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4th Annual Poetry Month 30/30/30 :: Day 3 :: Mariana Ruiz Firmat on Dawn Lundy Martin

Several years ago, I was coming off of a particularly painful year that commenced with the severing of a seven-year relationship and ended with the passing of my grandmother. From the moment my grandmother stepped foot in this country, she suffered debilitating mental illness that forced her into hospital after hospital. Yet, despite her suffering she became a salient, consistent, and bright love in my life.  She lived in California and for the month of August 2011, I found myself sitting vigil in a tiny hospice room with her and my aunt.

On the day she died I went to her house in search of her. I found stacks of letters and photos. I took everything I could find —old letters written to her by family and friends in Cuba, And hundreds of yellowing recipes, collected from newspaper clippings and Better Homes and Gardens.

These letters and recipes have since become source material for poems. But, for a long while I stopped writing altogether. Poetry could barely hold my attention. Even the writers that I used to go to when I felt bored or bereft couldn’t break through my “work stoppage.” Something was different. I had changed. I no longer understood the why of poetry. The why I needed it. The why I yearned for it so completely that I moved to New York 15-years earlier.

Since moving to New York, I’d struggled with the impossible over-arching whiteness of avant-garde poetry and how I often felt that my identity as a poet and experience as a person of color were at odds. Cathy Park Hong explains the nexus of my dilemma in what she calls the, “delusion of whiteness” that is, “the luxurious opinion that anyone can be post-identity and that anyone can slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, and deported for whom they are.”

It was while struggling with my growing ambivalence toward poetry, which was keeping me from writing —let alone attending readings— that I ended up at one of Dawn Lundy Martin’s readings. That evening, Martin read from her book, A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering.

“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.”

With these lines, she invited us into her confidence, her lived experience — invoking us to inhabit the subject of her poems. It was an intimate performance. Her poems were surgical, deliberate. It seemed like she was constantly making choices about language and about how to explore the impacts of white supremacy on the Black body. Here was a poet unafraid to write decisively about subjects like Blackness, history, and violence. I felt gathered and then strung out and then like I was being pushed into oncoming traffic and all I had to protect and surround me was the fog of language.  And all I wanted to do was go home and write.

In the proceeding years, poetics had seemingly begun to eschew depth in favor of linguistic trickery. And here was Martin writing about race and violence and love and doing so in a way that would best most of us. In a gathering of matter a matter of gathering, Martin sets out to claim the page with syntax and punctuation.  And, like a painter, she directs the white space —sometimes crowding four lines together, sometimes spacing out line-by-line, page-by-page— giving the reader an open page to mull over the emergent words.

The use of punctuation, in particular the use of brackets [crucial to the story-telling], might be one of the most salient experiments in the book. The instance of brackets is used throughout as a way to denote narration or offer a bit more information about the line. But the bracket is also used as a pause. When an open and closed bracket are lined up next to each other but remain empty — it suggests that this is a moment to pause, take a breath, wonder which words were omitted, and reflect on the work.

In the poem, “The Symbolic Nature of Chaos,” the use of the brackets evokes the feeling that the poet is whispering a little suggestion in your ear.

And run.
Skin is felt, is raised, surfaced. Pulling down into haggard drown.
The stench of one’s own desire. They call and call from dark channels,
By hoards, knowing this—her viscera.”

Martin makes good use of punctuation. She deploys it expertly. Punctuation is not supercilious but helpful. Her use of punctuation acts like a poetic docent, pointing out interesting facts and anecdotal tidbits like “[This is a cutting.].”

In the poem, “The Morning One,” brackets contain side commentary. As if, she returned to the poem a few months later and decided to be more honest, more transparent about the scene.

“[I said to her “maybe” and “if it comes,” “interesting” and “possibility.” I said, “I want, I want” and “what if.”]”

The last page of the piece is 35 lines long and takes up the entire right column of the page.

“when leaves fall from trees
when birds can be heard a mile away
here, like a dove in hand
(mystery obscured)
so white
so white with filth
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
proportionless
I want to tell you of my perennial
gracelessness, of an epithet hunger
of a joy that is neither sadness nor joy
a joy that is rung of teeth
say something”

Martin teases me. Her poetics makes me want to explore the hidden brilliance of parenthesis, commas, and italics. By the time I finished a gathering of matter a matter of gathering, I felt like I owed it to Martin to write again. I found myself challenged by the constructions of language while being confronted by my own whiteness. That is, I’m Latina and depending on who I’m with, may or may not be read as white. I pass. And that experience of “passing” has emerged time and time again in my work. It lives in my unconscious mind, informs my choices, my experiences — there is no” post-identity” for me.

In Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-garde,” Cathy Park Hong writes, “But the avant-gardists prefer their poets of color to be quietest as well, paying attention to poems where race—through subject and form—is incidental, preferably invisible, or at the very least, buried. I recall that in graduate school my peers would give me backhanded compliments by saying my poetry was of interest because it “wasn’t just about race.”

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t conformed in order to avoid the derisive experience that Hong writes about. Time and time again, I’ve experienced the same type of comments from my peers and I’ve often shied away from a deeper exploration of my own work in favor of an easier path.

But when I read Martin’s poems and the prominence that race and gender play in her work. She never cleaves away from her subjects but sits resolutely in the muck and mess of it all and does it masterfully. She forces us to be challenged and confront race and I’m moved to join her there.

If we could come to you we would. Assistance is in our nature. We
 are without motive. But we must operate within constraints. Fresh 
as new leaves. This is our approach. The wall is not a blockage
or a guardian but an alignment. An alignment is an affection. An
affection is a twist in the loins. Which we, in all our wisdom, know 
is the right thing.”

[I wanted silence in the flowers, not to not say, but to not have the impulse of saying.]

Mariana Ruiz Firmat grew up in California and moved to New York 15 years ago. She is a long time organizer and campaigner working on issues of criminal justice and immigration. Her chapbook, Another Strange Island was published by Open 24 Hours Press. Her work can be found in PoEp, Tool A Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and 6×6. She is publisher and editor of 3SadTigers Press. She currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Mariana was handed the baton, so to speak, by Laura Henriksen, who (much to our delight) chose to pay tribute to Helen Adams in this terrific piece for our 2014 series.

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