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Poems in Lives Lived
A poetry book review by Violet Nesdoly

So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed
by D. S. Martin
Rubicon Press, 2007, 28 pp, C$10
ISBN: 978-009781616-2-0

So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed is D. S. Martin’s first published collection of poetry. This slim chapbook of 17 poems celebrates the life of Martin’s grandparents who worked as missionaries in China from 1923–1951. The poems were drawn from letters the couple Ernest J. Davis and his wife Marian sent home during those years.

All the poems are short—only one goes past a page. Most include a date in the title and appear chronologically. This helps to place us within those turbulent times in China which included struggles between Chinese warlords, a Japanese invasion prior to World War II and the eventual ascent of Communism which led to the Davis’s being permanently expelled from China in 1951.

“Poetry is a separate language. It’s a language in which you never really come to the point, you are always at an angle,” said Karl Shapiro. By that definition of poetry, this book measures up well.

From the outset Martin plants the sense of a snake in Eden, but always with subtlety. “Darkening Landscape (October 1923)” the first poem in the collection is the verbal equivalent of a pastoral calendar scene until the last two chilling lines:

Up there somewhere
are the missionaries taken five weeks ago

Understatement is another of Martin’s poetic tools. A poem that shows this off well is “Good Housekeeping.” It is written in the voice of a family member replying to a letter,

Finally war is over
trains are running
mail’s coming through….

The speaker goes on to thank the readers for their letters and to talk about details of everyday life, including the fact that they are now prohibited from walking on the beach. The last lines deliver the punch-in-the-gut reason, albeit in the same tone as the newsy beginning:

The beheaded & shot were buried in the sand
but dogs will be dogs
in China as elsewhere.

That understatement carries on throughout, so that even in graphic poems like “A Chinese Evangelist (October 1926)” where we’re hiding under the robber-chief’s bed with the Chinese evangelis, one is never distracted by maudlin emotion or hysterics.

Several pieces in the collection are rich with biblical allusion and imagery. A personal favourite is “A Passover (September 1926)” where Martin uses images of the plagues of Egypt to describe a close call with the army.

This collection is nothing if not a tribute to two people that Martin admires a great deal. That admiration comes through in many of the pieces. We see his grandmother’s buoyant spirit in “She Writes of her Garden (June 1930),” the couples’ compassion in “Beggars of Shangcheng (February 1936)” and their bravery and courage in the face of more-than-trying situations in “Fire” and “Separation (March 1939).”

Finally, as the poems progress we see unfolding before our eyes the story of those years in China. Especially poignant is the sense of foreboding we hear in the urgent drumbeat of “The Mission House (Lunar New Year 1948),” and the uneasiness we feel over the dark clouds on the horizon in the last poem of the collection, “The Weather is Changing (August 1949).”

The title comes from a line in the poem “Lunar Eclipse (June 1928)” where locals come out with noisemakers to keep the heavenly dog from swallowing the moon during an eclipse. Such a title for a book honouring people whose goal it was to bring the light of the world to China makes it an interesting and thoughtful choice. The cover picture is an image of a China Inland Mission map and does double duty as a cover graphic and an actual map, orienting the reader as to where poem incidents took place.

These poems are easy to understand, yet layered. Martin communicates the Christian message not in discussions of dogma, but in the way he shows his grandparents living their lives. There was one thing that distracted me throughout the collection, though, and that was the use of the ampersand instead of the word ‘and’. It seemed too casual for such serious poems. But then, they are inspired by letters where such shorthand is expected, so perhaps that’s the explanation.

My only regret about this collection was that it wasn’t longer. However, another book of Martin’s poems, Poiema, is scheduled to come out later in 2008. Order So the Moon Would Not Be Swallowed online at www.dsmartin.ca. Also at the site, don’t miss the Photo Gallery which includes images that relate to specific poems and bring them to life visually.