To celebrate Dawn Lundy Martin’s upcoming reading at the UWM Hefter Conference Center (3271 N. Lake Dr.) on Thursday, March 5, at 7 pm, local poet and UWM Ph.D. candidate, Franklin K.R. Cline reviews her book, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life.
Before I began reading Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, I spent a few days thinking about the title and its circularity—beginning and ending with the same word, a world that’s not life and death, but life and life. A rose is a rose is eros, same idea, right? But then I started thinking about boxes—cubes—versus the three-dimensional sphere that the title would indicate. So before I’d read a word of the book, I’d already been thinking about how to hold two combating ideas in my head at once—life as a circular box.
This is a collection that thrives on American paradoxes—a country that tells people of color they can succeed but falls all over itself to throw shame and blame at them as soon as possible (i.e. it’s Trayvon Martin’s fault he got killed: “we’ve given you everything, they say, why won’t you flourish?” ), a country that fetishizes and otherizes women and people of color and especially women of color (“the phrase in my ear, ‘I’ve always wanted to fuck a black woman,’” ), a country that conflates memory not as “the absence of thought” but as presence, as truth (14). And this conflation—of memory and nostalgia as positive boxes in which we can reside, and how that conflation ruptures connections between white and black, white and brown, man and woman, human and human—strikes me as the primary theme of this book. Life in the box of memory—“a worship in the side room of the mind”—means a life of insulation and a life of inaction (51).
Martin distinguishes between memory and nostalgia at various points in the collection, perhaps most powerfully in the series “WHEN WE ARE INSIDE THE PRISON WE CAN ONLY THINK OF BEAUTY,” which strikes me as a powerful re-imagining of the title itself, one more precise and evocative than the relatively one-size-fits-all styling of the phrase Life in a Box is a Pretty Life. Indeed, the first poem in this series is all about memory and its “disgrace”: Martin presents a memory of seeing a film depicting group sex between multiple men and one woman, her at eleven years old watching this alongside her brother and his friends (multiple men and one woman) (32). This memory is not presented with the rosiness of nostalgia, but instead as almost-dirty, a young woman considering her body, what it can do. Here, Martin’s parataxis works to surprise the reader; there are no clear-cut value judgments, and the sentence itself has only a whiff of the lyric: “I am eleven and am and let into a dim room where my brother and his friends are watching a 32 mm film in which a woman is gangbanged” (ibid.). The flatness of the language serves to heighten the tension because readers are conditioned to expect pathos or some physical specificity—the sound of sex, the leering faces of the young boys, the smell of the room. Instead we get a very Martinesque float into philosophy of body and mind, the kind of reconsideration of an event from our youth that only memory played and replayed (as films are) can bring.
As that poem and many others in this collection illustrate, the body is both another box of containment (though Martin’s philosophy seems to be more of the Cartesian body-mind type than anything soul-involved) and a thing that is itself contained: “without clothes the body feels its own flesh suddenly” (28). Clothes, here, could stand in for all of the ornaments and labels society places upon (specifically marginalized) groups: there’s a real human quality to that line, the idea that if we are stripped of those things, we can more naturally be aware of that which organically and initially binds us together. The poem goes on to note “the thing about being a prisoner, it’s transformative,” but Martin, of course, doesn’t provide us with a value judgment to let us know whether that transformation is positive or not—plus, if Discipline taught us anything, the answer is likely not as easy as a binary, anyway (ibid.).
The poem following the one mentioned above begins with the title of the book, but it seems more pertinent in closing to focus on a line that occurs a few sentences down: “almost everything we’ve ever desired is diminished when enclosed” (29). To enclose our fellow humans—via label or systemic oppression, conscious or unconscious—is to diminish. Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, is very much a book of America 2014—it’s easy to read the recurring character of “the boy” as Trayvon Martin, or Dontre Hamilton, or Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, etc.: people who were quite literally diminished into death because of their enclosure into stereotype, into learned fear. Martin opens one of her poems with a strange image—and this is not a poet often given to the image—“In the dream, the black dog sobs and cries Mommy, his hurt so profound he cannot stand” (46). Alongside dream as a warp of nostalgia and memory—some neurologists say that dreams are just the brain’s way of figuring out what to remember and what to discard, like a computer defragmenting its memory—we have here the black body literally reduced to an animal, one that’s helpless. Of course this is not a metaphor that Martin believes or supports, but it strongly evokes this book’s obsession with investigating a culturally constructed otherness that’s not pretty at all.
Dawn Lundy Martin received her MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and her PhD in literature at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst with a dissertation on experimentalism and subjectivity in contemporary poetry. She is the author of A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (University of Georgia Press 2007), winner of the Cave Canem Prize; DISCIPLINE (Nightboat Books 2011), which was selected by Fanny Howe for the Nightboat Books Poetry Prize and a finalist for both Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Lambda Literary Award; Candy, a limited edition letterpress chapbook (Albion Books 2011); The Main Cause of the Exodus (O’clock Press 2014); and The Morning Hour, selected by C.D. Wright for the 2003 Poetry Society of America’s National Chapbook Fellowship. Her most recent collection Life in a Box is a Pretty Life was published by Nightboat Books in 2014. She is Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.
Franklin K.R. Cline’s work has appeared in Banango Street, Matter, Oyez Review, Word Riot, and elsewhere. He is an enrolled member in the Cherokee Nation and a PhD Student in English—Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He lives in Milwaukee with three cats and his wife, Rachel Kincaid.