Abigail Ardelle Zammit on Agnes Marton’s Mission Jaguar

Agnes Marton’s bilingual pamphlet Mission Jaguar (Kalota Art Foundation – Napkut books, Budapest, 2023) comes to the world of English poetry bearing rare gifts: a serious playfulness spanning both theme and language, an idiosyncratic obliqueness which makes space for an ars poetica where the reader is not assailed by meanings, but lured into a quasi-mythical world of signs and wonders.  Having won the Jaguar Luna Arts Collective Residency and the Mauser Harmony with Nature Residency, Marton envisioned a collection deeply-rooted in ecological concerns, inspired by the jaguar corridors and habitats of Costa Rica.  Given the limitations posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the trip was postponed indefinitely, but the journey had already started deep within her poetic consciousness.  There was absolutely no going back.  Those months of lockdown had to work their magic into the poems; the artistic concept mutated endlessly in her mind until it evolved into a series of sixteen 10-line poems originally published by Linda Black and Claire Crowther in the 24th issue of Long Poem Magazine, then transmuted into their Hungarian counterparts by Agnes Marton herself, a Hungarian-born poet, writer, librettist, editor and literary translator.   

‘Day and night, Costa Rica’s jaguars struggled / in his head. Or hers, who knows God’s gender’ says the first poem ‘Mission Jaguar – Postponed Or Cancelled’, an immediate indication that this is not merely a collection of eco-poetry but a little missive about art and its function.  Another clue comes in the poem ‘Crave (abhor?) where ‘the note beside God’s goddaughter’s / grade’ says that ‘Reality doesn’t interest her, the truth does,’ perhaps a reworking of Dickinson’s ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’.  So, the poet argues, here and elsewhere, in her first collection, as well as in other chapbooks published with Moira Books (USA): Wear a mask.  Wear many masks.  Let the self merge into its conflated othernesses.  When the wild assails you, let it in, but write it slant.  Allow yourself to be ruled by a seemingly-animal deity, jaguar in all its splendour – ‘werejaguar’, ‘Waterlily Jaguar’ (‘Hero as He Used to Be’), ‘Scroll Jaguar, Bird Jaguar, Moon Jaguar’ (‘Every Mask Goes Back to the Jaguar) – a ‘Jaguary’ of otherness fantastically draped in masks and alter-egos, in the many incarnations, not only of the-writing-self-as-poet, but the-reading-self as deeply-networked human consumer.  Stupendously imaginative and elusively chimerical, the text leaps out of itself, spanning tropical territories of the mind and spirit, leaving jaguar rosettes full of peculiar charm and effervescent delight.  Just as in the Japanese-inspired paintings by Midori McCabe, which accompany the words, the real jaguar is never seen in its totality, in its earthly form, but the black inks, the sun-scorched yellows leap out of the page in brilliant array, carrying blue splashes and red intent, opening up the viewer’s eye to both awe and upheaval, sudden epiphanies and muted elegies. 

There is anguish in this collection, even a collective mourning, but it comes through to the reader as a biblical fairy-tale of apocalyptic yet humorous renderings, so ‘On the fifty-fifth day of containment / God’s porridge tasted ashes and soap’.  The mask, too, can be weaponized – an instrument for deceit and betrayal, even for the dishing out of propaganda, the ironing out of truths:

Last year on Ayahuasca,
he took selfies with a jaguar.
Well, the creature he hugged in the pic
was a poacher in feline pelt [...]
but God gained the awe he had aimed for
when posted on FB: Arm in Arm with Nature.   (‘God on Facebook’)

There are snippets of delightful irony, but the contemporary social critique lies hovering right below the surface, as in the aptly named ‘Identity Loot’ which side-tracks to a visceral image of ‘a fleshy toad shedding his skin [...] The dead skin hangs out of the toad’s mouth / just like the fangs of a werejaguar’.  What this pamphlet presents in between its delicious word-play, internal rhyme and alliterative-associative leaps – ‘I’m not for the pelt.  I’m loitering with intent’ (‘God as Poet, Poet as God’), ‘you may say you are Brid Patt or Brad Pitt’ (‘Appearance(s)’), ‘It ends: Ash, Ash, ash, ash, shhhh...’ (‘Ephemeral Visit: The Jaguar of the Ashes’) – is an incisive take on the essential loneliness of the human condition in the 21st century, exacerbated by, but not exclusive to the pandemic: ‘My neighbours are jaguars. / I never see them. They hide, I hide’ (‘Quarantine’).  With this comes the writer’s predicament, the endless wait for acknowledgment and fulfilment.  It is no wonder that the third person narrator and the first person are mysteriously conflated, no accident that God speaks and thinks in human ways:

Later he took photos even of his framed photos.
Life! Nature is like a painting, isn’t it? Almost.
Now all he has is wamble and time.
Time to reflect in his Domestosed kitchen.
How to transform into flame. Into fame?  (‘Hero as He Used to Be’)

The poet-creator, however, can sift through her exotic masks, bringing in naguals, contemplating inspiritment, skinwalking the hidden layers of the ‘habitat zone’, in a ritualistic search for empowerment through articulation.  This is why in the conversation with the poet Michelle Elvy, reproduced in the pamphlet, Marton talks about her research into shamanic practices and the history and techniques of artistic mask-making.   In ‘Every Mask Goes Back to the Jaguar’, therefore, there is a dualistic metamorphosis – ‘A carving: a man disguised as a jaguar? / A jaguar in the process of becoming a man?’ God As Poet / Poet as God can also wear masks to be transformed into a ‘less-than-human god’, a jaguar deity in full regalia, powerfully charged to transcend human frailty.  If there is healing, it comes along with the ‘coddiwomple / to the not-yet-contaminated places. / How optimistic, how ill-informed’ (‘Ephemeral Visit: The Jaguar of the Ashes’), which is why in the final poem ‘The Jaguar God of Terrestrial Plague’, the orchestrated voices take their last breath, not in jest, but in collective warning:Earth, you gave me pace and reproach.
I keep repeating the same mistake.
Habitat loss.

Abigail Ardelle Zammit holds a doctorate in Creative Writing and has had poetry and reviews published in international journals including Matter, Boulevard, Gutter, Myslexia, Poetry International, The SHOp, Iota, Aesthetica, Freefall, Ink, Sweat and Tears, High Window, The Ekphrastic Review and Tupelo Quarterly.  Abigail’s two collections of poetry are Voices from the Land of Trees (Smokestack, 2007), and Portrait of a Woman with Sea Urchin (SPM, 2015).  She is also a translator and the author of The Poetry Buddy – A Seamus Heaney Guide for Advanced Level Students (Malta, 2020).  Her most recent manuscripts have been shortlisted in three international competitions and she will be featured in the Montreal International Competition anthology.