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Poetry and the Grotesque: Daniel Borzutzky’s Bedtime Stories for the End of the World
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Published: Mon Nov 29 2021
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Poetry and the Grotesque: Daniel Borzutzky’s Bedtime Stories for the End of the World

The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky. 96 pp. Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016. $18.00
Lake Michigan by Daniel Borzutzky. 88 pp. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. $17.00
Written after a Massacre in the Year 2018 by Daniel Borzutzky. 120 pp. Coffee House Press, 2021. $21.95.

 

Daniel Borzutzky’s poetry is not an easy, elegant read: trauma, prisons, torture, murders, and arresting phrases like “rotten carcass economy” and “the blankest of times” recur ad nauseam. To read Borzutzky is, in other words, to reckon with the “grotesque.”

But this states the case a bit too morbidly, if not pathologically. There is a rigor and logic—even, dare I say, a dark humor and rebellious enjoyment—to what Borzutzky offers. He exposes the reader not just to naked power (the police, prisons etc.) but also to the bureaucratized violence of finance capital. The reader thereby reckons not just with the spectacular violence of massacres, but also that of administrative and silent deaths—akin to the “banality of evil” that Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), famously described.

Or, better yet, like the “shock doctrine” Naomi Klein has written about, a doctrine that Borzutzky’s family would recognize. The fact that the Jewish Chilean American poet now calls Chicago home is no small irony. It was the notorious “Chicago boys” (economists trained by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago) who formulated the economic policies for Augusto Pinochet’s reign in Chile (1974-1990), a reign that inaugurated what we now call “neoliberalism.” And a violent inauguration it was. A military junta (cheered on by the corporate press) bombarded the presidential palace and left dead the democratically elected Salvador Allende alongside the Popular Front’s revolutionary reforms for a more sovereign and socially just Chile. Sympathizers were corralled into stadiums and massacred or else sent to camps where they were tortured and, later, disappeared. All the while, public assets (and Chileans’ collective dreams) were handed over to the economic oligarchy and its parasitic allies abroad.

Borzutzky’s family fled into exile, emigrating to the very country that had abetted the Pinochet counter-revolution: it was Nixon who ordered the CIA to “make [Chile’s] economy scream,” to foster strife and discredit democratic socialism. However, economies, like corporations, do not scream, for they have no sentient body—a body that can be starved, imprisoned, tortured, raped, mutilated, executed, disappeared. Economies are, instead, disembodied fictions, ones that nevertheless act like sovereigns: they decide on who is to live and who shall be left to die.

Perhaps this is why the word body recurs so incessantly in Borzutzky’s poetry, which includes six full-length collections—most notably, The Performance of Becoming Human (2016), winner of the National Book Award; Lake Michigan (2018), shortlisted for the Griffin Prize; and Written after a Massacre in the Year 2018 (2021). Whichever the collection, Borzutzky brings us back to the torturable and disposable body, but only ever in generic terms, as if to convey the expendability of life in these “blankest of times.” For with violence at stake, the use of literary and aesthetic devices becomes ethically questionable.  One thinks of Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Adorno worried that aestheticizing brutality diminishes the horror that occurred or, worse yet, elicits enjoyment. Indeed, some Jewish artists and intellectuals (e.g. Saul Friedlander, Berel Lang) concluded that reverent silence was all that could or should be “said” about the Shoah. But Adorno, in his Frankfurt lectures of 1965, rejoined:

It could equally well be said, on the other hand, that one must write poems [after Auschwitz], in keeping with Hegel’s statement in Aesthetics that as long as there is an awareness of suffering among humans there must also be art as the objective form of that awareness.

Events like massacres and atrocities call for a poetry that is somber and mournful—a poetry that “bears witness.” Carolyn Forché writes that “poetry of witness” does not re-present an extraordinary injustice inasmuch as testify to its occurrence. In so doing, it becomes akin to incriminatory evidence—“as evidentiary, in fact, as spilled blood.” What it bears witness to is not just that “evil” exists, but—more crucially—that we bear an ethical responsibility to one another. Often, such poetry is realistic in mode and solemn in tone.

Borzutzky’s poetics are, by contrast, more surrealist or absurdist, and at times darkly humorous.  “Did you hear the one about the man they found torched in a garbage can,” reads a line from The Performance of Becoming Human. “A barbarian and an economist walk into a bar,” reads another. Here, Borzutzky’s approach to humor is driven by disgust and the abject. He says of his work, as quoted by Steve Healy writing for Boston Review, that it “vomit[s] out the truths about the shameful, racist bloody apocalypse that keeps killing and killing and killing.”

