Book Review: Lessons in Camouflage
A Review of Martin Ott's Lessons in Camouflage by Leonard Temme
Martin Ott’s new collection of poems, Lessons in Camouflage, is aptly named. The word camouflage has immediate military connotations that are easy to see in several of the thirty-nine poems comprising this powerful collection. The military influence is no surprise given that Ott is a former U. S. Army interrogator. The book’s cover emphasizes the military connection with its collage of soldiers in their battle fatigues and with rifles in hand, jumping from a hovering Black Hawk helicopter into what looks like a highly magnified, barely recognizable, severely distorted image of flowers. The underside of helicopter has the word poetry painted in all caps as though poetry were the aircraft’s identifier.
The military presence is felt in several poems although the majority of the poems are not about the military at all. Ott carries the marks of his military experience into his civilian, male, Californian daily life. His experiences shape his way of being, his seeing, his language, his sense of self, and consequently, his poems. So the cover, emphasizing the military, is simultaneously misleading and spot on. Misleading because most of the book does not feature the military at all; spot on because Ott draws on the military for his poems as he draws on other aspects of his life. He is the soldier jumping from the helicopter into a daily life that is barely recognizable and as grotesque as it is normal. To this extent both the title and the cover are completely apt; the camouflaged military influence, once noticed, is never too far below the surface.
We all go through life camouflaged. Camouflage is everywhere. Nature invented camouflage when she invented predation; it is an essential tool of survival. Part of the universality of these poems derives from the universality of camouflage, which is really the book’s theme, captured by the epigram attributed to Buddha--“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” The negative space of camouflage is truth.
The book opens with "The King of Camouflage," which could be Ott introducing himself. Its first four lines are “Yesterday’s sky is my molting skin. / My soldier’s makeup stains the plays / on a global stage, the actors dead, maudlin / applause sweeping across your family’s strays.” The meanings of these lines deepen on successive reading, and deepen further as they are reread in the company of the rest of the book. The poem is Ott’s soliloquy; his skin is molting, (like a snake’s) and his soldier’s makeup (actor / crossdresser / camouflage / deception) stains the globe theatre. The poem continues with Ott pulling him together in a fragmented world. The poem, a single stanza of twenty lines, ends with “Look into ash. I’m there where you begin. / I am the shadow that forms in front and stays / long after you’ve lost the spark within. / My power plums in endless praise.” These lines recall the phoenix, and, in the rest of the book, Ott struggles to determine whether the optimism of the last line is justified or not.
This first poem shares with all the book’s poems an extraordinary sensitivity to the sound of words as well as to poetic structure, form, and architecture. Part of Ott’s agon resides in the creation of the poems themselves. All the poems reward reading aloud to catch the musicality of the lines, the sensuousness of the words, and the judicious use of enjambments, where they are and where they are not. Note that the twenty lines of this poem, all about five feet long, end in the same -a -b rhyme for the full extent of the poem. The end rhymes and the many internal ones are completely unobtrusive. They add to the poem’s sonorities without calling attention to themselves. They are an aesthetic achievement that adds to the sensuousness of the poem but are hidden, subtle, and camouflaged.
Almost all the poems are a single stanza that fit on one page. They present themselves as carrying all their content in the text; but, in this small space, the action of the poem shifts very quickly and several poems work by the juxtaposition of multiple elements. Consequently, even though the physical appearance of these poems on the page is tight, essentially homogeneous, the appearance is another form of camouflage covering varied dynamics and contrasts. The apparent tightness on the page adds to the accomplishment of the poem. It is another ingredient Ott uses, as though the tighter the poem, the more he manages to pack into it. Despite all the surprises and juxtapositions these poems contain, Ott never loses or confuses the reader because each poem has a center core and the diverse elements work together to achieve the poem’s cumulative effect.
The poem "Mile Post" is an example of Ott’s assembling diverse elements to achieve a cumulative effect. The poem opens with: “I made sure that no one ever passes me / in the two mile race on desert paths. / Why am I still running from camouflage?” and continues with references to space shuttle disasters, school bus bullies, the Boston Marathon, childhood events, lost friends, casualties, the Army and so forth. The poem is composed of a dozen standalone lines that are repeated word for word in the poem making it twenty-four lines long. Each time the line appears, it means something different because different lines surround it; the context changes the valences of the line. The systematic repetition of the lines creates a feeling of halting progress, as though the poem is forever looking over its shoulder, literally slogging through sand or taking two steps back for every one step forward. It seems as though the poet simply can’t get past these elements, can’t put them down; or worse, he seems to be carrying everything with him in a race that is a frantic dream struggle for slow-motion progress.
In some poems, Ott uses italics to introduce contrasting elements, voices, contexts, points of view, times, and locations. In "Morels" he recalls childhood memories of "long forays into the woods for berries" contrasting with the italics of the present death of his mother: "Mom’s body is pale, tumors nestled between …". There is never a confusion in his depiction of these all-too-human realities.
The poem "Mr. Old Year," on the page facing "Morels," also juxtaposes at least two voices, one italicized with evocative lines confronting an absent lost love. The other, in normal font, describes somewhat surrealistic and apocalyptic images of disorder. This poem could naturally be shaped into a stanza structure since the apocalyptic images are carefully constructed quatrains and the italics are single self-contained lines. Actually, many poems in this collection have an inherent stanzaic structure that Ott seems to suppress intentionally, as though obscuring the different poems’ individual architectures so their homogenous appearance on the page instantiates another aspect of the camouflage the book examines.
Two poems do look different on the page. One is: "Why I Worry My Mom Is Dying Explained By Five Extinct Punctuation Marks." This poem is in five sections titled: "Manicle," "Percontation Mark," "Pilcrow," "Interrobang," and "Virgule," with each titled section consisting of 3 crafted lines whose meaning embodies, illustrates, or instantiates the literal meaning of the section’s punctuation mark title as the speaker prepares himself for his mother’s death, possibly due to smoking, and therefore, probably premature and self-destructive.
The other poem is the book’s last one, "33 Lessons in Camouflage," which extends for thirty-three numbered sections spanning nearly seven pages. Each section is an unrhymed quatrain, all of about the same line length. Each captures an element of camouflage; for example, the first: "Mom switched me from southpaw / to righty, an abandonment of sorts, / child on a basket of reeds adopted / by a land too scoured to hide beliefs”; and, the last: "I hide my strengths and weaknesses, / clever boy, but my children expose / them with their own. Each day a scab / is torn and each night a new me forms.”
The individual poems that comprise this book reward repeated reading as does the whole book itself, tightly constructed around the single theme that the truth, like the sun and moon, cannot long be hidden. The book is not naive in its affirmation of truth, and neither is Ott. I hope those who take time with this book read it aloud to enjoy the music of Ott’s language. He took care to not camouflage the sensuous beauty of the sound of these poems.
Leonard Temme is a research neuropsychologist in a government research laboratory. He studied writing most extensively with Marie Ponsot, Sue Walker, and Kristina Darling. In addition to his professional publications, his writing has appeared numerous literary and small presses. He was Poet Laureate of North West Florida between 1989 and 1992.