Review of Dawn Lundy Martin’s Good Stock Strange Blood — October 28, 2017
by Christopher Nelson
How do we reconcile the present with the past? Is reconciliation possible? Is it desired? Is the past even the past? Is the present an illusory extension of the events we call “the past” merely to distinguish them temporally but not in substance? How should we be when the events that led to us and our time are darkness itself—an abyss of murder and dehumanization? These are impossible questions, certainly; but Dawn Lundy Martin knows they are necessary questions. In her new book Good Stock Strange Blood she chooses to address them in the mythic realm. Myths have always been an attempt to make sense of the inexplicable, to draw from collective consciousness lucid characters and symbols that illuminate the ambiguities of daily life and the complex muddle of history.
The book grew out an experimental libretto, Good Stock on the Dimension Floor, for the 2014 Whitney Biennial exhibition. Martin describes the project as “an investigation into the brutality of the raced condition and an embrace toward an AfroFuture outside of recognizable bodies, temporalities, and accessible dimensions.” Its principle voices are Nave, who emerges in human form after a black woman apparently commits suicide because of the torments of history, and Perpetuus, who “exists in a sphere of other kinds of knowing” and is without gendered or racial boundaries. At times the voices alternate, indicated by shifting forms: one in italics, one in lyric lineation and prose-poems. The voices aren’t exactly in dialog, but they often present two perspectives or circumstances around the same themes. For example, in a sequence called The Baby Book, we read, “Symptomatic of being a slave is to forget you’re a slave, to participate in industry as a critical piece in its motor. At night you fall off the wagon because it’s like falling into your self.” And on the facing page is a poem called “—fetish object—” in which a sound cannon is deployed to “blow their fucking eardrums out” and people are shot at close range while “in the side yard bright wind takes sprinkler’s sprinkles up into sunlight.” These juxtaposed voices and styles contribute to the book’s dynamism and power, just as the terrors of history exist alongside the world’s beauty and indifference.
Another evocative juxtaposition in the book is poetry beside the photographs of the visionary Sienna Shields. An image of a black man walking beneath dozens of bright flying American flags on one page, and next to it a poem that reads, “all souls are lost, I know this / if I crawled on the floor might feel like home / grate upon jagged grate / can you feel that? / as if were lung stone / when we say breathing or / air”—the difficult syntax mimetic of the difficult reality of the man in the image. One character in the cast that does not speak in the book is Land, who has become so grief stricken that speech isn’t possible. I imagine Shields’ photos as Land’s mindscape, the witness of a history so terribly marked that “Joy [is] interruption in blood.” At times, the symbolic mindscapes of the book become more real than lived life: “I had one recurring dream so vivid it began to feel like a memory rather than a dream. It’s the only dream worth recounting. At some point, I no longer held the dream, just the memory of the dream told, and often I’d get confused as to the nature of non-dreamed life.” And in one of the more unnerving poems, we are looking into a mirror and see simultaneously our living and our ghost selves, and we confront the possibility that the ghost self is more real.
Incorporated into the mythic is the book itself, as if not only the narrative and characters but the act of poem-making are figuratively imbued. On page one, Martin writes, “The question at the center of the book is, Why doesn’t one just die?” And this seemingly rhetorical question becomes increasingly unrhetorical as the book progresses; on page thirty-two she writes, “The constraints of the book are limiting. We must always consider the bigger book of grief.” That bigger book is one that all of the characters and voices in Good Stock Strange Blood are familiar with. “The bigger book of grief” can also be read as the land that has had to bear history, or it might be “the past [that] isn’t the past but the present.” By midway through, however, the figuration of the book is undeniable, as can be seen in this personification: “The book should be very interested in the thing you know as ‘blackness’ … What the book actually wants, however, is to know the distance between the ‘I’ and the ‘you.’” Central to these poems’ themes is this separation, this distinction, this other; and it is a separation, distinction, and “othering” that we are all implicated in.
Good Stock Strange Blood is not a hopeful book, but that fact feels correct, true. Martin writes toward the end, “We think there is escape— / But there is no escape. The material is always the same. Yet, it is malleable. To mutate is to live.” Following that rubric, this book is wholly alive; in its surprising formal inventiveness and its ruthless scrutiny of culture it mutates even from reading to reading. The book asks you to come back, and you do.