Life in a Box is a Pretty Life
In Dawn Lundy Martin’s challenging, evocative, necessary new book Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (Nightboat Books), she 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. 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). And though Martin isn’t always as graphically explicit as Walker’s work can be in depicting the historical violences she’s responding to, the pain of having to contend with the same historic framework is evident throughout Life in a Box is a Pretty Life. Martin refuses lyric lushness in favor of svelte statements, fragments, and questions. What emerges reads as intensely personal, and often necessarily elliptical. But the difficulty of inhabiting the box is always evident.
When I, a lad, swelling and succumbed, no one spoke to me—dripping. They tell me, I should lurk, shoulders cast forward, bullish. Shoulders pelt into braced maw. She sent me a mauve dream, and I thought the words “cracked open.” All the wolves—what we might produce in shadows for fawns. (18)
The intensive use of commas in the first two sentences create a stuttering yet deliberative momentum. The “I” is constantly modified—”a lad,” “swelling and succumbed,” “dripping.” Phantom-like others emerge as pronouns who intervene: “she” sends a dream, “they” speak, and the speaker’s body—whether in accord or rebellion—takes on new shapes. It “lurks” and becomes “bullish.” A powerful atmosphere of complexity, self-consciousness and adjustment, and threat emerge—like “wolves,” interrupted.
The box that Martin’s title alludes to could be many things, but its shadowy power is persistently made evident. Whether the sexual box of the female body or the conceptual boxes we create in order to tick off categories, the box frames and focuses our attention while also isolating our view. Martin’s work insists that these various “boxes” are vitally, complexly inhabited. Life persists within (and perhaps in spite of) the frame. The first section of the book, “MO[DERN] [FRAME] OR A PHILOSOPHICAL TREATISE ON WHAT REMAINS BETWEEN HISTORY AND THE LIVING BREATHING BLACK HUMAN FEMALE” invokes Carrie Mae Weems’ “Framed by Modernism” photo series. A trio of portraits, the images capture Weems with painter John Colescott, who had asked her to take his picture. Taken in Colescott’s studio, the photos present Colescott fully dressed and in the center of the frame, while, upstage and to the right, Weems leans in the corner, nude. Her nakedness and pose imply that she serves as the painter’s model, but his back is turned to her in order to face the camera. In two of the shots, he covers his face in apparent shame while she slouches against the wall. Her interior life is not available to us, unlike Colescott’s evident anguish. She remains a cipher, relegated to the corner. The question emerges: can we truly see the artist (Weems) in the context of this framing? Can we know the black female subject by gazing at her body?
Like Weems, Martin also places herself within the frame and in view—but what are we capable of seeing? What can we see? How are we participating in what we have already seen? The incredible challenge of her work is that she trusts us to recognize the cipher of black female constructions, permitting us to roam with her as she inhabits and navigates through them. Martin demonstrates how frankly challenging it is to live in this described space—to arrive in medias res with a prehistory. She describes this experience as a “presence” or “haunting”:
You are yourself and no other physical being is there, yet a feeling or sensation emerges as if from nowhere. Like the Negress. The black female body not in repose, instead walking or clickity clack. It knocks at the doors, which is the surface of existence. (1)
This ghosting is problematically productive. “What would we do with her? How would we know ourselves?” What might happen if this body were mobilized, activated, given full reign to roam and roam past the frame? As a racialized female subject, I can appreciate this query. There is no blank field of being—not for anyone—but the power and paradox of race/gender frames can be incredibly stifling. How often is Martin “read” before we really read her work?
Martin demonstrates the psychological impact of having to dwell within such social frames while smartly juxtaposing them with some of the historical facets creating this dynamic.
I was illustrative, an example angled toward proof. I was biologically female but that was of no use. Whose holes are these, begs one. Another dives into the being and refuses to come out. This is the invalid position. A wakening in the spirit of another.
The Irish, the
Iberian, and the
Negro are of
By stating that she “was illustrative,” Martin makes apparent the way the simple fact of her being is often encountered as motivated towards other ends—clearly not her own. She moves from this meditation into a piece of recovered eugenics commentary, presented as a slim ribbon cutting down the page. The sources for these reclaimed and repurposed texts are left obscured to us, but in them we can see the prior motivations that seek to transform the speaker into an “example angled toward proof.” In them we also see some of the lines of the box she must inhabit, now brought into sharp clarity.
The breaks in Martin’s work also re-iterate and transform the violence of occupying a room with a prehistory that was written into you and knotted there. We experience this as readers when violence seems placeless, arriving without a coherent context. For example, in one passage a man—without provocation—suddenly grabs and throws out a cocktail drink from the speaker’s hand. Elsewhere, she describes the sound “of breaking the arm / on a small fall in your own house, / a respiratory failure, wound opening like a little mouth” (61). These moments reflect the way daily interactions and encounters generate a lived psychic reality, finally emerging as an intense atmosphere of uncertainty and threat she frequently wades through. And in this way history sways on.
If the work sounds challenging, it is. Life in a Box is a Pretty Life refuses easy characterizations of blackness or performances of outrage. It dwells in a visceral, highly self-conscious but also disarming space of confrontation.
Where are my hands and feet?
Where are the lights?
In here! In here! I’m right before your eyes!
f-f fawblueredtwinkle (80)
In the box, can the speaker even know the outlines and extent of her own body? Her knowledge of herself becomes contested. Where are her limbs? Her hands and feet? And despite the speaker’s assertions that she is “right before your eyes,” she breaks down into incomprehensibility—a guttural slide into a flash of light in the darkness. A twinkle.
I have always found Dawn Lundy Martin a challenging and vital voice. Moreover, her work vigorously thinks highly of its readers, rewarding them with thoughtful, complex insights in her juxtapositions and shifts. Life in a Box is a Pretty Life is a welcome work of intricate emotional and intellectual clarity. In it, Martin suggests that though our understanding of the forces shaping the world we inhabit may be fragmentary, we persist in and in spite of them.