Life in a Box is a Pretty Life by Dawn Lundy Martin
Nightboat Books, 2015; 87 pp
Reviewed by Wesley Rothman
Variations of a much beloved cliché, one we’ve heard sighed ad nauseum lately in the social media cavern: “I’m speechless,” “I have no words,” “this is an unspeakable crime,” “I don’t know what to say”—these are copouts, means to think less about the reality of hatred, murder, culpability, history, fear, inheritance, violence, how complexly twisted our social-political-cultural-economic schema is and continues to twist—copouts from thinking and assigning language to those thoughts, doing the work of mind and mouth that threatens to tear what we call our bodies apart—copouts from facing the real without flinching, without turning away—copouts and coping mechanisms. If we’re speechless we somehow feel we can’t be held accountable for our speech, our thoughts, our complicity; if we have no words we can somehow look away and move on with the world, or move the world on from something terrifying, blood, lives taken from this world, systemic abuse, politicians and loved ones and ourselves spinning our wheels.
Dawn Lundy Martin’s Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (facetious/sarcastic/satirical/grave title) cops nothing and no one out; it’s a damn hard language to hear and understand, for its truth and moments of graspability, and for its disjointedness, seemingly foreign logic and progression, its at-first unfamiliar sense construction. This poetry makes you work, and at the same time asks you to let go, roll with it, let the language work on you—a kind of controllessness that comes only from a personpoet with highly skilled linguistic maneuverability.
Broken or molded/melted into ten sequences, some of the moments that rocked me most pushed me to make sense while intermittently giving over to word sound and jumble: from “OH, SUSANNA, HOW THE SUN SETS ON THIS LOVELY LAND,”
Fortress upon me [the I in dramatic gesticulation, its façade trembling]. When the soldiers come, they will come, it will be important to note know objects of particular use:
“fatback” “your lard loins” “rivers”
“my father’s black uniform”
When, later, the fold is undone, no memory—
Form arrives at the end of language.
[The body in the basement is bobbled with welts. It cries and cries in a wet corner. We must leave this in the well.]
“Representation just fell away.”
“To liberate the past from the past.”
Whispers, “my father’s cold lantern,” “brown and grey dickeys.”
Memory, the absence of thought.
This segment samples Martin’s impressionistic constructions, blending found language with scene direction/commentary with fragments and epiphanic attempts to pin down thought with word. This poetry grasps at the aphoristic nature of thought, moments of perceived clarity that spill into irretrievable puddles, and it tells realities real-ly, not over-smoothed, familiarized, clichéd recountings of life—it is an intricate collage of language and observation and feeling and thoughts: disparate parts layered into a fresh logic, a thought had in the body, how bodies speak their strife and combat and survival. From the sequence “WHEN WE ARE INSIDE THE PRISON WE CAN ONLY THINK OF BEAUTY,”
The body an upright suit, designed as intent. Smooth over belly filled with unsafe duck meant. Leniencies follow. Enter the building with your special pass. Checkpoint around skin. The black apostle comes to me in a cowboy hat. Dear angel, I say, I cannot fuck you tonight, my father is dead. Button shirt up to collar. [Begin in love with the pitch of experience means one must wear a common cloak.] [Violence stuns the body into submission.] How to know what violence is? Always inches from disappearance. From swelling into unrecognition.
Life in a Box is a Pretty Life embodies what poetry, perhaps, is best able to do: query us without asking the same old questions, questions that we call and feel “same old” because common language aims to universalize, simplify for the understanding of the masses, and in the process dulls, and dulls our reaction to it, our ability to use it, wield it, feel it in our bodies when we see a video on Facebook of police wrestling a “suspect,” the scuffle, and the chest-caving jangle of gunshots.
Martin rounds out the book—though this is a language and sense and sound that is ellipsized, in other words we’re encouraged to use it well after the book ends—with the coda, “25 TINY ESSAYS ON THE VALUE OF FORGETFULNESS AND SLEEPINESS”—which you’ll have to read for yourself, but before the coda, we encounter this, in “WITHOUT KNOWING THE SLIGHTEST THING ABOUT WAR, I FIND MYSELF AN INSTRUMENT OF LABOR, INVESTIGATION, AND EXPERIMENT,”
They will tell you that I was sick, that I was a drug addict.
They will tell you I died a natural death. Sometimes young people just die, they will say, we don’t know why. They will say I was lazy, that I could not work because of disease and just general feebleness. When a crime is committed by a white man, they will show you a photo of me instead and call me a trickster. In the photo, my jaw is slack, my hair wild. They will say that I am unkillable, that my body resists battery by tree trunks, bullets, and years in small cells. When I enter a store to buy something I will be immediately arrested and then they will apologize. I am just a child I will say. Impossible to be so greasy and a child they will say there are no children anymore. 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 says so much of what we claim we cannot say, about which we are “speechless”—one of its clearest impressions is that speechlessness can no longer be an option, we have to teach ourselves to think and speak what is most dastardly in our world, that we who are responsible have to listen and think and find a way to live and speak our responsibility.