Against the capitalist fairy tale that we live in the best of all possible worlds, Borzutzky tells “bedtime stories for the end of the world.” It would be obscene, after all, to invoke anything like the sublime or the transcendental in the face of so much tragedy—or, for that matter, to respond with elegant verse.  Across his collections, Borzutzky’s style is laconic, abstract, and brutally efficient. It relies on rudimentary terms, not least those associated with the body (teeth, mouth, eyes), and the rudimentary things that can happen to that body: a mouth stuffed with shit, eyes blinded, teeth that gnash. Cruel acts and carnal vocabularies entangle with sentences that use the technocratic rhetoric of neoliberalism: “predictive analytics,” “financial derivatives,” “earnings estimates,” “entrepreneurial disinvestment.” This is mimicry that amounts to mockery, though it elicits horror instead of laughter. For the fact that the monstrous and the mundane can so easily coexist is itself a horror: “They chopped up two dozen bodies last night and today I have to pick up my dry cleaning.”

And Borzutzky doesn’t give the reader a break. Whichever poetry collection you choose, line after line of syntactically repetitive statements, one page after the next, carries an onslaught of violated bodies and absurdist realities. The overall effect of this aesthetic conveys both the grotesquery and relentlessness of violence in the world—whether it be the killing by disciplinary power (the police, cartels, etc.) or the “letting die” by regulatory power (the markets).

Such an aesthetic likewise conveys our powerlessness, or at least poetry’s powerlessness. In Hyperallergic, Jon Curley described The Performance of Becoming Human as a “relentless parody of the engaged poem.” Take, for instance, this excerpt:

Imagination Challenge #2:

It’s nighttime. You’re decomposing in a cage or a cell. Your father is reading the testimonies of the tortured villagers to you. He is in the middle of a particularly poignant passage about how the military tied up the narrator and made him watch as his children were lit on fire. 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 gab in his mouth.

[. . .]

Write a free-verse poem about the experience. Write it in the second person.

Publish it some place good.

Borzutzky makes no pious odes to hope or resilience; nor does he invest in manifestoes or militancy.  His absurdist irony and disgust do not edify or empower so much as sicken and unsettle us. The risk of this approach: such poetry comes awfully close to making a literary fetish of misery. As Healy writes, it would not be farfetched to accuse Borzutzky of “gimmicky sentimentality, even whimsically manipulating the real lives of victims whose circumstances should be portrayed with somber realism.”

Lake Michigan comes close to the gimmicky or whimsical, but never quite crosses that threshold.  Set in an imaginary prison camp on the shores of Lake Michigan, just north of Chicago, the collection is organized in three acts and eighteen scenes, as if a play. Here, Borzutzky’s theatrics unmask the bourgeois facade that is our “overdeveloped” world, a world that he populates with refugees, camps, prisons, surveillance, torture, repression, and massacres.

If there is a surprise in Lake Michigan, it is that bodies occasionally riot and protest: they protest in front of the mayor’s home, or they hold a “die-in” in front of Apple and Disney stores, metonyms for escapist fantasy. But these, too, are violently repressed, as if to say that emancipatory desire and collective resistance are futile. This leaves us, yet again, wondering what Borzutzky’s poetry bears witness to. One possible answer is that he writes against witness. What this might mean, pace Cathy Park Hong, is that Borzutzky partakes in an “artwork of vengeance,” one that embraces resentment as a “creative fecund force.”

In this vein, Borzutzky resists the sanctimonious, yet still moves us. In an echo of Pablo Neruda, Lake Michigan’s Scene 10 is a litany of statements that refuse simile and, accordingly, the artful. Neruda wrote: “And in the streets the children’s blood ran simply, like children’s blood.” Borzutzky writes: “And the nazis burning Jews are like nazis burning Jews. . . . And the puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner is like a puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner. . . . And a massacre at a Black church is a massacre at a Black church. . . . And the police who kill are like police who kill.” On and on he goes for thirty-six lines, until the last line—a line that parts company with the others: “And the blindness of the bourgeois savage is like a mouth that can’t stop biting a body that refuses to die.” A body that refuses to die. Resentment as creative force.

And a love that survives?

Borzutzky’s latest work, Written after a Massacre in the Year 2018 (2021), deploys the irony, self-reflexivity, and disgust that make up his idiosyncratic style, but here the resentment (and tenderness?) is more acute than ever. The first section, “The Blankest of Times,” looks to the xenophobic and carceral ways in which the neoliberal state deals with the “border crisis” that it itself has manufactured.  “Through predictive analytics I understood the inevitability of the caged-up babies,” opens the first poem, “Managed Diversity.” Rather than seek asylum in liberal multiculturalism, Borzutzky keeps a critical eye on political economy and indulges in vengeance, if only poetically:

Let’s pretend the illegal bodies are bankers

Let’s stick all the bankers in cages

[. . .]

