Only, perhaps, in a poem by David Tomas Martinez is one likely to encounter, in the span of a few lines, the lyrics of Drake’s “Started from the Bottom” juxtaposed with references to Sisyphus, Che Guevara, William Carlos Williams, the Bechdel test, Cesar Chavez, and Moses. “My mind is made up,” Martinez writes in that poem, “of so many different cuts / of meat,” and indeed the collection of which the poem is a part, Post Traumatic Hood Disorder, is delightfully wide-ranging in the sources from which it draws. Maximalist, inclusive, by turns academic and demotic, Martinez’s second collection navigates skillfully among references both “high” and “low,” so that another poem—this one beginning with Notorious B.I.G.—becomes a powerful meditation on the plasticity of adolescent identity, all rendered in Martinez’s iconic hyper-talk style:
At 19, I loved the music of Biggie,
but I still didn’t love
my mother. I was darker in thought than now. I mean,
all my friends were black. I mean,
I thought I was black. I mean, I wanted
to be black
because I was crosshatched,
had a complex complexion,
because all I could do was injure my own injin’s engine.
Like the collection as a whole, the poem conducts a complicated exploration of bi-racial experience, hilariously fumbling for the proper language with which to describe the speaker’s various familial and cultural attachments. If Martinez’s style—“hyper-talk,” I’ve called it, after Mark Halliday’s description of his own work—sometimes rambles, wandering a bit far afield in its concern for surface texture and speed, he nonetheless talks himself quite frequently into moments of grace like this, moments in which the banal gives onto the profound, the everyday onto the revelatory. “For me,” Martinez writes elsewhere, “a woman’s tears / are IKEA instructions / on the European side. // I’m sure for Laius, Oedipus’ father, it was the same.” In Martinez’s hands, even IKEA becomes mythic.
Martinez’s sophomore collection, Post Traumatic Hood Disorder looks retrospectively at its speaker’s coming-of-age as a mixed-race teenager, an adolescent living in familial disarray among various forms of poverty and violence—“child / hood,” Martinez succinctly calls it. Specifically, the collection tracks its speaker’s coming-into-personhood in terms both of sexual and racial identity, testifying to the speaker’s overcoming of material limitations while also documenting the manifold cultural influences, like rap music’s hyper-masculinity, that shaped his self-conception. Charting the effect of two divorces on his thinking about male sexuality, Martinez frequently risks bold statement in order to achieve profound introspection about heterosexual relationships. In “On Dreaming of My Wife,” for instance, Martinez writes:
[I] knew I was,
like it or not, intentional or not, just one man
in a succession of men
who had stopped her from breathing
by kissing her,
by placing my weight atop her,
in the name of protection.
As Martinez’s speaker struggles to arrive at an ethical masculinity, he also confronts those larger forces—systemic, yes, but also starkly personal—that inhibit the flourishing of a young man of color. “If a hood is a sense of place,” Martinez writes in “Found Fragment on Ambition,” “& a sense of place is identity / then identity is a hood & adult / hood is being insecure in any / hood.” Disarmingly witty, riff-driven like the rap songs that stud this collection, the passage is representative of Martinez’s poetics writ large in its razor-sharp analysis of those procedures by which, sometimes with great struggle, young men of color stake out an always embattled selfhood. “When,” Martinez asks later in the same poem, “can i retire my / bowl stop needing to beg for my / person hood.”
Yet Post Traumatic Hood Disorder is not, for all that, without its moments of celebration and self-acceptance, even of pride. At the same time as Martinez documents the travails of growing up poor in the traumatic “hoods” of his youth, he also positions this struggle as essential to the person his speaker becomes. Even trauma, these poems suggest, reflects those people and cultures that make us who we are. Behind the retrospective angst of this collection lies an enduring nostalgia for the comforts of childhood, for the sense of belonging—in a place and to a people—that is, perhaps, foreclosed in the various migrations of adulthood. If Martinez looks critically upon his speaker’s adolescence, and with no small joy for having survived it, he also celebrates the possibility that lay before him then, the feeling that one might, still, be made and remade endlessly throughout one’s life. The astounding poem “A Kiss” beautifully drives home this sentiment:
When I was
a child, I would ask my mother
to tuck me in,
wrap me tight in blankets,
make me into a burrito.
I miss most,
is being made again.
Martinez’s is a complex nostalgia, wary of romanticizing the past though drawn back, nonetheless, to those moments in childhood and adolescence that prove most formative. At a moment in our own history—as a people, as a poetry culture—when our ability to dwell in ambivalence is as impoverished as it has ever been, the nuance in Martinez’s thinking constitutes a refreshing tonic. “Tradition,” he writes of this ambivalence toward the past, “is a joke // we retell but / dont understand.” When his mother “started calling / me Champ,” his father “asked / if I wanted the belt.”
Indeed, one of the most unexpected aspects of Post Traumatic Hood Disorder is the candor with which Martinez discusses the world of poetry itself, a culture which for Martinez—and like any celebrity-driven industry—inevitably affects the way its cultural workers think of and value their own identity. All poetry, to be sure, is on some level about poetry; the mode seems always a form of self-theorization, perpetually reassessing its own manipulations of language. But here, in poems about everything from “poetry voice” to the Garamond typeface, Martinez meditates explicitly on the effects of adjusting oneself to a systemically biased culture industry. “people wonder how i got here,” Martinez writes in “Hexaptych on Ambition”:
& i fear because i am
as in a fib of poets
silly out of style the dated
mustache of neil degrasse a
bob ross afro i will never feel
popular enough loved enough
Brilliantly assessing the cultural and material labor it takes to “make it” as a poet, Post Traumatic Hood Disorder becomes an extended künstlerroman about the speaker’s coming-into-poetry. With the same rich ambivalence with which he discusses adolescent sexuality, Martinez both praises and criticizes the poetry world of which he is a part. “Homie,” he puts it elsewhere, “don’t see Homer in himself.” The frankness of Martinez’s self-reflexive poetics—perpetually breaking the fourth wall and situating itself within an economic and cultural matrix—is a welcome departure from traditional, post-romantic lyricism, but Post Traumatic Hood Disorder is most effective, it seems to me, when it transcends literary criticism to use poetry as an avenue into Martinez’s own experience. It is that experience, in the end, that makes this collection so compelling.
Characteristic of Martinez’s writing about that experience is a dramatic, transformative veering from one subject to the next, as if one were being guided through these richly layered poems by a perpetually distracted, Adderall-hyped Virgil. Such veering can sometimes feel overly abrupt, as when, for instance, Martinez shifts from party icebreakers to Icelandic volcanoes in the span of two lines. Likewise, a lack of graceful transitions in some poems can feel like cultivated preciousness. The hyper-mobility of Martinez’s writing, though, is best when its moves are associatively bound together and housed within a poem’s intellectual scaffolding, when a clear line of argument emerges, as it almost always does in these poems. It is then that we recognize Martinez’s veering as a method of accessing—obliquely, by indirection—some higher truth, some more elusive mystery beyond traditional narrative. Like Picasso’s cubism, the poems in Post Traumatic Hood Disorder take myriad angles of approach toward their subject, viewing and reviewing structures of thought and feeling in order more accurately to comprehend them. These poems, we might say, constantly “reset” themselves in time and place, keeping readers on their toes and testing our range. This is muscular writing—probing, restless, playful, and possessed of a firm social conscience which challenges us to more vital engagement with the places and cultures that make and remake us.
Christopher Kempf is the author of Late in the Empire of Men, which won the 2015 Levis Prize from Four Way Books. Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, he is currently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Chicago.