Book Reviews

To Mutate is to Live

by R.M. Haines | Contributing Writer

Good Stock Strange Blood
Dawn Lundy Martin
Coffee House Press, 2017

“Are we capable of a radical interrogation, that is to say, are we capable, finally, of literature?” This question, asked by Maurice Blanchot, appears as a quotation in Jacques Derrida’s essay on poet Edmond Jabès. Fifty three years later, in a work of similarly layered references, Dawn Lundy Martin shows what literature as radical interrogation looks like. In fact, interrogation is how the book begins: the prologue offers alternating questions and answers, leading with, “If your book is a house, what does the foyer look like?” And the poem answers, “The book is like a long, thin, wavy tendril stretched into the sky from a small spot at the top of my head. At the end of the tendril, somewhere far in the sky where I cannot see, is a mutilated black face. A little me is sitting on the top of my head, holding the tendril like the string to a balloon.” Such images of violence and binding, severance and fragmented connections, are common throughout the work and emphasize the stakes for the interrogative poetics being advanced here. As such, one could easily say of Martin’s work what Derrida says of Jabès’: “poetic discourse takes root in a wound.”

Intriguing similarities exist between the work of Jabès and Martin: both use prose poems to interrogate trauma and diaspora; both employ the motifs of the book and the stranger; and both explore the unending dialogue of identity and alterity. But the comparison only goes so far. Not only is Martin’s voice utterly singular and distinct, but it is also a voice for which the abiding concerns are the metaphysical, historical, and physical trauma of black experience in America. (Here, I will follow Martin’s practice of not capitalizing the terms “black” and “blackness”.) The acknowledgment page asserts this unmistakably, describing the collection as “an investigation into the brutality of the raced condition.” In addition, the prologue states, “But then, as I was writing this book, it was the summer of Sandra Bland and then the summer of Freddie Gray, and then some cute kid was shot in a big-box store while holding a toy gun, and so many other of these deaths, unexplained in the logic of the rationality we hold so dear. And the white boys are hand-slapped for brutal rapes. Life just goes on.” This opening contextualizes the book in the present even as we are told “there is a squashedness to existing in the present that I can’t think about.” This sense of exhaustion before the present’s urgency compels Martin to imagine something wholly other than existence as given: “To imagine something other is to leave the known world.” In one sense, the prologue’s invocation of the summer of 2015’s racial atrocities works as a necessary historical anchor for the disjunctive interrogations that follow.

Those interrogations engage the possibility of a different orientation to subjectivity, specifically black subjectivity. The ending of the opening poem centers blackness as both a focal point and a question: “[A] self is three intentional selves. And, the three selves are like different manifestations of the thing we call ‘blackness.’” Here “blackness” is not a simple, unified concept, and the reader is reminded of it as a term for something far more complex. That complexity—the layers and displacements denoted by the term “blackness”—inheres in both the form and content of Martin’s book and is, in fact, enacted in its very conception. In a prefatory note following the prologue, she notes that “some of the poems in this collection have been reconceptualized from their original context in the libretto Good Stock on the Dimension Floor, written for the HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? global artists collective (the Yam collective).” Black and white film stills from this exhibition appear throughout the book, depicting the black body in contexts varying from shadowy, obscure interiors to wading in the water before the Washington monument. All of this heightens the import of Martin’s phrase “reconceptualized from its original context,” which resonates throughout the book’s complex concern with displacement, fracture, and malleable identity.

That complexity is furthered when we are introduced to the cast of characters from her original libretto for the Yam collective’s exhibition. Martin writes that she created the characters in dialogue with Adrienne Kennedy’s one-act play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, and imagined Kennedy’s protagonist, Sarah—who is haunted by her father’s blackness and perpetually peels her skin back to reveal further layers—to have emanated another being in the moment of her (apparent) suicide. This emanation, Nave—as the name suggests—introduces the book’s architectural motif as she “emerges in human form but with many arches and windows.” Moreover, Nave—which I take as a near-surrogate for Martin—“sings the problems of life on earth. She sings from a deep memory of historical torment. Nave is both haunted and empowered by connectedness to ancestors and traditions.” In addition, there is Land, who is “symbolic of the way the body can be trapped in racialized existence” (and whose voice is lost to the book); and Perpetuus, who is Land’s non-binary (“s/he”) reflection and who “exists in a sphere of other kinds of knowing the black body.” As Martin notes, these voices often go unnamed within the poems; however, it is essential to grasp that beneath/within/behind each poem here are layered traces of identity, each enacting a mythopoetic and visceral response to the historical experience of blackness.

As stated, the book’s conception grounds this response in layers of complexity, multiplicity, and displacement. And this is also operating at the level of form. While there is a great variety of forms here, some of the more striking poems utilize lines irregularly separated by white space, indentation, and em-dashes. In a practice that is repeated throughout the book, one such poem, “—To be in covering”, moves from its title directly into its first line: “is the problem, hunger caverns / under this leather wrap—from destitution—/ from split skull.” Here, syntax and prosody refuse to enact conventional lyric music. Fluency is torqued and momentum is displaced, as the opening clause gives over to a series of fragments. There is no noun or pronoun functioning as a grammatical subject here, and our attention is drawn heavily toward the prepositions “in” and “from,” which insist upon themselves without clear grammatical purpose. One wonders what, precisely, comes “from destitution”? The wrap? the hunger? the problem? It is likely all of these. But the questions are beside the point, really, as this speaking subject is inhabiting a shifting field of awareness and affect rather than following a path of discursive linearity. One might say the voice issuing from this field is on the verge of disembodiment, or perhaps transformation; one could also say the voice issues from a wounded and fractured body. This sense of paradoxical embodiment appears almost immediately, in the opening poem following the prologue:

Aglow, this bent

body. Itch of layer, knot of
hair—they call us Negro.

