A Review of Dawn Lundy Martin’s
Life in a Box is a Pretty Life
Nightboat Books, 2015
Dawn Lundy Martin’s Life in a Box is a Pretty Life is a call to action, to investigate the hidden secrets and understand the foundation of White America. This fierce work bears witness to the black enslaved body, cornered by the past, unnervingly resembling our present state: the black body surrounded by white America, fatally shot. Martin takes up this work to transform what California NAACP chapter president Amos Brown calls, “a culture of neglect that’s coming home to haunt us.”1 Martin revolts against this neglect of blackness with perfectly timed crescendos:
Dear one, the sea smells of nostalgia. We’re bleached and bloated, lie on shell sand, oil rigs nowhere seen. It’s Long Island the weather is fine. What to disturb in the heart of a man?
Life in a Box is a Pretty Life performs as a catalyst for excavation. Martin’s work takes us to the grave; we inhabit “dead space” with Martin and are invited to take up this work for ourselves. The role of excavator requires perseverance to peer into the heart of white America that is within us. The excavation is an offering—revealing the depth of the wound that is racism.
I lie down in the ditch myself, stretch my body alongside the dead myself.
Which is an offering and which is a laceration?
I am reminded of Hélène Cixous’ “The School of the Dead”:
“To begin (writing, living) we must have death. It’s true that neither death nor the doorkeepers are enough to open the door. We must have the courage, the desire, the approach, to go to the door.”2
Martin’s desire to represent the black (female) human experience is a form of resistance. Eve Tuck and C. Ree write in “Glossary of Haunting,” “it is a recognition of suffering, the costs of settler colonialism and capitalism, and how we still thrive in the face of loss anyway.”3 Martin calls our attention to the corner:
[The body in the basement is bobbled with welts. It cries and cries in a wet corner. We must leave this in the well.]
This desire to inhabit dead space resists colonialism. “Decolonization must mean attending to ghosts, and arresting widespread denial of the violence done to them” (Tuck, Ree). Reading Martin’s work while living “life in a box,” I flashback to my experience working at a mortuary in Oregon. I consider strangers (funeral directors) who take the decedent from their loved ones and dress the body to resemble the living, often without acknowledging and honoring dead space. White America’s sterile “pretty life”—the death-care industry strips spirituality from the body’s final rite of passage. Essentially, Dawn Lundy Martin’s work acknowledges ghosts are alive. Is it possession that brings Martin to this work or is it the act of exorcism? Martin’s coda brings me back to the notion of excavation and/or exorcism. I consider driving trauma out of the body. What of the remnants that “get stuck in the skin.” The coda contains mini essays, exhibits from the excavation that look in and outside the self.
The idea that the physical form is just one part of the body and that we might instead imagine the body’s imagining of itself.
bell hooks writes in “Critical Interrogation: Talking Race, Resisting Racism,” “what does it mean when primarily white men and women are producing the discourse on Otherness?” Martin’s work takes up hooks’ challenge to “produce work that opposes structures of domination,” while looking critically at the work to provide an opportunity for a “transformed future” (hooks). Life in a Box is a Pretty Life “enter[s] the Blackness and add[s] to the written literature of what is Black.”4
Excerpt from temperament (one is not allowed temperament).
Especially for a body that is already gesture, an antagonism, a wig.
When the dirt is black enough, when my hand is strong enough, I dig into it, open space, and fall through other side, to a black sound…
Life in a Box is a Pretty Life captures what Karen W. Martin calls the “counter-poetics of space”5—decentering authority—urging us to realize the “disappointment of the (normative) myth” that has silenced the other/anything queer through deterritorialization. The counter-poetics of space illustrate the illusion of stability and permanence. Dawn Lundy Martin notes that the “work incorporates some borrowed and/or manipulated and/or erased language from 19th century ideologies and texts,” functioning as a (possessed) voice for the black human experience.
IT WILL HEREBY BE OBSERVED THAT NIGGAS
GET SHOT IN THE FACE FOR THAT MENACING,
While engaging in Martin’s work it is necessary to circle back to the beginning. Martin invites us to refer to the artist Carrie Mae Weems’ Framed by Modernism (1996) by invoking her presence within the first page. Martin brings our attention to Weems’ photo-triptych—a white male “artist” in the center, forefront and (his) black female nude (desire) in the corner. What strikes me is the “guilt” of the artist who has his hand covering/hiding/ holding his head—as if pained by the heavy burden of “social conventions” or the “honored tradition of the Artist and his Model” (Weems).
