“Maybe, pilgrim,” begins the first poem in Jynne Dilling Martin’s marvelous debut collection of poems, We Mammals in Hospitable Times, “if I permit you to sleep on my floor tonight, tomorrow / every house on this block will burn to the ground except mine.”
In no more than two lines has Martin offered us shelter in her midst, only to show us come morning the neighborhood is gone. And that sets the tone and the stage for a trek of epic consequences, through Martin’s kaleidoscopic lens to scan this already fallen world, clutching “armfuls of leaves…a rare glass paperweight collection, a cat who, like you, will never die.”
The earth is screwed, scientists agree, but spin its perils into pulsing, painstaking poems like these, and you realize we—we mammals, down to the last flaring of the last polar bear’s nostril—pilgrim, we’re already over. Except Martin, who would be as if Laika, the Soviet space dog, watched overhead as all gave way to the rising tides.
Despite line after line stringing together one unforgettable image after another—“we wipe reindeer hair from our eyes, / the glaciated passages too dazzling to see quite clearly”—Martin, who has served as an Antarctica writer-in-residence, can’t just let this cosmic neighborhood smolder without answering to the sorcery with which she has begun to rebuild it in her dazzling poems. So I sat her down for a talking to.
TH: If we count the bologna that “swells into a shiny pink hill” as swine product, and if we permit the “frogman with a harpoon…eeling in the murk,” every poem in your book contains an animal. (I catalogued them: mole rats and bumblebee bats, maggots and albino locust, wolverine and arctic fox, to name a few.) Which isn’t simply incidental or adorable or to make of them figurines. Animals are central to your lyrical concern. What exactly or generally do creatures large and small bring to the worlds of your poems?
JDM: Animals are my central everything, Tom! Is it that they are our unwitting, faultless companions in our headlong rush into planetary destruction? Is it how bafflingly weird this thing we call “life” is—manifesting in a slime mold, a kitten, a narwhal? Yes, yes, and also this: they live in our midst yet we know so little about what colors, emotions, dreams, sounds, companionship, and death look and feel like for them. We all live and die in this same world, maggots and narwhals and humans alike, but their experience of it is so unknowable; and in some ways, for me, that stands in for the mystery and unknowability of other humans, too.
TH: What is your spirit animal? And where is its hand (or claw) in this collection?
JDM: I have an unusually specific spirit animal, which is Knut, the famous Berlin Zoo polar bear. He visited me on a shamanic journey years ago and, absurd as it may sound, the connection I feel with the Knut of my meditation life transcends language. But taking a stab on where he resides in the poems: rejected by his mother at birth, a childhood alone on a rock, then dead at four by drowning in the zoo pool, Knut emanated wildness and beauty and something primordial and unknowable, even while hemmed into a giant man-made diorama, artificially cooled, stared at by millions. Some element—Knut, or the rock, or the staring, or the loneliness, or the unknown, or the pool—has claws in every poem.
TH: Both the merciless hyper-realism in your poems—“the sled dog who breaks through a crevasse pulls all the rest down”—and the cosmic prognostications—“there will be no vegetables with dimpled skin, no onions at all”—transmit a visceral sense throughout this book that Things to Come have already, if we have eyes to see. Much is tied, I imagine, to your experience in and deep fascination with Antarctica. What frightened you most about your residency there?
JDM: Most frightening may be how close I feel to giving up everything to live and work in Antarctica full time. The beauty of such a vast, untouched, shimmering landscape is staggering. No photo captures even a fraction of what it looks or feels like in person. Not even the Himalayas or Sahara, both of which I’ve spent time in, can touch its scale or beauty. It was the most ecstatic and humbling experience of my life. When I got off the prop plane back in Christchurch, I sat at the airport bus stop staring at the cement and concrete, the cars and planes, the landscaped shrubbery, the flowers organized into neat rows, and felt the full, horrific weight of how epically we have fucked up this planet.
TH: You inhabit beautifully—or unsettlingly, as the case may be—the role of the meticulous observer, even an outsider, on a clamorous earth, and yet you weave yourself into lines like “I draw uncounted fugues from pianos but no consolation, / and recall the ogre who mistook hot coals for roasted nuts, / and dream of riding atop my sadness like it is a horse.” On which side of God’s one-way mirror are you most likely to be found?
JDM: As my nephews can tell you from our many games of sardines, I am most likely hiding in the shower.
TH: In a parallel life, you’re associate publisher and head of publicity of Riverhead Books, and have helmed promotional campaigns for countless books. So how are you settling into the idea now of being “the author”?
JDM: I turn bright red every time someone talks to me about this book; even all the incredibly thoughtful and warm feedback is overwhelming and makes me feel newly exposed. I already had great empathy for my authors, and how vulnerable it is to put years of your private work and creative life out into the world, but now I am newly amazed that they don’t all hide in a closet and eat cookies for the entire month of publication. That’s certainly my plan for February, anyhow.
We Mammals in Hospitable Times comes out on February 3rd. Martin will be reading and signing copies at BookCourt in Brooklyn at 7pm on Wednesday, February 25th.
Antarctica photo by Cara Sucher.