ‘artists’ and ‘poets’ with high expectations.”
King reveals the personality of the characters through what they say rather than a describing their interior states. To this extent, Max Sees Red is not a psychological novel. She is wonderful at giving a few vivid details that allow the personality of a character to emerge: “The voice was male and booming, greasy with professional charm. It belonged to a stocky, florid man, whose slightly shifty face was topped by a thatch of perfectly barbered gray hair.” You can almost hear his voice and predict the tone of the words that will comes out of his mouth. And there is this poetic and evocative description of Fran: “She went limp suddenly – a 1940’s movie dissolve into romantic soft-focus.” The following, which could only come from the hand of a poet, shows her careful handling of her prose: “A drop of water oozed out of the faucet, grew globular at its base, held, shimmering and swelling, then broke free, smashing its perfect form to pieces on the white porcelain below.” It is a good example of her rhythm, which starts to slowly speed up at the beginning, as the drop of water becomes “globular at its base” but then there is a pause with “held,” which creates a moment of tension when the globular formation, “shimmering and swelling” is about to burst. And then this drop of the water’s “perfect form” breaks into pieces. It is as if the reader is seeing the image in slow motion. How beautifully the caesuras are managed in these lines. These kinds of lines occur throughout the novel and show King to be a consummate poet as well as prose stylist.
Martha King’s writing on race, gender, and class is relevant now when we see an upsurge in the Right all over the world and where our freedoms are in jeopardy, from the attacks on transgender people, from the demonization of immigrants and Muslims, from the rise of those with fundamentalist views, and the complete neglect of working class people. Her work is provocative and unsettling, as it reveals the subtle forms that racism and class bias adopt in our society. Her views on the careerist sensibility of these artists with MFA’s, who have taken over the art and poetry world, are so accurate that a reader can’t ignore them. The values that led to the creation of Black Mountain College, as imperfect as they were, are all but gone now as Universities become increasingly focused on profit rather than education. It is a world now where poets publish in the New Yorker, when just two generations ago poets thought that the writing in the New Yorker was bad; Bernadette Mayer used to tell her students in the workshops she conducted at the St. Marks Poetry Project: do not become famous. But it seems that poets nowadays, by seeking to win prizes, and compete with their peers, dream of fame more than they do of building a communal sense between poets. And they use technology like Facebook to market themselves, like big corporations. But then we live in a world where there are more cellphones than people. Will it ever change? Will we be saved? Will we find our way out of the darkness of these times? Will there be a new dawn? Martha King is the kind of writer we need the most during this chaotic time in America. Reading her work is important for anyone who truly cares about the human condition.