I dream of an economy where one arrested immigrant is replaced with one dead banker

I am not responsible for my dreams rather I am responsible for what I do with my dreams

In this collection, too, “overdeveloped” and “privatively expropriated” bodies recur throughout. These bodies have no proper names, let alone unique stories or voices, for they (we?) have been rendered expendable and disposable. As the second section’s title says, “Take a Body and Replace It with Another Body.” In the poem “Shithole Song #1106,” a rebuttal to Donald Trump and the evangelical Right, Borzutzky cries out: “we are the moses and aaron of the shithole and we sing this song of hope.” The Exodus narrative connects us both to Borzutzky’s Jewish heritage and the story’s not-so-metaphorical metaphor: a people who wander the (Sonoran or Chihuahuan) dessert, headed for a fabled land of milk and honey. But Borzutzky wants us to see that milk and honey on one side of the border exist precisely because there is so much abjection on the other: “we know the global economy cannot function without the shit and the hole of the shithole.” He offers no real solace, sings no song of deliverance; instead, Borzutzky’s speaker retches over and over again: “we sing the song of shithole hope when they shit into the shit of our shithole/we sing the song of shithole hope when they shove poison stones into our wound-mouths.”

But not all in this collection is so wretchedly impersonal. Written after a Massacre in the Year 2018 refers to the October 27, 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—Borzutzky’s family’s congregation. This event vitiates the third section of the book, with eight variations on the theme “Written after a Massacre in the Year of 2018.” Borzutzky will not settle for easy consolations, like “Pray harder and the massacre will go away.” Nor will he fixate solely on anti-Semitism. His are historical and systemic problems of a larger scope, even if we’re repeatedly invited to fixate on our own tribe’s grievances:

I won’t worry about Quetzalcoatl today

Or Cortés

Or the Taino

Or Columbus

[. . .]

I won’t worry because this is only the story of a single solitary day

With these lines, Borzutzky mocks and loathes the ways we’re invited—structurally or otherwise—to “look away.” What, then, are we to do? Look? Not as a voyeur, clearly, but as a witness?  Maybe the better question is, as Borzutzky asks, “How do you quantify the murmuring grief of the Americas?” Certainly not in terms of disembodied data or quaint stories about “multiculturalism” and “free markets.” Rather, Borzutzky would have us remember the harsh realities of detainments: “It is unclear if the baby becomes a corpse before or after it is put in the cage.”

That said, Borzutzky closes his latest work in uncharacteristic fashion. In lieu of the nameless body, which could be any one of us, he names the unjustly dead, those widely mourned (like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery), and others less commemorated. These include the names of the Tree of Life victims (Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger); the twenty-three almost exclusively Latinx victims of the El Paso massacre of August 3, 2019 (Leonardo Campos Jr., Maribel Hernandez, David Alvah Johnson, Ivan Hilierto Manzano, Jordan Anchondo, Andre Pablo Anchondo, Arturo Benavides, Javier Amir Rodriguez, Sara Esther Regalado Moriel, Adolfo Cerros Hernández, Gloria Irma Márquez, María Eugenia Legarreta Rothe, Else Mendoza Márquez, Juan de Dois Velázquez, Maria Flores, Raul Flores, Margie Reckard, Alexander Gerhard Hoffman, Teresa Sanchez, Angelina Silva Englisbee, Jorge Calvillo García, Luis Alfonso Juarez); and, alongside them, “all the names we do not know.”

This somber ending reminds us that Borzutzky is a quite serious poet, whatever his absurdist or “cruelty” theatrics—if there is any cathartic drama here, it seeks to purge, not pacify. To read Borzutzky is to encourage us to vomit out our (liberal) complacency and defy our alienation. His fellow Chileans did just that in October 2019. Although violently repressed, their historic protests set the stage for doing away with the Pinochet-era constitution and its legally enshrined neoliberal agenda. In October 2020, they voted to rewrite that constitution, and as of July 4 a “veto-proof” leftist front has been actively doing so.

Nor was Chile alone in 2019 or thereafter: in recent history, serial protests have erupted in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Colombia, Honduras, Argentina, France, Palestine, Algeria, India, Myanmar, and the United States, among other sites. Given that inequalities have only worsened during the pandemic and that few countries have instituted serious reforms to address the environmental crisis, more strife and resistance is likely to follow. This raises the question whether our times call on us to bear witness to “extremities” like war and genocide (a la Forché) or to arouse our capacities for constituent and liberatory power—whether what we need, in other words, is a poetry that enlists accomplices more so than witnesses.

Whether Borzutzky enlists accomplices with his work is debatable. His aesthetic trajectory has not changed radically over the years, but his newest collection shows signs of a less bleak, more rebellious sensibility. Indeed, if there is a refrain that defines this new work, it is the dedicatory “For all the love that survives . . .” And perhaps we can elect to read this as a nod to Che Guevara: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”

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