Discipline by Dawn Lundy Martin (Nightboat Books, 2011)
The first word of Dawn Lundy Martin’s newest collection of poetry, Discipline, is “excreta,” which is fitting because this is a book about what the body leaves behind and knows by way of its material leavings—feces, blood, sweat, and tears. In Discipline, Martin considers the ways in which bodies betray and are betrayed, and in doing so, she asserts over and over again what an “I”—or a body—can do. She asks, albeit implicitly, how the personal might be newly politicized by way of a series of imbedded claims about the first person. These claims span the length of the book and provide a running meta-commentary on the relationship between poetry and the body. She writes, “The I struggles to become part of the reeking body. The body drifts off to fuck like a ghost,” in one poem and later, “The I is a condensed system.” Later still, the “I” gets a poem of its own, “The I is/more relaxed/ when it is hunted.” Martin warns, “Always the I is fissure recklessly yearning for its whole sense of wholeness like a potato,” and finally, “The I of the I is absolutely, is promisingly approaching a, or the way back.” The “I” then becomes a way back, but back from what? Trauma, death, invisibility, lynching, hospitalization, rape, sex, depression, and anxiety. Martin treats navigating each of these as an act of will, asking us to believe that to survive history is an act of supreme bodily discipline. Often we will fail. Sometimes we won’t, but either way what remains is “excreta” and if we’re lucky some writing. Martin’s poems then become the excreta—the bodily remains of this historical struggle.
Many of the poems in Discipline resemble loose paragraphs, a few make use of more traditional line breaks, and a couple are lists of numbers—a string of 1(s) and 0(s)—binary code that hints at subterranean meaning. All of the poems are untitled with the exception of the last poem, “Coda.” These tight structures allow Martin to muse the small terrors of history, often in the bodies of girls and women, but also in black bodies like the speaker’s father who is “half his normal weight and in a bed in Hartford Hospital” and a black boy who lives on the corner and has “a massive figure with truly apelike features.” Martin warns us in one poem that “This is a partial history of fabulous forgetting,” and it’s these partials, and her ability to reconstruct the body’s ghostlike ways, that makes the book archeological in its scale. Martin excavates the holes that bodies make and comes back out with the evidence of what it means to have a particular kind of body—one that gets knocked around, is female and/or is black, is rendered invisible in the snow, fucks, and mourns. Discipline brings shadow worlds to the fore. Girls get into cars, a homeless man vomits into a cup, the speaker remembers her father dying and her mother’s solitary dinners in front of the television.
Some of the poems in Discipline are a meditation on a father’s death. The father’s decay comes in and out of relief. The speaker feels alternately estranged from him and connected to him via childhood memories. She recalls, “My father liked to blame any crime in our neighborhood on ‘American blacks.’ When he mumbled under his breath, I think he was saying, ‘Goddamned niggers,’ but I can’t be sure.” She remembers alternate fathers or fathers that never were, “Another father, one I didn’t know, bought me jelly sandals for scarred feet when I was 9 or 10.” The father’s hospital stay, in turn, reminds her of her own body—its limitations and problems. Martin writes, “Illness is measured in ability, how much your body can do. Can you still go to work? Are you productive?” The father’s body, his death then, becomes a reminder of the speaker’s own mortality, but it’s also a wish that’s finally, but unsatisfying, fulfilled. The speaker acknowledges, “I waited my whole life for my father to die and when he did I felt empty.”
Discipline is also an exploration of the female body—the ways in which it gets regulated and constrained, but also its freedoms. Martin writes in a poem towards the middle of the book, “Let me say this plainly: it is only when I am in a woman’s arms that my body is not a threat.” She remembers, “being someone’s girl. The possession of someone else. That kind of safety.” There’s submission and threat in some of these poems: “A young woman’s back against a car door. A hand atop the head. A pushing down to the knees. Trembling thighs.” Later, in the same poem, “The mouth opens./It moves without agency.” Martin asks us to consider how we are gendered by submission and made into submissives by acts of gendering. How much woman is too much? Which women are threats? What kind of woman is the right kind? She writes (I imagine while at an all-women’s writing retreat), “I realize the other women in the house think I am not a woman who belongs in the house.” But near the end of the book, she concludes, “One must decide. An aching toward a hole is an aching toward an invisibility. This is why it is difficult to be a girl.”
