Monday, January 9, 2017

Poem366: THE JANE AND BERTHA IN ME by Rita Maria Martinez

I read Jane Eyre nearly three decades ago, and I kind of wondered how much of it I would remember when embarking on The Jane and Bertha in Me by Rita Marie Martinez (Aldrich Press, 2016).

All of the poems in the book connect to Jane Eyre as a source text in some way. Some poems update Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason, along with other characters, and place them in contemporary settings—selling Avon, talking to a shrink—and some place them in their original settings from the book. Everything about Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece came rushing back to me, though, and I remembered, too, how much I loved the book on first reading.

A good example of how Martinez approaches the characters—outside of the normal constraints of time—is found in “Letter to Bertha”:

If I could, I’d save you.
Flies beneath your bed hiss Bertha, Antoinette,
Bertha—though you plug your ears
with lima beans, syllables seep
in like dust pushing past closed shutters,
like locoweed creeping across the garden wall,
the mute battlements. […]
I’d hire a good massage therapist and enroll
you in yoga. I’d take you to a spa,
treat you to a mud bath, restore those charcoal
stained feet to their original hue,
have a stylist trim that cavewoman hair.
You’d take up kickboxing and swimming. […]

It’s an appealing vision, and an updated one—a would-be rival caring for the needs of the troubled wife, sisterhood in action. In fact, I think it’s a wonderful feminist moment, despite the hair-do and the spa treatments, and despite any nineteenth-century mores or expectations.

I also like Martinez’s frank treatment of the deep interest in a British standard by someone of Cuban-American heritage, and she addresses this in a poem titled “The Appropriation of Jane.” This poem begins, “Juana was the conquistadors’ name for Cuba. / Juana is the Spanish equivalent of Jane.”

The first twenty-two lines talk about “so many interesting Juanas,” but then, starting in line twenty three, the poet states, “This poem is not about Juana.” She continues a few lines later,

This poem is about the quintessential
Plain Jane: Jane Eyre, who graciously helps

birth poems stubborn as kidney stones,
mischievous poems that hopscotch

across the page because I’ve ripped
off Charlotte Brontë’s heroine,

pinned the Gothic girl against my bulletin board
like tabloid trivia, a wisp of licorice,

Jane who is pristine, precise, polished,
Jane who is simple, sweet, succinct.

Fans of Jane Eyre, fans of literature, fans of postmodern mashups, will leave this collection as fans of Rita Maria Martinez, whose vivid writing blows the classic novel wide open and offers much that is new to muse over in this smart first collection.

An interview with Rita Maria Martinez …

  1. What did you want to be when you grew up, and why? 

As a young child I wanted to be an architect. I loved coloring and drawing; the idea of creating something out of nothing fascinated me. I am not very good at drawing, but there is something kind of Zen about it. That’s probably why there are all those “adult coloring books” on the market now. My grandmother drew a lot. On scraps of paper, whatever she could get her hands on. I usually sat quietly and was mesmerized. She drew fruit trees all the time. We lived in Florida and there were banana and mango trees in the yard. I think drawing them reminded her of her homeland, Cuba, which she really missed. 

What is the very best word in this collection? 

”Brobdingnagian,” which appears in the poem “Governess-to-Go,” which is about tutoring. “You help / the Brobdingnagian slacker inhabiting a universe ill-fitted / to skyscraping adolescence, an eighth-grader always / hunching to avoid bumping his head beneath doorways.” There is this notion of wildness, of the body not always conforming to one’s wishes. I think it is such a fun word! However, it transcends the poem. Characters from Jane Eyre like Bertha and bullies—like John Reed and Brocklehurst—loom large in the minds of readers—especially when reading the book for the first time. “Brobdingnagian” also describes challenges some of the characters face, including Jane, and frightening moments we all experience as children—when certain things are out of our hands. But, “Brobdingnagian” makes me think of being a bit kooky, of coming up with a big idea, of the obsessive fun of writing poem after poem about Jane Eyre and about Charlotte Brontë, who was acquainted with Gulliver’s Travels. Jane reads Gulliver’s Travels for a bit after her harrowing experience in the red room. 

Describe your worst poetic habit.

I have developed some kind of ADD notebook habit. I am having trouble writing in just one notebook, which is what I used to do. Eventually, I’d finish a notebook and move on to the next one. Now I write on whatever notebook is at hand. I think part of the problem is that maybe I have too many notebooks; some I buy, others are gifts. They are like children I don’t want to neglect. I also write on legal pads, but I am selective about the legal pads. If the poem is an abecedarian, for example, then I definitely have to use a legal pad or the universe will feel off-kilter, as if I have contributed to a seismic shift. So my bad habit involves alternating between disorganization and anal retentiveness.

What is your impetus for creating?

My impetus for creating comes from trying to make sense of this complicated world and the small role I play in it. April will mark the bicentennial of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, a great reason to celebrate the author’s work and life. I had great fun writing many of poems in The Jane and Bertha in Me; I hope the collection will spur others to reread or discover Jane Eyre and to encounter other Brontë works and biographies. I also hope poems like “The Literature of Prescription,” which describe my experiences with chronic pain, will prompt readers to become more empathetic and open-minded toward those in their communities who experience disability or illness of any kind. 

It's your poetic obituary! Finish it up, but not with your bio—finish it with an essential statement about your poetry. 

Rita Maria Martinez wrote poems that made readers laugh out loud while alone, in crowded elevators, and during their best and worst days.

Rita Maria Martinez is a Cuban-American poet from Miami, Florida. Her writing has been published in journals including the Notre Dame Review, Ploughshares, Gravel, and 2River View. She authored the chapbook Jane-in-the-Box, which was published by March Street Press in 2008. Her poetry also appears in the textbook Three Genres: The Writing of Fiction/ Literary Nonfiction, Poetry and Drama, and in the anthology Burnt Sugar, Caña Quemada: Contemporary Cuban Poetry in English and Spanish. Martinez’s first full-length poetry collection, The Jane and Bertha in Me, celebrates all things Jane Eyre and was recently published by Aldrich Press, an imprint of Kelsay Books. Visit Martinez’s website to reserve a copy of The Jane and Bertha in Me or to learn more about her writing:

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