As I began to draw parallels between Weems and Martin, I noted that Weems was born in Portland, OR—“the most segregated city north of the Mason Dixon Line.” According to Matt Novak’s article, “Oregon was Founded as a Racist Utopia.”6 Oregon—the state I currently live in—has a buried past as rich and horrifying as the Deep South. Yet, Oregon’s former exclusionary laws were never mentioned in a history class that I took growing up in Los Angeles, CA—which is puzzling since California borders Oregon, you’d think they’d teach, “Oregon used to try to keep colored folk out.”
Oregon was the only state in the constitution that forbade black people from living, working or owning property there. Black and mixed race people could not move to the state until 1926. (Novak)
Reading Novak’s article alongside Martin’s work, I realized popular culture’s (see: Portlandia) image of a “weird” evergreen “playground” that beckons us with wonder was at the expense of the lives of people of color. As I began to dive deeper into Martin’s excavation of Black America, Oregon made headlines again with “Racist Oregon police chief danced like monkey, ‘beat his chest like Tarzan’ after black woman’s discrimination complaint.”7 The outrage doesn’t end. Life in a Box is a Pretty Life speaks to the micro-aggressions we look away from in horror, which inevitably lead to macro-aggressions. When we excavate utopia, or the remnants of one, we reveal the groundwork, the policies and horror that make utopia (whitopia) possible in the first place.
Novak writes, “The racial composition of any American city is a product of its history. And it’s a history that so many people in Oregon, in Minnesota, in any other “whitopia” don’t seem to be privy to.” This is where Martin’s Life in a Box is a Pretty Life comes in—dismantling the veil, challenging us to really look at that “pretty life”—the makings of utopia. As we excavate the the box we see it is lined with hidden secrets everywhere. We may even come to realize these “hidden secrets” are more like hieroglyphs or graffiti—once you understand what you are looking at, the truth reveals itself. I consider graffiti writing as ghost, or what Akilah Oliver calls, “a way to mark the body’s afterlife.”8 Graffiti illustrates the ghosts and in some cases, the oppression that cannot be silenced or buried alive.
Subsiding against graffitied wall, pinched to
This negro type
As crimes against people of color continue to fill our global consciousness, this work speaks to the beings of color migrating across the United States, uncovering what really weaves this nation together: united by fear of the other. Dawn Lundy Martin’s Life in a Box is a Pretty Life carries on the endless excavation into the heart of darkness, resisting looking away, this work looks you straight in the eye.
1 Steinmetz, Katy. “The Shooting of Mario Woods Brings Ferguson to San Francisco, Activists Say,” Time, last modified December 16, 2015. http://time.com/4151979/mario-woods-shooting-san-francisco/
2 Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (New York, Columbia University Press, 1993), 7.
3 Eve Tuck, Christine Ree, “A Glossary of Haunting,” in Handbook of Autoethnography, ed. Stacey Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams, and Carolyn Ellis. (Left Coast Press, 2013), 639–658.
4 Oliver, Akilah. “Sacred and Profane Paths in African American Literature,” Bombay Gin 39.2. 53-69.
5 Martin, Karen W., “The House (of Memory) on Mango Street: Sandra Cisneros’s Counter-Poetics of Space,” South Atlantic Review, vol. 73, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 50-67.
6 Novak, Matt, “Oregon was Founded as a Racist Utopia,” Gizmodo, last modified January 21, 2015. http://gizmodo.com/oregon-was-founded-as-a-racist-utopia-1539567040
7 Wagner, Meg, “Racist Oregon police chief danced like monkey, ‘beat his chest like Tarzan’ after black woman’s discrimination complaint,” New York Daily News, last modified September 7, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/racist-ore-police-chief-danced-monkey-beat-chest-article-1.2351095
8 Oliver, Akilah. MFA Lecture: “Rupture and Rapture.” Summer Writing Program, Naropa University. July 7, 2008.