Kids of the Black Hole

By Marty Cain


Trembling Pillow Press
August 2017

Reviewed by Caroline Crew


Marty Cain's book length poem, Kids of the Black Hole, churns the traditional pastoral elegy, Romanticism, and the Cold War poetics of masculinity into a poetic machine that attempts to produce the body, an understanding of toxic masculinity, and Vermont. A coming-of-age poem, a manifesto, and a reckoning, Kids of the Black Hole is relentless in its momentum and piercing in its gaze.

Though not narrative in a linear fashion, Kids plays on the literalism of the coming-of-age trope by pressuring the notion of becoming a self and the forces that forge that becoming. Kids obliterates the linearity of chronological time: "I say I want to go back and forward both at once / I say time makes me sweat like a motherfucker in the dark." As the black hole of his title suggests, Cain is interested in how time conflates, the function of dream time, and the deep time of being embedded in specific cultures. Formally, his poem eschews narrative and instead progresses through the momentum of repetition. Cain utilizes both anaphora and parallelism as structuring principles, allowing Kids to syntactically cohere and move forward. This scaffolding lets the poem accumulate associatively and emphatically, threading together shifts in both vision and temporality:

how you were on your way to a large-scale brawl
where they circled with pickups, you were prey in the ocean
how I didn't go, how I never went
how they threw my jacket in the churning river
how for three weeks I hid a knife in my sneaker which I never needed to use
how at night I dreamed I set my clothes on fire
You look vibrant, honey, mother said
how my soul was softly chewing its own skin

Here, the anaphoric repetition of "how" pushes the poem forward and elides the perspective shifts played out via the changing pronouns. Similarly, the parallelism of "how I didn't go, how I never went" further weights the repetition and complicates the syntactical movement. These structures change and weave, mutating rather than becoming the soothing and predictable rhythm of repetitive prayer. Kids functions as a poetic snowballing, as Michael Dumanis describes contemporary litany in "An Aesthetics of Accumulation": "despite the lack of narrative causation, the litany feels anything but static, gathering kinetic energy through the maximalist, expansive piling-on." Such piling on functions through a stable of repeated images—dogs, needles, Volvos, twisting bodies, the New England landscape, and, most importantly, the homestead. The swirling and repeated visual markers deepen the reader's sense of the specific matrix of geography and experience that is Cain's Vermont.

The repetitive bent of Kids is foundational beyond its formal capacity, and is central to the book's exploration of trauma. The framing image of the black hole rests within trauma theory's structure of the "missed moment," in which survivors of trauma, unable to process their encounter with violence because it happened "too soon," return to this missed moment and repeat it over and over. Kids is flooded with violence, but it is also concerned with processing and questioning what it means to write trauma. Though Cain depicts violence —most often the cruelties of men executed to maintain masculinity—Kids goes beyond literal violence to consider the violence of writing as well. The suffering body is repeatedly conflated with the text, to the point that these two things become indistinguishable: "she was pointing a finger / I wasn't sure if she pointing at me / or the poem."

This question of what it means to write trauma and its landscape haunts Kids. Although the poem abjures narrative, tradition is another matter. Cain is acutely aware of the weight of writing a pastoral, self-reflective epic. He both evokes and subverts these varying traditions. Throughout the poem, archaisms increasingly sneak into the text—"pluckèd," "sprouteth," "swain"—as well as the apostrophic exclamation, "O," that immediately voices the Romantic tradition and its intense relationship between landscape and self. The seeming invocations of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and William Wordsworth's The Prelude—those unavoidable pastoral epics—read as a recognition of Kids's canonical forbearers.

Cain also alludes to more recent poetic traditions, most notably the work of Jack Spicer and Charles Olson. Kids embraces and enfolds Spicer's Martian poetics: "for this poem is my one abduction / for I know the transmission cometh from elsewhere / for I know a Martian in my soul." The specter of Olson and his Maximus Poems, in a maximalist New England poem, is perhaps unavoidable. However, Olson's conception of field poetics is the more palpable influence—and one that Kids literally embodies in its graphic exploration of textual possibility. Pages of Kids break down into repeated asterisks, into words broken into their smaller pages. This is the reckoning of writing trauma. "I filled up pages" Cain repeats and repeats, twisting to call out specifically to Olson:

I filled up pages
I filled up pages
I filled u-p-p-u-u-u-u-u-u-h pages
I filled u-p-p-u-u-u-u-u-u-h pages
I filled u-p-p-u-u-u-u-u-u-h pages
I filled u-p-p-u-u-u-u-u-u-h pages
I filled up hummmm UP hummmm UP
I filled up up up up up upun pages up UP the field
hummmm / the field up I filled up the field

While not necessarily grouped together, Olson and Spicer both shape the legacy of Cold War poetics, and, more significantly for Cain, shape the masculinity encoded in this poetic inheritance. As Michael Davidson writes in Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics, the "compulsory homosociality" of these avant-garde movements perpetuated a misogynist tradition: ". . . however radical these new positions may have been for society in the 1950s, they tended to be exclusive and conservative where women were concerned."

Cain includes and confronts these traditions, and by incorporating them with the specificity of coming-of-age in Vermont, he reckons with toxic masculinity. The question of "becoming a man" threads throughout Kids, and is inherently bound to violence and misogyny:

you slung a fist in my gut, I took it like a man for once
Don't fucking look at me you said, I looked right at you
Don't cry, you said, I looked right at you
how with hot breath you slid your hand behind my neck
You are a goddamn woman, you said
how I took it like a man

This specific event is refigured and rewoven throughout the poem, reflecting the way in which Cain turns these traumas over and over—remembering, yes, but further pressuring the poem's own gendered landscape. The complexity of gendered violence in Kids is truly remarkable. Cain's almost punishing pace, kept up through the machine of repetition and thrilling associations, allows Kids to explore the network of trauma, how one can both be a victim and complicit, and how these systems are inherited. Particularly fascinating is his refusal to look away from the poem's own movement within and resistance to this network: "she said all my characters were unlikable / that I fetishized the feminine but there weren't even any women in the poem."

Reading Kids is a dizzying experience—temporally disorienting and, at times, textually challenging. It is also a profoundly uncomfortable experience that, with the poem's frenetic energy and repetitive drive, cannot be paused or broken. Beyond the book's violence, this discomfort stems from Kids's unblinking look at masculinity and the raw shock of reading about toxic masculinity explored from a rural, male perspective—and this discomfort is exactly why Kids is such a necessary, vital book.