Chloe Martinez’s chapbook Corner Shrine (Backbone Press, 2020) is a poetry collection that plots a vibrant historical timeline, inviting readers to embark on a journey across South Asia while focusing on the ephemerality of life. As the winner of the 2020 Backbone Press Chapbook Contest, Corner Shrine evokes existential questions, challenging grandiose perceptions of human civilizations by drawing upon imagery of ancient shrines and nature’s transience. At its heart, Martinez’s collection acts as a dialogue between tourists and the places they travel to as she complicates modern conceptions of spatial history.
This collection of poems finds its strength by fabricating a tangible world marked by Kabul’s gardens, monkey-filled train stations, and the sounds of India’s fishermen toiling away as tourists rest on balconies overhead. Martinez touches on unspoken aspects of tourism against beautiful portraits of South Asian realism. Through an intrinsic link between this foreign place and its history, an overarching narrative drives Corner Shrine by plotting the tourist’s development from self-interested to self-aware. By the end of the collection, the tourist contextualizes their place in history. In the first poem, the narrator addresses the reader as a tourist who takes a photo—”Not a story. Not an image. It is a map. At the end of the hallway, / a balcony” (“The Mirror Room, Mehranagarh Fort”). The image of the balcony reoccurs throughout the collection, referring to biases tourists often hold when they visit a country for the first time. Moreover, through class privilege, the tourist is physically “above” India’s fishermen and working class.
The narrator goes on, “[the] Mirror Palace… it wants an audience. / Here you are, alone with your ten thousand selves” (“The Mirror Room, Mehranagarh Fort”). The mirror, like the image of Sheeh Mahal, is a map that will lead the tourist to self-realization. In fact, Martinez exposes a paradox in her collection: the tourist, too, is a spectacle. When the tourist is alone and standing against the historical backdrop of the places they visit, they must face all the parts of themselves, including their biases and class privilege. In the collection’s first section, the tourist is not just an unreachable spectator, which is an idea that Martinez plays with in “Learning Experience.” Here, the narrator retells the moment she first interacts with the Indian landscape—she falls from a train, which is perhaps a nod to the collection’s second section, appropriately titled “Disorientation,” and represents the tourist’s journey to self-awareness.
Although each poem stands alone, the collection is divided into three sections. The first section, “Ten Thousand Selves,” humanizes the founders of ancient empires by reimagining the creation of architectural marvels. Here, Martinez weaves together poems from the imagined perspective of Babur and Shah Jahan with the tourist’s perspective. In this way, the narrator both minimizes and aggrandizes the tourist’s presence by contrasting their perspective with that of royalty. In “Babur at Agra,” the narrator imagines that he “walked the fragrant pathways, / thinking of where he slept in the open air.” Similarly, the narrator describes that the reader “[arrives] at night. The road snakes up the mountain / to cool air” (“Reaching Hills Station in Late August in Rajasthan”). Martinez masterfully shifts the sentence subjects to complicate power dynamics between the tourist and their landscape. In the previously stated line, the narrator grants Babur agency as the subject. However, the road—i.e., a part of the South Asian landscape—becomes the subject when the narrator tells of the tourist’s arrival. This shift suggests that, although the tourist previously possessed a sense of hubris, a country’s natural history always acts with agency, preceding the present.
The second section, “Disorientation,” engages with the Indian landscape more intimately, reflecting the beginning of deep cultural recognition. She writes, “It’s Diwali… / …the strange light makes / bicycles, poster-gods and me look ethereal and cheap” (“Diwali”). Here, Martinez makes an interesting link between the bicycle, perhaps a symbol of modernist progression, false poster-idols, and the tourists themselves—compared to the elegant tradition of Diwali, these objects lose their value. Similarly, in “Eight Past Lives, As I Recall Them,” we see a radical shift toward transcendentalism. The tourist finally contextualizes, not only themselves, but the many who comprise the South Asian landscape, into its grand history. This section romanticizes the labour of the many by making them subjects of poems: the thief, the killer, and the painter, to name a few. The narrator compares themselves to the woman in Rilke’s Die Gazelle, who “stood in a lake, naked. Her face / gewendeten: turned back to look at you” (“The Poem”). Naked, stripped of material security, the tourist finally sees themselves belonging to the landscape.
Chloe Martinez’s Corner Shrine paints a vibrant picture of South Asia’s most historic sites, nestling travelogue-style poems between reminscences of its colourful landscape. A poignant analysis of the tourism industry informs her command of language and imagery, made up of India’s “gorgeous ruins” diffused by dynamic wordplay. Stressing the importance of belonging—that even the most minute details have a purpose—the narrator memorializes color while using homophones to add layers of meaning: “Red a ring I stole / from a gift shop in high school,” later continuing, “Red the sandstone palace, / even under whitewash. I never stole anything else” (“Palace Gate”). The narrator suggests here that once they “read” or perceive India’s beauty, they experience a radical change in values. Like the tourist’s journey from indulgence to awareness, this collection will inspire readers to reflect on their own spiritual journey.
Crysta Montiel is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in Canada, where she studies English Literature and Philosophy. She previously worked as an editorial intern at Ayesha Pande Literary Agency. When Crysta’s not digging through treasure troves of queries, she’s completing her Criterion Collection bucket list and playing with her cat.