Poetry News

Sueyeun Juliette Lee Reviews Dawn Lundy Martin's New Book!

By Harriet Staff


At Constant Critic, Sueyeun Juliette Lee reviews Dawn Lundy Martin's new book, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (Nightboat Books 2014). Amazing: "[Martin] offers smart, frank, actual living thought that seeks to destabilize and illustrate some of the ways that black female subjectivity continues to be framed by mis/conceptions and mis/representations of the black female body." More:

And what do we really know about the black female body? Though never explicitly posited in her book, this question floats as a central premise around her pieces and requires us to consider the ways that representational violence, colonial history, and ongoing gender and racial prejudice continue to shape psychic realities today. Through her strong engagement with visual arts, Martin also furthers the incredible dialogue that authors such as Tisa Bryant, Deborah Richards, Urayoán Noel, and Roberto Tejada are also contributing to around aesthetics, representation, power, and the construction of knowledge.

A book-length work in hybrid prose and lyric sections, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life is not always “pretty.” With section titles like “WITHOUT KNOWING THE SLIGHTEST THING ABOUT WAR, I FIND MYSELF AN INSTRUMENT OF LABOR, INVESTIGATION, AND EXPERIMENT” and “IT WILL BE HEARBY OBSERVED THAT NIGGAS GET SHOT IN THE FACE FOR THAT MENACING, THREATENING LOOK!” the book can run rough over you in parts. But it needs to. By doing so, Martin’s poetry questions the basis by which we expect particular modes of pleasure from art. We can see how she elects this stance by opening her collection with an epigraph from artist Kara Walker: “What strikes me is how easy it is to commit atrocities.” The “easy” Walker alludes to reflects the “common sense” attitudes that ideologies masquerade under when un-interrogated. Walker’s own art practice challenges the aestheticization of racial violence by forcing her viewers to confront these qualities in an art context, removing the “ease” in “pleasure” when we view her work. Walker’s black and white cutouts charm with their beautifully delineated silhouettes. They also horrify viewers through their graphic depictions of violence, such as a child being choked or hanged. Her works regularly implicate the viewer by exploring the racialized dynamic between their gaze and the black body, which was perhaps best expressed in a recent interview she gave on the way the public responded to her gigantic sugar sphinx, “A Subtlety, Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” (See this interview with Walker in the LA Times.)

We can see a similar stance of unapologetic presentation and assertion in Martin’s book. “I will not sing to you,” Martin writes. “I refuse to sing to you” (68).

That's just our kind of anti-lyric. Read Lee's full review at Constant Critic.