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In the foreword of Dawn Lundy Martin’s new collection, Discipline (which is up for a 2012 Lambda Literary Award), Fanny Howe, who selected it for the 2009 Nightboat Poetry Prize, writes that Discipline “digs into the roots of our culture by entering its pivotal derangement” and that it’s “a courageous act of feeling…. a return of the rejected person as a recognizable companion,” which might explain why it is so raw. Martin does a great job at expressing what it’s like to be, and feel, denounced — to be, as she says herself in Discipline, “The absent daughter.” And it’s true, often the narrator is hard to identify.
After a few weeks of reading these poems, I mentioned to a friend that I was having a hard time getting into them… What I slowly came to realize was, that the only way in was through. Trying to decode or recognize a “something” or “someone,” would only prove to be frustrating, which I believe was Martin’s mission. The poems, none of which have a title, could be considered one long poem, and read stream-of-consciousness, which lends itself to feelings of discombobulation, as a buoy bouncing around in a sea of confusion. They are meant to leave the reader feeling dazed and confused, like its slippery protagonist, “the rejected.” They only time I felt Martin didn’t achieve this was in the sporadically placed UPC bar-like code poems—you’d have to see them on the page to believe it. Otherwise, the poems come alive on the page. Many poetry collections try to do this, but few accomplish it like Discipline.
Recently at a Paris Review interview at the New York Public Library, poet James Fenton said to an audience member who asked what he felt about poems written for the page versus poems written for performance to, “Do your self a favor: write something that can be performed. People like to hear those poems. Of course it can go too far (i.e. Poetry Slams), but often poets write things that when read out loud aren’t very exiting.” It’s true, many poets can read their poems with great presentation, but few poems perform for you on the page the way Discipline does.
“At home, the house tangs of the dead. We never mention the way the rooms wilt with it. We paint the floor, collect the beer cans from the basement, and look sad…” Discipline in the West is usually associated with punishment, in order to train or control, to correct. Taking it a step further, “to paint over what’s not working.” Yet in the East, discipline is associated with sitting with our potential to not escape from reality; in other words, discipline allows us to be right here, right now, connecting with the richness of the moment. Martin’s Discipline does a little bit of both, the poems are like paintings… they are a way of grappling with, and understanding the past, perhaps an affidavit of history—a way of making friends with both the communal and personal rejected child.