Begin Empty-Handed

Gail Martin

The poems in Begin Empty-Handed ride the hinge between the life expected and the reality of life in process. In response, the mid-life speaker pivots between empathy and disengagement, resulting in paradox and believability. While she surrenders to hard truths—loss of parent, enduring marriage, daughters in trouble, for example—she changes the subject, she digresses, then she looks straight at the pain. Throughout, she remains remarkably witty and ironic. No illness, damage, or danger is made light of; painful situations are witnessed or resisted with a raw, honest, and intermittently comic attitude as the poet goes about the brutal work of letting go. This collection explores how we continue to live our lives in a full and open-hearted way knowing that everything we love will be taken away.

First Session

You come to keen for your daughter, dead
by oncology just two weeks. In my notes,

I write down burnt caramel frosting, chocolate
cupcakes made with stout.
 You tell me how

her head swelled up from the steroids, describe
spasms and hemorrhage. I write, dad riding

in the trunk of a Chevy Coupe from Michigan
to Missouri, 1940.
 I’m on the dock, arguing

about minnows. I say pedal, he says he couldn’t
think of a worse verb to describe the way they

move. I say flicker then skitter, but the water
is so clear and minnow rhymes with winnowing,

that gradual scattering and blowing away. Which
is what’s happening to my parents who walk

holding hands, back to shore.

holding hands, back to shore.Your words disappear
faster than watches from the wrists of old people

in nursing homes. You sleep on a blow-up mattress
in the living room, her ashes on the bed beside you.

You want to know if that is sick. I write down
the summer I underlined much of Corinthians,

and what boy doesn’t love a shipwreck?


Listen to “I Don’t Want to Say How Lost I’ve Been,” read by Gail Martin at Perugia Press’s 20th anniversary celebration at Smith College on November 12, 2016:

Cover image: Begin Empty-Handed
Purchase from Perugia Buy through Asterism Reading Companion


Housatonic Book Award, winner

“Gail Martin’s Begin Empty-Handed is a gorgeous book of poems that delivers all the troubled loves that focus us. In Martin’s poems you can never trust anything that calls itself ordinary—deer stroll down the street like gunslingers, a bovine heart is found in a carwash, a mother dances with burglars who’d come to rob the house. Each line is honed to its sensate particulars; its breathtaking images are restrained and wild and wonderfully alive.” —Traci Brimhall
“The most remarkable thing about Gail Martin’s Begin Empty-Handed is that the poetry is spinning itself into words as we read. Each line is a surprise, as if Martin caught the words in the air as they flew overhead. And yet the work is precise and crafted by the surest and most capable of hands. That is the awe-inspiring experience for the reader: although each poem is flawlessly revised for music and meaning, there are ragged and astonishing associative fingerprints left on everything. This collection introduced me to her work, but I will never miss another poem that Gail Martin publishes.” —Laura Kasischke
“By casting a wide net, Begin Empty-Handed succeeds in creating what feels like a true picture of life, one that encompasses opposites and shows us how they ultimately come together into a whole.” —Julie Swarstad Johnson, New Pages
“I love reading Gail Martin’s poems the way I love watching birds alight on my feeder. They are wise and funny and graceful.” —Bonnie Jo Campbell


Author photograph by Kaitlin LaMoine Photography

Gail Martin

Gail Martin’s first book is The Hourglass Heart (New Issues Press, 2003), Begin-Empty Handed is her second book, and her third book, Disappearing Queen (Two Sylvias Press, 2021), won the Wilder Series Book Prize. Martin is a Michigan native with deep roots in both southern and northern Michigan. She works as a psychotherapist in private practice in Kalamazoo, where she lives with her husband, George. Visit her at

Browse Our Books

View All Books