The imagery around blackness is particularly haunting in Discipline. Martin creates a running commentary of asides and assertions about our culture’s vexed relationship to skin color and representation. She catalogues situations and interactions in which blackness is made into an abstraction or an occasion for invisibility or objectification. A childhood friend jokes that a “doddering black man on the street” is the speaker’s father, and she answers that it is. Is the speaker being honest or playing with her friend’s stereotypical notions of black men? We don’t know, but the effect is electrifying. Black teenagers and girls in cars disrupt neighborhoods with their presence and absence respectively. Early in a poem that begins with the line, “Mothers warn against usual dangers,” she writes, “Your skin was lighter when you were eleven and you were more desirable. Fluorescent supermarket lights make the whole thing worse. Reflection’s comeuppance.” Later, she considers a “dark girl’s” placement in a white landscape. She writes, “White families post Private and No Trespassing signs in their yards. I want to yell out the window. I am both very alive and very dead! I am a suspect! Why has no one named me as a suspect!” The speaker in this poem wants to be seen; to be granted enough power to be a threat. Martin pulls at this thread throughout the book—the realigning of spaces and territories because of or even in spite of the presence of someone “brown” or “black.” She asserts, “The woman enters the space once empty, occupies brown space with other brownness, both an abstraction. So, we say, if the space and the woman are brown, what happens to the empty?” Martin has an amazing gift for digging into the landscape of America’s racial unconscious. These lines feel like whispers in the night, secrets finally spoken out loud, and well, just truth.
Martin works in the tradition of poets who have sought to name the father as a lost object or an icon of unknowability, most notably Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds. For many of us, the father is an obsession—the man one must get out from under in order to create and become a productive adult. Terrence Malick’s most recent film, The Tree of Life, has much in common with Martin’s poetry. Both Malick and Martin know what it means to live with your father’s voice in your head—to hear his peculiar laments and obsessions in a kind of poetic, unconscious loop. But her work is even more transgressive because it connects that act to the daughter’s desire to make herself productive and visible—an artist. Discipline also shares some themes with Martin’s fellow Black Took Collective member, poet Ronaldo V. Wilson, who also explodes a set of social/sexual assumptions about being the “black object” in his excellent collection Poems of the Black Object (Futurepoem Books, 2009).
Traces of Martin’s preoccupations show up in her prose. In the afterward to a new edition of Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Signet Classics, 2010), “What, then, is Freedom?” Martin contextualizes Jacobs’s freedom within a contemporary social framework. She likens Jacobs’s choices to the kinds of dilemmas women face when they are confronted with domestic violence and rape, and she wonders if they constitute choices at all. Near the end of her essay, she asks us to complicate our American ideas about freedom:
What, then, is freedom? Is it a relative experience—as in, one must experience confinement or slavery in order to experience freedom? Are there stages of freedom? Perhaps freedom, like power, is not an absolute entity or condition. Freedom might instead be the absence of certain constraints, of the choosing of certain constraints over others. It might be viewed in relation to “emancipation,” which operates in the world of freedom but still has juridical and social regulations. It might also be related to this very issue of agency—bodily and other—that pervades Jacobs’ struggle.
I hear, in this fine passage, an echo of the central question in Discipline. What if discipline, like freedom, is not an absolute entity or condition? The power of Discipline comes from Martin’s pleasingly radical and feminist assertion that discipline is about both the absence and the presence of constraints. Some of those constraints will be chosen for you, and others, well, you get to pick.