by Aaron Bristow-Rodriguez
Martin Ott’s third book of poetry, Lessons in Camouflage, explores violence in public and private spaces through a haunting variety of open and closed poetic forms. Tragic and personal, the collection ultimately delivers a message of hope and recovery.
The collection opens with “King of Camouflage,” a tightly packed poem that conflates theater and war. Often enjambing dense images between lines, what exists is a poem that defies interpretation and avoids location. This indeterminate quality works because the poem actively creates its own camouflage through its images and style:
See the tapestry of faces flickering in
the cracks of the windshield, the haze
of suffering to raise your children
to crush third grade, seize glory days.
The broken syntax across lines and the speed at which images evolve, techniques Ott applies frequently throughout the collection, create momentum while inflicting violence on faces, children, and time. This momentum grows after each subsequent poem reveals details about the speaker’s violent complicity. In “Marks,” enjambed memories stretch across one long stanza, accented by deviations from the mundane: “the wand over impossible stains”; “the tattoo of a sanguine penguin brandishing a machine pistol”; and, “the first woman who slapped you.” With each new memory comes the desire to break the cycle. The speaker warns of the complacency of memory and calls the reader to action. “Remember,” the speaker says, “that waking is an act/of defiance.”
Lessons in Camouflage is also a meditation on distance: the distance between being a
child and having a child; the ever-shrinking distance between the living and the dead; and objects in the distance, at once disconcerting in their indiscernibility and comforting in their separation.
Poems like “Why My Father Carries Three Guns” operate in the distance between being a
child and having a child, the liminal space of growing up. In the poem, the speaker asks, “Who will be my brother in a family of guns?” In a relatively short space, Ott explores guns replacing humanity in childhood mythologies.
Situated in that same liminal space, “Morels,” a heartbreaking poem about the speaker’s
childhood, juxtaposes happy memories of childhood with italicized memories of his mother’s death from cancer. A highlight of this collection, this poem embodies Ott’s ability to focus incredible amounts of emotional energy into a condensed space.
When I was a boy my family and I took
long forays into the woods for berries,
Dachshund in tow, pinging our haul
into pails, sometimes searching for morels.
Mom’s body is pail, tumors nestled between
windpipe and heart, five days since she collapsed.
Many of the poems in this collection feature a similar dialogue between two voices
differentiated by regular and italicized font. In some poems, italicized personal statements function as breaks between images. In other poems, poignant questions that the regular speaker cannot ask are italicized. In “Unclaimed Baggage Center,” the speaker asks, “How could we have taken/flight without them?”.
Lessons in Camouflage confronts and deconstructs a historical and personal history of
military and masculine violence and the devastating effects the two have had on the speaker’s life and the lives of those he loves. The beginning of the book feels like the speaker is trying to figure out where home is so he can return to it. In the end, the speaker comes to the understanding that for everything we can control their will forever be things we cannot: “Courage is holding/the pieces and knowing there is more.”
This book is about the continual recovery of the self from violence: “Each day a scab/is torn and each night a new me forms.”
Lesson in Camouflage (C&R Press, 2018)