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Imagine if someone spilled a puzzle in your lap. You can see at once that the pieces are beautifully made and deftly cut. They have fine edges, sharp and deliberate. They hold a pattern of language, certain words recurring across many pieces—words like “body” and “form” and “hole,” words that evoke other words like trap, constriction, and emptiness. Words like “violence” and “power,” too.
One piece of the puzzle reads, “In absence of wholeness catch glimpses of the sides of selves,” which reveals the puzzler’s dilemma. In other words, we’re not going to solve this one, not if “solving” means putting all the pieces together so they fit equally and evenly into a single, recognizable shape: a mountain landscape, say, or a presidential profile. This puzzle is too postmodern for that, too multivalent.
Even the great puzzler who has made these pieces isn’t going to solve it for us. She isn’t going to solve it, and she certainly isn’t going to resolve it. These aren’t her goals. She’s the one who tells us, “Life in a box is a pretty life, arrangements and things.” But she’s stepped outside the box here, in order to better examine how “form arrives at the end of language.” She’s thinking outside the box in order to better articulate what goes on inside the box. This is hard to do. Some of the pieces are shaped like boxes. Some of the pieces are not.
Most of us keep puzzles that are stored in boxes with box-tops that show how the puzzle is supposed to look when assembled. But this puzzle—Life in a Box is a Pretty Life—doesn’t come in a box. This puzzle is the box. This puzzle is also a portrait (in “glimpses”) of how the puzzle is supposed to look when dissembled/dissembling. After all, our puzzler reminds us, “Almost everything we’ve ever desired is diminished when enclosed.” She has, on the contrary, opened absolutely everything up.
One of the many things I admire about Dawn Lundy Martin’s poetry is her potent ability to puzzle the reader without losing the reader. To puzzle is not the same as to baffle. When I am baffled, I throw up my hands. When I am puzzled, I look deeper. And this is what Martin’s speaker wants all of us to do, I daresay: to look deeper, to puzzle harder. Gendered binaries and racial hierarchies are two of the status quos she asks us not to take at face value, two of the status quos she demands us, in fact, to puzzle over, to probe. A piece: “A boy is not a body. A boy is a walk.” Another: “Awareness of being in a female body is a tinge of regret.” She has a way of doing this, of puzzling me into places I don’t know I know. There is a tacit truth here, something I recognize, as one possessed of/enclosed by a female body. Then, this: “Floating screens: black bodies, unfathomable, violent acts.” And this: “Only Will Smith has been spared.” Another tacit truth here, about film and race and representation, something I shrink from as one possessed of/ enclosed by a white body. Martin puzzles me also into places I don’t want to know I know.
“WE ARE ______ WITH GLEE,” one of her pieces reads. It is a silent imperative: fill in the blank. One word that occupies this space well is oblivious. Another is ignorant. Another is apathetic. These words do not appear in this book. Is this because Martin knows each one of us is a piece of the puzzle, that each one of us fills this blank precisely and completely?
Something else I admire about Dawn Lundy Martin’s poetry is her resourcefulness in deploying a language that routinely fails us, and then, more resourceful still: her deployment of that same failing language to articulate the experience of failure, of not enough words or the right ones to name all that is wrong, all that is needed. Case in point: “Sometimes, in spite of myself, the word, God.//A book is nothing, they say.//A want to theorize this phrase but then flesh just gone.”
Martin maximizes every aspect of the language in this volume, every instantiation of words and lexical marks on paper. Sometimes, there are brackets: “[ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]”. These demarcations of openness and/or emptiness might be experienced as boxes where thoughts that are outside of language go. And/or as deep breaths that need to be taken. And/or as instantiations of whiteness/lightness that are favored by the culture at large. It is easier to feel these brackets than to describe their impact.
Much later in the book, the speaker places words inside brackets, so we hearken back. Were these words here all along, invisible? Were they whispered at a frequency we weren’t yet able and/or willing to hear: “[Being in love with the pitch of experience means one must wear a common cloak.] [Violence stuns the body into submission.]” Were the earlier brackets evidence of our submission, our silence? Were they the “common cloak” itself?
