Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“To feel a presence, they say, can be like a haunting,” opens Dawn Lundy Martin’s third collection, A Life in a Box is a Pretty Life. The award-winning poet read from this collection and her two others in the box-like room of Kohlberg 116, whose well-lit cube glowed against the evening.
The allure of a poetry reading is not just being read to, but being spellbound by a poet’s presence: seeing a poet inhabit the space as their language inhabits them. When Dawn Lundy Martin reads, one can see the presence of her language possessing her: her upright stance, the way she rocks from heel to toe, one hand casually tucked into her pocket. Or how, as she leans back against the table, her toe presses down, and her heel lifts as she raises and stretches the cadences of her sentences.
The poetry of Dawn Lundy Martin, who leads the triple-ply life of a scholar-poet-activist, stirs up a potent concoction of history, identity, trauma, and gender—all swirling within the vial of the human body. Rooted in this body is not only physicality but a presence, a flood of history and memory in which voices intermingle in euphonious and conflicting choruses.
However, it is insufficient to cast Martin’s poetry as concerning the body purely on a thematic level. The body is more than a mere idea; it pervades the very texture of her work. Her two most recent collections, A Life in a Box is a Pretty Life and Discipline, manifest the body through the structure of prose poetry. The poems have broad, sturdy forms on the page that resist the snaps and meanderings of line breaks. Yet these bodies are not all alike: some poems cluster to the right side of the page, while others sport white gashes as the result of text erasures.
Yet in A Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, all the poems congregate under a vast titleless-ness. The poems’ many voices, grouped together, generate a crowd among which the reader weaves and wanders. There are the voices of racists and the erased, supremacists and the suppressed, the inner voices of the self and the voices of one crying out into the world. Brushing up against these poem-bodies, pushing one’s way among them, the reader feels a presence pressing in and wonders: from whom comes the wail of pain, from whom the triumph, and who dares to call out “hear ye, hear ye”? One begins to wonder if all bodies are in fact the same body—a body reincarnated throughout history, lending its form to uninterrupted cycles of time and trauma, each incidental scratch becoming “filament traces in the historical body.” It is this body the poet claims, presents, and inhabits, when Martin writes phrases like, “I lie down in the ditch myself, stretch my body alongside the dead myself.”
Yet even Martin acknowledges how the human body surprises and betrays, how physicalities unexpectedly twist when “words are trapped in the defect of the body.” During poetry readings, she explains, this can occur in the small accidents of articulation; a stutter or the drawing-out of a sound suddenly adds a new dimension to the poem, an effect Martin perceives but professes is beyond her conscious intentions.
What is more, the body is subject to the beholder. Martin exposes the body, opening wounds and inhabiting the stumbling spaces “where language butts up against the possibility of speech,” but the body of the work is something beyond the poet, subject to the poet’s shaping but not their unalloyed volition. When hearing Discipline described as “beauty from the abyss” during the reading’s Q&A, Martin’s face grew somber, and her eyes began to glitter. One could not read her thoughts, only the utterly sober expression on her face as she replied in terms of the body itself: “I wanted it to be a gash.”
Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore College