Readers seeking easy-to-follow narratives won’t find them in Dawn Lundy Martin’s new poetry collection, Good Stock Strange Blood (Coffee House Press. 144 pp., $16.95). One poem, “We untangle,” reads, “de-strange / our map-pings. / We are remove, / the warrior in / living outer space, / incandescent. Open scab / — legends — and find uncut / surface. No return.” It recalls the Afrofuturistic lyrics of jazz legend Sun Ra, who once said, “I do not come to you as a reality, I come to you as a myth because that’s what black people are: myths.”
Much as Ra sometimes embraced dissonance, Martin purposely challenges with tangential images and fractured lines to look inward at racial and personal trauma. She also employs multiple speakers, one of whom is named NAVE, who’s born from the head of Sarah from Adrienne Kennedy’s one-act play Funnyhouse of a Negro. It’s experimental yet lyrical work that plays best when read aloud.
This makes sense, as Good Stock was born as the libretto for a similarly named conceptual opera, written for art collective HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? The filmed version was selected for the prestigious Whitney Biennial in 2014 but pulled “in protest after some contentious conversations with museum representatives around race,” according to Martin’s author statement. An associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh whose nonfiction has been published in The New Yorker and Harper’s, she was recently deemed one of the “most dynamic poets writing today” by Poets & Writers.
This literary dynamism, though sometimes opaque, comes through most strongly in italicized passages, with Martin explaining its function in a P&W interview as “an interior voice I want to gift the reader.” One powerful example reads, “Symptomatic of being a slave / is to forget you’re a slave, to / participate in industry as a critical piece of its motor. At / night you fall off the wagon / because it’s like falling into / your self.” These insightful lines seem to speak not only to racism but also to contempt toward the working poor and others lacking a voice in society.
When Martin writes in “To split,” “to be spilled / to topple / to be topped / to strain / be stained / strangled. / Robe falls open — / against my belly — / stroked,” it’s evident that Good Stock, while cerebral, uses the language of the body, while allowing a deeply thoughtful writer to question racial identity by asking “can good stock be tied up with bad blood?”