May 2008

Olivia Cronk


A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering by Dawn Lundy Martin

“...what I will say to you will not be heard/ it will be unnatural/ it will be like something opening up/ a row of corpses.”

                                                                        -- from “The Symbolic Nature of Chaos”

In his introduction to A Gathering of Matter/ A Matter of Gathering, poet and Cave Canem Poetry Prize judge Carl Phillips says he “knew [he] was in the presence of something quite original -- and the immediate effect of the original is one of disorientation on the part of the reader.” Phillips goes on to say that good work, like that of Dawn Lundy Martin, lures the reader into pursuit: we will return to difficult, good work in order to teach ourselves how to read.

I’m not sure I would use the word “disorienting” to describe the experience of reading Dawn Lundy Martin’s book -- maybe something more like “nagging” or “unsettling.” It’s a little like waking up and feeling you are still in your dream, but failing utterly to remember what your dream was. It’s right there; you just had the sensation of the weird room or the blank space or your dead relative’s voice or whatever. But it’s an inaccessible memory, and therefore, gone. The book has the same effect. This is a common understanding of the psychology of art-making itself: the poet will often explain the writing process as comparable to knowing the first few digits of a phone number. Where are the rest? What’s that nagging feeling, that little worm of thought sticking out in the mess? Maybe the whole number comes, maybe not. But trying to get at it is somehow pleasurable. Humans like crosswords. They like mysteries. Some of the earliest poems in our canon are flat-out riddles, “guess-what-I-am” type of things. The Internet has made the memory/puzzle process even weirder: have you ever looked up a clip from a TV show you watched as a kid? Do you almost feel like you spent physical time in the living room set… or in Barney Miller’s office? By no means am I suggesting that Martin devotes any poetry-time to such fluff, but she is certainly interested in creating that horrible feeling of the lost dream, the terrible scrap of unknown memory. And she leaves the reader there, suspended in anti-reality, but surrounded by matter.

That’s not Martin’s only trick, though. She’s also got this thing about language and experience, the ultimate failure of language (so very, very Maurice Blanchot: “Could there be a force at once friendly and hostile hidden in the intimacy of speech, a weapon intended to build and destroy, which would act behind signification rather than upon signification?”). That tool helps to create the deliciously horrific feeling of floating outside of meaning. There’s also plenty of thematic stuff: the body and the body’s history, the fallacy of race and the disgusting mess that is slavery’s legacy, the individual emerging from a web of experience, sexuality and its limitations, beauty. “What happens in a dark park on the edge of this debilitating desire?” Oooh.

Here’s the way to read this book: think “cumulative effect.” Martin’s work is not a happy bundle of little ditties for the bank line. You’ve really got to engage the book in one sitting. That’s the only way to catch all of fun. Otherwise, the book can be a little overwhelming: lists, po-mo formatting, fragments, exposed text. Just read it cover to cover, enjoy the innovations that Martin is making, and reflect on the nature of the body as a meta-historical document, unable to truly “speak” of experience. This is not reading for the lazy, but its tough construction of new brain paths is as good as the crossword.

When the basement sweats, a mental note: the body is not
indestructible. Click. One can create erosion. O, my tin cup is too
full -- it smothers -- I stumble, stammer, the word, strings.

A Gathering of Matter/ A Matter of Gathering by Dawn Lundy Martin
ISBN: 9780820329918
The University of Georgia Press
50 pages