Sealey's poems in this issue
A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering
Reviewed by Nicole Sealey
Dawn Lundy Martin
The University of Georgia Press
Just as the great American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston encouraged readers—through her mother's words—to jump at the sun, so does poet Dawn Lundy Martin urge in A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering. It is the leap, not necessarily the landing, that forces risk and invention. Martin has taken such a leap and, in the process, invented new ways in which to engage and experience language. A Gathering of Matter is an ambitious debut book of poems that does not consult with convention, but rather vehemently argues with it. And, there is something very elegant, ugly, honest, unpleasant and right-minded about Martin's reasoning.
In the poem Mirror, Mirror, Martin writes of a girl who literally jumped towards the sun, or what she believed it to be. The girl paid no attention to the sun's distance, vastness and intense heat; instead, she took a risk, a bold leap only to find that the object to which she leapt was imaginary. Before she dismissed the sun's greatness, however, the girl twirled hopelessly in circles trying to see herself. Martin writes,
Stigma Etched. What the water cannot drench or salvage. Had it been
here before this descending form, this wretched girl, spun in a desperate
attempt to see her own face?
The playful, yet daunting, irony of the girl's pursuit of delusion and that which appears to be within reach describes—by way of exaggeration, metaphor and symbolism—the self-awareness and esteem that eludes many.
Martin's crisp and peculiar word choices in Mirror, Mirror and other poems in A Gathering of Matter are not accidental or surficial. Martin does not coddle—she coaxes. There is no easy entry into the collection. Readers must throw themselves into each poem, cross their fingers, and hope for the best. The best is feeling as comfortable and complete as possible in a comfortless and completely (and beautifully) mutilated body of work. In After the Death of a Young Poet, Martin writes,
Blood shed and wasted. Blood resonating, a sting. Found them in a puddle
of it. Positioned as if they had been planted—had placed themselves—so
that the puddle made a pond for them to lie in.
Much like the blood to which she refers, Martin's poetry resonates and stings, and like the lifeless bodies that found their position in the pool of blood, so will readers discover their place amid her authentically ferocious voice.
As it should be, no subject—or methods to discuss them—is off limits. Martin does not minimize, romanticize or sanitize, she unmistakably plays with sensitive issues and the ways in which society treats those issues in an attempt to redefine them. Her writing is absolutely bewitching. Chaotic, but tranquil in its truth, Martin's approach to death and dying, race and racism, personhood (womanhood in particular) and other topics are thorough in their treatment and guileless in their presentation. In After Drowning, for example, Martin writes:
What is mumbled after the act? I—Uh. After the craving empties.
When viscosity permeates a life before. Magenta. And, falling there,
through sound, through tape, a voice ghostly, saying blackly, I bleed.
This is what it takes. I hear it now. Know it. There was once a time
when the bridge ended and the girl leapt. There was once a singing
It is no wonder A Gathering of Matter was awarded the 2006 Cave Canem Poetry Prize by Carl Phillips. Dawn Lundy Martin, as Phillips notes in the book's foreword, exists within literary traditions, even as she pushes those traditions further, via her decidedly original, arresting, no-holds-barred vision. With ingenious forms that will test the patience of the most delicate reader of poetry, hers is a persuasive, alternative vision void of pretension and artificiality. The authority with which Martin writes will astound readers and reviewers alike; and, by the looks of A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering, we can expect many more surprises from this promising poet.
(Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of Mosaic).
Nicole Sealey is a writer, editor, and poet. Her interviews with acclaimed writers Sapphire and Nikki Giovanni can be found in Artists and Influence: Volume XXV and Mosaic literary magazine, respectively. In May 2008, she was selected to participate in the 13th annual Minority Writers Seminar in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the Readings/Workshops and Writers Exchange Program Coordinator at Poets & Writers, Inc. and a Cave Canem fellow whose poems have appeared in a number of print and online journals. She lives in New York City.