Every year since 1978, the National Poetry Series has published five books of exceptional contemporary poetry. The inclusion of Guggenheim Fellow Martínez’s new volume among its 1999 selections validates the series’ commitment to extraordinary American poetry. Martínez here collects the prose poems about his character, “The Prodigal Son,” that have appeared in poetry journals throughout the US, and organizes them into an elusive but fascinating commentary on life at the turn of the millennium. He places the pieces into four thematically linked sections: three describe the stages of the Prodigal Son’s spiritual and intellectual journey, and one interlude speaks in the Prodigal Son’s own voice. The first section tells of journeying through a fractured world in search of enlightenment; the second suggests that such quests inevitably end in frustration. The interlude dramatizes the Prodigal Son’s rejection of the importance of knowledge and his consequent exploration of life’s mysteries. In the final section, a renewed sense of wonder leads the Prodigal Son back to his home and family. Merely to have portrayed the conundrums and paradoxes of modern life in prose poetry would have been challenge enough for any accomplished poet, but Martínez’s deft guidance of the Prodigal Son through this psychic minefield into a final haven of peace and understanding marks his collection as one of the most important new works of poetry this year.
Powerful and intriguing: poetry that overcomes modern angst by transforming the uncertainty and emptiness of life into human potential and hope.