about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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The Performance of Becoming Human
A Review of The Performance of Becoming Human
by Daniel Borzutzky

Spencer Dew

In Buenos Aires, there are plaques on the sidewalk marking spots from which citizens were disappeared, snatched and tortured, drugged and dropped still living from planes, for whatever reason, to silence dissent or otherwise make a point. As with the planes, so with these markers on the pavement: politics is theater. But what of literature attempting to address and engage with such theatrics?

Borzutzky gives us a scene, a reading of “the testimonies of the tortured villagers” which builds to a point where a man is tied up and forced to watch as his children as burned alive. “He has to listen to the screams of his blazing children but he cannot listen to their screams so he himself starts screaming and then the soldiers shove a gag in his mouth so that he will stop screaming, but he doesn’t stop screaming even with the gag in his mouth.” After some thoughts on the nature of these screams, we are told, “Write a free-verse poem about the experience. Write it in the second person. / Publish it some place good.”

How to write about torture, about government abductions, about the myriad trials of illegal immigrants, about the systematic racism and violence of the state without reducing, replacing, silencing, or redirecting? How, maybe more urgently, to write poetry about these things without becoming complicit in the clockwork of it all, making a product (aesthetic, with entertainment value, a prop of a particular notion of class) for sale from the idea if not the actual traces of screams and broken bodies and burned and still-burning flesh?

Borzutzky is aware that “creative consultants waiting to turn this misery into poetry” are always waiting in the wings. This is in keeping with the broader Orwellian inversions and distracting gimcracks of the late capitalist police state he describes, where we sext and Skype and surf the experiences of others far away as authorities instruct us when to laugh and when to applaud. The dystopia here results from the very juxtaposition that is the hope of those migrants dying of thirst in the desert: a world of lack versus a world of absurdly overflowing plenty; a world numb-drunk on accumulated resources versus a world heightened in awareness by its own starvation. But that already romanticizes and reduced; Borzutzky is too clever, in any case, to speak for those who lack. His world is the world in which

We went to the store to buy coffee and there were so many types of coffee I wanted to beat the crap out of the guy who insisted I hear the story of every type of coffee, where it was roasted, was it locally roasted or was it roasted in Italy, what flavors was it infused with, so many stupid fucking questions about the coffee that it was almost impossible to believe that just a few days before I had been in a city where there was no coffee.

And in this world, to hear the fact that “18,000 children die every day because of hunger and malnutrition and 850 million people go to bed every night with empty stomachs” is jarring even as it is impossible to comprehend, less statistic than koan, a purloined letter of a paradox, like the secret compound marked on every map. What do we do with this sort of thought? Borzutzky’s stance, at the very least, is to help us resist becoming immune, to keep his readers in tension regarding such contrasts, such startling gaps of reality. He pushes his readers toward the borders and keeps them there in a dangerous and liminal zone.

Some poems gain their power by prying the familiar into disjuncture via this play of juxtaposition. A refugee is put in front of a mound of breakfast potatoes in Indiana, for instance, and given a recognizable voice with which to speak a complaint that swiftly inverts assumed relations:

It totally fucking sucks to have to travel the world, to leave my people and village, and to get stuck in some shit town in Indiana where the portions at the restaurants I can’t afford to eat in, except when I am taken to lunch by a minister or a social worker or a rabbi, could provide multiple meals for like eight of my nephews and nieces.

The strongest poems act like lava flows, however, dynamos that churn out more and more crackling, red-hot segments of text, words that crumple back and burn themselves, leaving us with ash and smoke and “The broken testimony of the broken beat in the broken rhythm of the crumbling excess of my broken mouth and my broken face in the crumbling cadaver of this night.” Surrealism becomes a lens, as in the work of Michael Taussig, one writer I couldn’t stop thinking about as I read Borzutzky’s descriptions of mountains of simultaneous waste and desire. Through the impossible, we begin to view the real. I don’t know if this is sufficient answer to the questions Borzutzky pursues regarding how to approach this subject matter, but, at the very least, he’s written a book that renders visible its own impulses and desires, that does not take for granted anything implicit in the process of writing a poem and “Publish[ing] it some place good.”

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