To stand broad-footed in the sensation of being lit up…

As if born into the self watching
the self, already made, formless, then out of clay.

Feel the lump of our drape. Here: the body, flesh
inevitable, untranslated like a whip—

Instrumental fissure, instrumental fish, whose rasp
a whip, a book, a story left in a dark body…

The poem begins with fragments drawing attention to “this” body, and thus suggesting body’s active presence in the poem, but the first complete clause gives voice to what “they” call us, thus alienating the self and its body into another’s claim. The black body stands passively “in the sensation of being lit up,” where this latter phrase could mean being caught in a spotlight or set ablaze (or fired upon). Then “the self watching / the self” retreats further from presence into abstraction, finding itself in a paradox of being simultaneously made and unmade. Out of this knotted field of resonances, fractures, and implications, the poem arrives at the body alongside that which would command it: the “untranslated” whip—the violent signifier whose meaning cannot be assimilated and yet whose actual violence needs no interpretation. Wounded and surrounded, the “dark body” here is figured as a kind of book, a place where narratives are kept, including those which have been inscribed by force. As Martin writes in her previous work, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, “The I is collecting documents in her body. Why are you writing me?! it bellows.”

This same cry and is evident throughout the book in its self-reflexive awareness of its own status as book. In fact, as with Jabès, the word “book” features in many titles and functions as a recurring motif (including the final section, “Operatic, the Book Escapes the Book”). Of particular concern, however, is the evident ambivalence about writing a book “about” blackness. One poem asserts that “the proposition that compels the book / is already flawed.” Elsewhere, after declaring that blackness wants to be “performed,” one poem states, “the I is not a good actor.” Refusing such performance, the poem interrogates its own reception, stating, “The black bits will be excisable, quotable in reviews. The book should be very interested in the thing you know as ‘blackness,’ all its clothes, its haberdashery. What the book actually wants, however, is to know the distance between the ‘I’ and the ‘you.’” And as the poems suggest throughout, this distance not only obtains between two separate bodies but also within each individual body: that is, the “I” itself is dialogical, at once fused and fissured. And it is out of this inner distance, this alterity inherent within the subject, that the poems imagine their worlds in pursuit of something beyond mere performance of historically, racially, and socially coded identity. And this pursuit leads to what the same poem calls “the interrogative text” which demands the poet’s “refusal to enter the text as subject”—a refusal to be only one, reduced to autobiographical personhood, inscribed as it is by “historical collective trauma.” In a sense, Martin haunts these poems, even as she herself is haunted by the various personae, mythic and actual, whose voices compel and torment her. The subjectivity these poems engage is more like a structure, a building whose spaces one inhabits: “The I is made of many arches and windows. Enter this structure, the entrance to the many houses of god.” Here, the structure is itself a passage way toward something beyond subjectivity, and “god”—absolute being—is itself dispersed through many rooms.

While much of this edges into the abstract, we are reminded that the stakes for such imagining and thinking could not be higher. As the prologue tells us, “[The] question at the center of this book is, Why doesn’t one just die?” Ultimately, the concern with subjectivity and identity becomes an anxiety about ones ability to inhabit being at all. One version of the book’s response to this is the line, “To mutate is to live.” Another occurs when Martin returns, toward the book’s end, to the figure of Perpetuus, the imagined “s/he” “whose name is Latin for ‘continuous, entire, universal’”:

Perpetuus is necessarily liberated from gender and without attachment to skin or color….Perpetuus is untethered from the black experience here on earth but has an outer core that is as dark as a tree in dead night. Refusal to adhere to ontology-as-fissure or rip in the fictional coherence of culture America order. To build instead a sonic register against any resistance to a white flag against which fists male aggress “a liberation”.

This passage pursues a theory of habitable paradox. Against “ontology-as-fissure,” a realm of sound is built (architecture again) “against any resistance to a white flag.” This is complicated by the fact that a “white flag” may be either a flag of surrender or one of whiteness itself. Moreover, the figure of Perpetuus is, ultimately, a stepping out of the binary game altogether, the goal of which is always suppression or exclusion of one of its terms. Neither gendered nor raced, neither for nor against, s/he embraces all difference in a transpersonal identity. As Martin writes earlier in the book, “If one could be giddy with difference, this is it.” Here, everything—the possibility of sustaining a more porous identity, of refusing the binaries that would structure one against oneself—all hinges on this “if.” The anxiety, however, is that Perpetuus’ longing for new forms of existence is repeatedly reminded of its contrary, Land, who is “symbolic of the way the body can be trapped by racialized existence.” In fact, Perpetuus is described as eventually transforming into “grief stricken Land.” Here and elsewhere, the deliverance Martins’ poems imagine seems inextricable from the material that traps and threatens it.

Out of this profound crux, “this I-cleave,” Good Stock Strange Blood reaches through the historical and social toward something metaphysical—what Martin calls (in her acknowledgments page) “an embrace toward an AfroFuture outside of recognizable bodies, temporalities, and accessible dimensions.” In one sense, this is utopianism. In another, it is simply the undying work of imagination. Martin credits the Yam Collective with teaching her that “there are no limits to the worlds we create and that we can manifest these worlds even, or especially, when repressive regimes take power.” Here, in this book’s venturing onto the “interrogative open turf,” poetic imagination follows its own errant process—through myth, mutation, and displacement—beyond the confines of the aesthetic to extract a cry of profound anguish from within its own erasure. In doing so, Martin charts new possibilities for subverting those (white) structures of domination and control that would reduce black subjectivity to a mute and endless re-inscription of its traumatized collective past.


R.M. Haines is a writer from southwestern Ohio. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Glass, Kenyon Review Online, Pleiades,, Salamander, and Spoon River Poetry Review.