Monday, May 15, 2017

The Performance of Becoming Human

"So for now hasta luego compadres and don't worry too much about the bucket of murmuring shit that is the unitedstatesian night.

What does it say? What does it say? What do you want it to say?" (19)

I begin at the end with this poem. What do we want it to say? Certainly not to be littered with the bodies and mutilations of this poem. At least, that is not the murmurs of the unitedestatesian night that I want. But it is the hand we have been dealt at this stage of late capitalism, global capitalism if you wish. Our oppression of others crosses all borders with relative ease, like capital itself and unlike humans who are shuttled in inhuman conditions from one place to another like so many objects.


One thing that strikes me about this poem is the shifting language and narrative and the starkness of its images. It is a vicious and surreal bedtime story, "a bedtime story for the end of the world," (15) and dreamlike at times, almost like we are only getting pieces of the stories themselves, as though we, the readers, are drifting off to sleep while listening and missing important details.  The thousand refugees become just one mother and son who share a gag that has been shared by "[h]undreds, thousands, tens of thousands." (15) Cows break open after falling off a cliff and "sheep and humans and countries" come falling out. (17)


"The broken bodies stand by the river and wait for the radiation to trickle out of the houses and into their skin.

They stand under billboards and sniff paint and they know the eyes that watch them own their bodies.

A more generous interpretation might be that their bodies are shared between the earth, the state and the bank." (16)

Are we the "eyes that watch them"? (16) And who are we? Clearly "we" are unitedstatesians, but does it reach beyond that? Citizens of what might be called the First world? If so, what is our responsibility to these "bodies"?

I think we must be the First world citizens. This is at least one way to make sense of the "generous interpretation" - that we are all of us, the eyes that watch them and the bodies themselves, locked in systems - "the earth, the state and the bank" - that define us and delimit our "roles," our "performances" as humans. And we are, each of us, "dying from so many stories. We are not complete in the mind from so many stories of burning houses, missing children, slaughtered animals." (17)

One way of thinking about our position in all of this is to read ourselves into the last few paragraphs of the poem where the narrator, or Borzutzky himself (? Is there a difference?) implores us:

"But seriously, friends:

What do you make of this darkness that surrounds us?

They chopped up two dozen bodies last night and today I have to pick up my dry cleaning.

In the morning I need to assess student learning outcomes as part of an important administrative initiative to secure the nation's future by providing degrees of economic value to the alienated, urban youth." (19)

The question is what do we do about it all and what can we do given our relative positions within said systems? I suppose the first step is to listen to the stories. But then I, personally, am somewhat tired of simply listening. I hear it. Now what can I do about it? It brings to mind an article I read in the New York Times recently about people selling off parts of Albinos in southern Africa. I read this on the train on my way to a work meeting. What possible significance could my work meeting have in the face of such horror? And yet, I went to my work meeting. I think part of Borzutzky's question is, how do I not just stay in bed when faced with these stories? Or at least that is the question I ask myself. And yet, he doesn't. He teaches. He writes. He picks up his dry cleaning in the morning, like all of us do. And at what cost to ourselves and to others? Is there another choice we should be making? Collectively, it is clear that other choices need to be made. But, individually, how do we respond?

I don't expect Borzutzky's poems to offer the answers to these questions, I simply put them out into the world. And I continue to read... and think... and write. And try to stay out of bed because these bedtimes stories may make me want to stay there, but it is probably the last thing that is needed at this juncture. Besides, with stories like these to put us to sleep, it is a fitful sleep at best.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Let Light Shine Out of Darkness

The title of this poem is an imperative. Whether it is directed at the reader or the author is unclear. The first line, "I live in a body that does not have enough light in it," seems to frame the entire book, it is an attitude toward oneself that is critical and despairing yet seeking. 

"Once, I even said to the body I live with: I think I need more light in my body, but I really did not take this seriously as a need, as something I deserved to have." Deserve is such an interesting choice here, for what are needs but those things we deserve? We need food, water, shelter, clothing. We deserve them as human beings. Do we deserve light in the same way? And what is this light he speaks of? "... something blue or green to shine from my rib cage..." Like some unearthly element within us. The soul?

"Other times when I am talking about lightness I am talking about breath and space and movement/ For it is hard to move in a body so congested with images of mutilation." 

This is our modern dilemma. How modern is it, one might ask? Isn't it the human dilemma throughout our existence as a species? Violence. Mutilation. Toward one another, animals, the earth itself. How different is war and slaughter now than it has ever been?

Then there is the cruel framed as one liners: "Did you hear the one about the illegal immigrant who electrocuted his employee's genitals? Did you hear the one about the boy in Chicago whose ear was bitten off when he crossed a border he did not know existed?"

“I want to give you more room to move so I am trying to carve a space, with light, for you to walk a bit more freely.” 

Is he really, though? It seems less like he is carving a space for us to move more freely and more like he is trying to shine light on the darkness - congest our bodies with images of mutilation. I find it hard to breathe sometimes reading Borzutzky. The denseness and the brutality of his writing makes me feel as though I am being buried alive. This is even more evident in the next poem I will be discussing, The Performance of Becoming Human.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky

I will use this blog to record my thoughts on poetry and writing. This is a new experiment for me. A way of writing when the muse is away on vacation. The first work I will explore in depth is the latest book by Daniel Borzutzky, The Performance of Becoming Human. This will be, largely, an exercise in reader response, as opposed to literary criticism. Thoughts, not theses. So... let the games begin.

Monday, April 3, 2017

What are your intentions with my blog? (Said with shotgun in hand while standing menacingly on the porch)

I had intended to post original poetry to this blog, but learned that posting on the web is "publishing" and most journals will not accept previously published material. So... I have to find another use for this site.

I think the most logical thing to do is follow the lead of one of my teachers and create a blog exploring the work of one poet one poem at a time. But I have to find that poet. Choosing from among the multitude of excellent poets is a daunting task.

For now, I will let the idea percolate... all suggestions welcome.