Then, the sudden moments of intimacy arrive/arise. They seem to flare up, to afflict us with a luminous clarity. They remind the reader how language is always political, and how the political is always personal.
Formative, this: “I am eleven and am and let into a dim room where my brother and his friends are watching a 32 mm film in which a woman is gangbanged.”
Formative, this: “My mother tells me the story of Sodom and Gomorrah over again on the telephone. Has she imagined sodomy? Has she imagined flesh filled and flesh ripping?”
Deduced from formative experience, this: “I was illustrative, an example angled toward proof. I was biologically female but that was of no use.” How the slant rhyme of proof and use haunts me here. Both sounds evoke a candle being blown out, a self flickering under the threat of extinguishment.
Near the beginning of this book, Martin says, “I speak to you from a crack in the surface, from the elongated scar, a silver cylinder.” So the self-awareness begins. So the meta-thread pulls through. To speak is power. To speak of speaking is more powerful still.
Boxes are small rooms with many walls. To break down a box is to break many walls, including the fourth one. Martin already anticipates the arrival of her book, which is and is not a box, in the world. She anticipates its reception there. “Reviewers want these poems to be more hopeful,” she says.
Some reviewers may, but I am not one of them. Remember Pandora’s box? All the contents escape except the one at the bottom. Hope. Hope is trapped in the box. This book is not about the liberation of Hope but the articulation of a certain Hopelessness. This hopelessness needs to be heard. It needs to be heard especially in a culture that professes to be “post-gender,” “post-racial,” in a culture that speaks to its female citizens, its black citizens, its black female citizens, this way: “Why are you so sad, they will ask me, why is your heart so weak? We’ve given you everything, they say, why won’t you flourish?”
This book is not about flourishing. It is about limitations prescribed for some and not for others. This is an Other speaking as an Other about being Othered.
This: “When the I speaks, it speaks into an other’s speech.”
And this: “You just present yourself or happen in the room and perspectives all around you.”
And this, most of all, a triumph of refusal: “I will not sing to you. I refuse to sing to you.”
Thank you for not singing to me. This isn’t a lullaby, nor should it be. This is a rallying cry. This is a wake-up call.
You’re going to want to read this book, and then you’re going to want to teach this book. Bring it into your literature courses, your creative writing courses, your gender and race and sexuality studies courses. But most of all, bring it into your embodiment studies courses. I want to build a syllabus around these lines:
“A body is a piecemeal accumulation. It’s already fraught. We attempt/ to construct wholeness. No debris. No breaking off eastward.”
Is there lineated poetry? Yes. Is there prose poetry? Yes. And there’s a lyric essay at the end called “25 Tiny Essays on the Value of Forgetfulness and Sleepiness.” Note: you can read the ending first. I encourage it. Prolepsis: “The I is collecting documents in her body. Why are you writing me?!, it bellows.”
This book isn’t “braided” so much as it is “looped.” We keep touching back, the way the tongue returns to a sore tooth or a place of extraction inside the mouth. Another hole, more emptiness. We keep being asked to look again, to puzzle harder, to see more of what we don’t know and don’t want to know. The essential paradox is the black female body, boxed (as in caged) and left outside the box (as in omitted). Our subject is so relentlessly objectified that this phrase takes up residence in her ear, playing on a loop: “I’ve always wanted to fuck a black woman.” Our subject who resists/resents the boxes she is asked to check, for sex (choose one), for race (choose one). Orientation is not even a box but an absence of boxes, an empty set. Our subject has been made both culpable and invisible at the same time. How is this possible? Puzzle harder. Martin’s speaker shakes the box from inside out. “In here! In here!” she shouts. “I’m right before your eyes!”
Life in a Box is a Pretty Life
by Dawn Lundy Martin
Paperback, 9781937658281, 87 pp.