Dawn Lundy Martin’s a gathering of matter/a matter of gathering (University of Georgia Press, 2007) begins with one epigraph: “What stripping down can close the cave of grief?” Through charged syntax, innovative form, and rhetoric riding the border between the lyric and the intellectual, Martin examines the elusive, disappointing, and beautiful nature of language and speech—what it means to “strip them down,” what that leaves us with, and where to go forward from there.
The book’s first poem, “Last Days” is structured like a conversation between lines of italicized and lines of unitalicized text, with the italicized text asking questions and the unitalicized text at times answering them and at other times refusing to answer them. The most painful of the questions get round-about, indirect answers— “Is there a terrible thing?” the itals ask at one point. “There is the scent that I will remember for many years,” the text responds. This interplay mimics the conversations the self has with itself, how we run from certain questions and face others head-on. How profound grief can silence even the innermost core of the self. Here and elsewhere, through form, syntactical fragmentation, stuttering, and onomatopoeia, Martin enacts speech and its difficulties.
The poems do not pursue their examination of language through form and syntax alone, but also through the content itself. Who speaks, who listens, and what can and cannot be heard—literally—are motifs running throughout the book, as are the actual sounds of speech (”the gutted r’s and o’s”). In the following quote, Martin’s “speaker” engages in a kind of verbal tango, using, avoiding, and embracing language as a way of non-saying:
[I said to her “maybe” and “if it comes,” “interesting” and
“possibility.” I said, “I want, I want” and “what if.”] [She wanted to
know about lying. I said no. She wanted to know about trust. I said
trust is relative. She wanted me to love her. I said I did but did only
in the way that all things are palatable.]
(“The Symbolic Nature of Chaos”)
“I want, I want” and “what if”—the two basic things any poetic speaker says in any poem, when one breaks it down to its simplest utterance. Indeed, when Martin writes on the next page, “when the I spoke, when it said, I am the yearner,” she points out the central and beautiful argument of her book—that simply to speak, write, and exist as an “I” on and off the page is to yearn. Thus Martin deconstructs the poetic speaker to the level of its most essential existentialist trait.
What’s so outstanding about Martin’s book, however, is that she does much more than deconstruct and simplify the speech act to examine it. She goes far beyond this, and, as the book progresses after these initial poems, begins to complicate the speech act by locating its role within gender and racial discourses.
In “The Undress,” Martin writes: “In the war, a woman soldier is taken hostage and no one / will say what happened.” Here, speech becomes a weapon—an act of witness that, disturbingly, will not be harnessed in this situation. Instead, non-speech becomes the weapon of assault and victimization. Later, in a poem called “Unspeaking,” a man “grunts”: “Is this what you want, whore?” again displaying language as an oppressing force.
And yet, Martin also suggests, the speech act itself can be a form of validation, of resistance, of aggressive and insistent presence:
“I am speaking. I assert this. I must assert this. Entering into all that has
already been said, written, carved into stone, reproduced, reiterated
into the very cellular makeup of the body.”
(“A Bleeding, An Autobiographical Tale”)
By the end of the book, Martin delves fully into the despair of language’s failures in the face of profound grief:
“What are the limits of expression? Where does
language go limp, break apart, or fall into pieces, stammers, glimpses,
or just merely the black marks that make up letters?”
(“A Bleeding, An Autobiographical Tale”)
In a poem appropriately titled “[ . . . ] *,” Martin writes: “I am trying to write a story of my father’s impending death. It’s largeness….I capture a witness / a reader in order to say, in order to be able to say, that I cannot say.”
Small islands of narrative surface throughout Martin’s at times abstract and at times heavily rhetorical exploration of language. For example, this turn from abstraction to narrative in “The Symbolic Nature of Chaos”:
Fabrication. It emits. It gags.
Streams into lips, slightly,
unconsciously parted. Putrid
breath escapes, unbeknownst.
Amid this fury, she wrote me a love letter. She said, “If you were
here I wouldn’t miss you this much.” She said, “There is cauliflower
growing amongst what has been planted.”
These islands provide context and occasion for the rest of the poems, and give the reader something tangible and direct to latch onto. Thus the poems progress in waves of abstraction and directness, pulling the reader in and pushing her out again carefully and rhythmically. Martin retains tight control over where the affect will sing itself and where it will intellectualize itself.
In the end, the “grief” of Martin’s opening epigraph is the grief of existence and the speech that it requires but cannot make complete—the grief of failed and inefficient language, ignored language, and impossible language. After “stripping down” her medium to the most essential “yearnings” of the “I,” Martin demonstrates that doing so indeed does nothing to “close the cave of grief.” And yet, when faced with beautiful and pitch-perfect lines like “Is there a blue fiery ice-ice to say this is joy?” it can actually be hard to believe Martin’s argument. Indeed, to write a book of poems about the impossibility of any “true” utterance does seem oxymoronic, but it is a paradox that Martin fully explores throughout.
Martin’s book closes with a final epigraph: “[I wanted silence in the flowers, not to not say, but to not have the impulse of saying.]” This final quote suggests a kind of hope for the failings of language—that to escape it, even for just a moment, is to achieve a kind of transcendent peace. That if we are to concede that language is filled with impossibilities of the most tragic kind, then to embrace these impossibilities, to embrace silence, is to live without longing.