A Review of Dawn Lundy Martin Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (Nighboat Books, 2015)
Writing into the space of the sacred and profane and disrupting idioms of the black female body through examining “life in a box,” a prisoner of mind/ body, allows “erased” language to emerge from the cracks. Martin’s composition of the “pretty box” of text contains us.
We are infinitely disgraced.
IT WILL HEREBY BE OBSERVED THAT NIGGAS
GET SHOT IN THE FACE FOR THAT MENACING,
As we move through the text the box (body) begins to bend and break open. “The containers leak savage.”
wholeness. No debris.What is the body but a leaking form?HOW IS A MOUTH
D TO OPEN WILLIN
This is the work of a griot.
The text traces the “hauntological”—the space of becoming, possession and exorcizing the dead from the living (Bhanu Kapil).
From the very beginning we are introduced to, made aware of the “presence,” a haunting that refuses to stop. “This refusal to stop is its own form of resolving,” Eve Tuck and C. Ree write in “A Glossary of Haunting,” “haunting aims to wrong the wrongs. Wronging wrongs… comes after opportunities to right wrongs and write wrongs have been exhausted.” I am interested in the sense that haunting is revenge–“justice in drag” (Tuck, Ree).
What haunts us is our fear of the truth and fear of the inability to heal our traumatic past—past lives that are alive in our “flesh memory” (Akliah Oliver). Martin takes up Oliver’s work in the she said dialogues: flesh memory: “refashioning the Black female tongue” by exploring “the multiplicities of languages and realities that the flesh holds.”
The text transitions into dreamscapes and crescendos as if influenced by the possessing spirit or form. We are addressed by the “I” who recounts the seer, channels angels, demons and ghosts “to liberate the past from the past.”
I am constantly struck, blow after blow, by the sense that words are medicine. As Claudia Rankine writes in Citizen: “Words work as release–well-oiled doors opening and closing between intention, gesture. And despite everything the body remains.” It is as though Martin takes up the work from here and explores the notion of the “living breathing black human.”
Life in a Box is a Pretty Life is an address to “the body [that] is trauma,” echoing Rankine’s Citizen: “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It is buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.” The world is wrong when the sentiment to “Get rid of all the niggers” invades our consciousness (Martin). What begins as micro aggression results in senseless atrocities that leave us with a loss—the presence of a ghost.
Reading Martin’s poetry takes me to root space: the root of suffering. The unknown. It is this “unraveling” of the “Haunt Bubble” that leads us to dream outside of the “pretty box” (which isn’t pretty at all) and into the space of transformation.
Martin’s dreamscape poetics bring me to Toi Derricotte’s The Black Notebooks: “None of us, black or white, wants to feel the pain that racism has caused. But when you feel it, you’re awake.” Life in a Box is a Pretty Life shakes the reader’s core—to journey within to recover language that reveals ghosts.
If you were to hang yourself, you wouldn’t die, you don’t know how to die.
They can’t figure out why the rapes keep happening.
I am aware of being witness to the “philosophical treatise” and also holding space for Martin, the author, who is also witness to what comes in dreams. As Martin takes up “death space,” the work inspires language to (re)write and (re)see the past to break from denial and imagine a truthful present. Martin’s conscious dreaming calls our attention to explore the “pretty life”—our obsession with violence and the complexities of the (black) (trauma) body. Just as Derricotte’s explorations of internalized racism “saved” her, Martin’s writing can be a way to save the body, the self–“to hope that the ghosts will be willing to let you go” (Tuck, Ree).