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Discipline by Dawn Lundy Martin. Nightboat Books. 2011.


Reviewed May 25, 2012 by Rachel Levy.

Discipline, Dawn Lundy Martin’s second collection, is a book-length sequence of untitled works. Most of the poems in the book are presented in short blocks of prose, which often feel more isolated than linked due to the overwhelming amount of white space that separates them. The subject of the body serves as one means of connection between Martin’s meditations on illness, family, race, and gender.

The body is suspicious in that it both invites and resists apprehension. The bodies figured in Discipline invite being read and contextualized, but they also resist such acts of apprehension by refusing to give up a singular meaning. Consider the following poem in which bodies are figured in a strobe-lit scene.

Bodies in uncommon strobes. What mystery in jaunty bodies. (Or are they
murderous bodies? Who can tell? I can’t tell.) Streaming video. Private locations.
Large hard hands inserted in zippers. There’s unrecognizable scent. There were
are. A. We. There. A timeless we. A we of all. On a wall. We that drift in and out
of doors and into musty bathrooms that feel wet all the time. How many
ordinances exist? Local communities flailing. Screaming into night as would fish
into night.

The lack of context invites two separate but simultaneous readings of the presented scene. One reading casts the bodies as literal suspects. At first they are described as “jaunty,” but the speaker second-guesses the validity of that adjective, wondering if the bodies are, instead, “murderous”—a word that bears criminal weight. This criminality is reflected by the “streaming video” and the “uncommon strobes,” two lines that respectively bring to mind criminal surveillance and the flashing lights of a police car. The scene that threatens to unfold, then, is one of an arrest. The “large hard hands inserted in zippers” could refer to the suspect with hands bound in zipcuffs (the plastic restraints commonly used by police in place of metal handcuffs). The line “On a wall” seems to anticipate the mug shot, another moment of “arrest” in which the static image of the body is captured and identified as criminal. “Local communities flailing” might be a comment on the economic and social suffering of communities whose members are serving time. The final image of fish screaming into night further emphasizes the suspect body as victimized. A fish cannot vocalize a scream; however, after a fish has been caught, it appears to be silently screaming as it gulps at the air. Likewise, the apprehended body is silenced; such a body cannot speak out as in defense of itself.

Another reading of the same poem figures the “uncommon strobes” as strobe lights in a nightclub, and the suspect body is cast as victimizer rather than victimized. The “arrest” that takes place is figurative, as strobe lights give the appearance of arrested motion, apprehending the “jaunty” dancing bodies in space and time. The line “large hard hands” suggests that these bodies are male and thus potentially “murderous” to the speaker because they represent the threat of unwanted sexual aggression. Rape is hinted at when these hands are “inserted in zippers.” Here the zipper is not the police officer’s restraining device, but the barrier to a woman’s body (i.e. the zipper on a pair of pants or skirt) forced open. Thus, the line “private locations” suggests that some bodies are suspect because they disregard the privacy and sovereignty of other bodies. The text of the prose poem itself is figured as a suspect. Note the strobe-like syntax in the following lines: “There were are. A. We. There. A timeless we. A we of all.” Martin’s use of the period serves to arrest sentence fragments and clauses in time and space. This irregular syntax is suspicious; it resists total comprehension; it breeds discomfort in the reader. In response, the reader feels compelled to apprehend the irregularity, to disregard the cues provided by the confusing punctuation.

In another poem, Martin’s speaker recounts a scene in which an aggressor places his hand on her head and forces her body into a kneeling position. She then suggests that the aggressor forces his penis into her mouth: “The mouth opens,/ It moves without agency.” By this act, the speaker is prevented from vocalizing dissent. She cannot say, No, I do not welcome this, and yet the body acquiesces to the aggressor’s force. “Enactment is like saying, Yes,” Martin writes. Thus the body is suspicious because it can both defy and effectively conceal one’s will. In another poem the speaker claims she is often misrecognized in the dark: “It’s a strange sensation to yell out, This is me, at the very moment of being mis-seen and human but otherly so.” Even as the speaker calls out to be recognized and known, her body is suspiciously content to pass as a stranger.

“Illness is measured in ability, how much the body can do,” writes Martin. Other poems in Discipline focus on the body of the speaker’s father, which is cast as suspicious because it is ill. The ill body cannot work and is therefore suspiciously unproductive. The ill body is silent, and the speaker’s hospitalized father, buried beneath the “weight metal” of medical equipment, cannot speak. He is “trapped as words are trapped in the defect of the body,” and therefore he cannot defend himself when society deems him useless or when doctors tell him he will die. The ill body can only acquiesce to such claims: “derelict is wasting away.” Martin’s poems do more than poignantly recount the experience of losing a parent to wasting disease; they reveal the narrowness of medical discourse and the impossibility of forcing bodies into such restrictive and totalizing constructions. “A medical text might fixate on what’s working in the body and what’s not working in order to determine who is alive and who is dead,” Martin writes. “We know better.”

Often it seems as if the mouth itself “holds grip” over the words one would like to express. For example, the speaker’s mother can only say “O” in response to violent news coverage on CNN. This “O”—a nonverbal expression of shock—is an echo of the elegiac lament, and the poems in Discipline fall within the mode of the elegy. They are elegies for figures like the weaponless child on CNN, captured against a background of “shrapnel fires.” They are elegies for the father, “once a man, now dead.” And yet Martin’s brand of elegy exceeds the realm of lamentation; her elegies are subtly didactic, too. They condition the reader for a particular ethical stance, one that allows bodies to straddle innumerable categories, to signify a multiplicity of meanings both voiced and unvoiced. When viewed on the page, the “O” of lament visually echoes the shape of the zeros that appear repeatedly in the book’s several passages of binary code.


The above passage is suspicious because it refuses to give an immediate meaning; its silence is suspect. As readers we may feel compelled to translate the code, to apprehend the message, but we stop ourselves and wonder: is the act of translation welcome or forced?

Rachel Levy lives in Colorado.

(The Volta | Friday Feature)