I HAVE TO thank the poet Jamey Brunton (whose website is worth a visit) for mentioning this poet to me.
The title neatly raises the issue of whether we should be more mindful of the poems' content (their matter) or the processes by which they manifest themselves (their gathering) and plainly enough indicates that we better be mindful of both.
Identity is part of the matter; Martin is black ("From Benin to this fractured exile") and female ("What is it like to feel female?"). Some kind of terrifying personal history (not necessarily hers, I suppose, but it feels real) glows radioactively in the background through the recurring figure of a traumatized girl.
At the same time, questions of identity and history keep turning into questions of language and form: "He was what we might call--would most likely call--an ugly, black man." The sentence dislocates our attention in a revealing way, from the person being described to our own practices and patterns of describing, reminding us that neither the man's ugliness nor his blackness is a simple natural fact, but a kind of constructed consensus, with its own hazards of probability.
And other hazards. Nothing is simple in this speaker's attempt to name her circumstances:
Believe that one travels in articulation, is heavy with language, is
hunted, breathes and hears black bitch and black ass in the literal field of
Syntax and its promise to organize fact into sequence hardly helps pin down identity, as one easily slips from subject case to object case, from active voice verbs to passive voice ones, indicative to subjunctive:
I happened. Someone happened. We might call it a happening--
breathing, living beings gathered--
brought together as if drunk--as if unbroken,
as if able to speak against fraught with--washed over.
"Blackface Caricature in Thirteen" and "Negrotizing in Five; or, How to Write a Black Poem" pose similarly pointed questions about what we decide to call texts, or what we are likely to call them, and the ways linguistic form sometimes gives us seemingly unbreakable instructions that disable as well as enable. Hence the volume's constant experimentation with form.
The other book this one most reminded me of is a novel, actually--McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing--due in part to the theme of traumatized girl, certainly, but also because of the two books' shared willingness to break form and invent new form in order to get at what needs getting at. ("Unspeaking" is the title of one poem, as if language and form have to be undone, rewound, reinvented before the necessary speaking can occur.)
There is even a moment a bit like the implied suicide at the end of McBride's novel here--"There was once a time when the bridge ended and the girl leapt"--but there are a couple of moments of hope, too, as in "Fire Island": "She unremembered here." Not forgot, exactly, but something like the relaxing of a tight, angry knot of pain. Occasionally we feel a hope that all this effort will pay off:
To pull up from the layers of muck and
shit some utterance, some something that does not stitch me pinup
doll, black, rabid, black snatch.