Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life

“Make an outline around my form. Use your chisel,” writes Dawn Lundy Martin in her third collection, a critique of common signifiers of gender, race, and sexual identity. Quoting visual artist Kara Walker in the book’s epigraph, Martin’s spatially disoriented passages create effects as unnerving as Walker’s black cut-paper silhouettes of historically charged violence. Martin approaches her difficult subject matter with a mordant wit: “Floating screens: black bodies, unfathomable, violent acts. Only Will Smith has been spared.” Elsewhere she observes how citizens can embody capitalism’s imprisoning effect on language: “The slaves are dressed as men. They go to work in gray suits. Their bodies are grammar incarnate so they bracket force when inside gated halls.” In the indeterminate space she creates within her poems, pronouns often perform double functions, implicating both the reader and the self (“It is you who shudders to be opened.”), while pointing to nuanced racial politics: “All the colors. It is you who are they.” Through her jarring and original syntax, Martin opens up a space where language can address social and political traumas without sentimentality or apology.

This book review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2015.