by James Pate on May.19, 2011
Now that summer is here, and I have a bit more free time, I plan on reviewing a few books I’ve been reading recently. I’m starting with Daniel Borzutzky’s The Book of Interfering Bodies, a collection that Johannes and others have brought up on recent posts the past few weeks.
The first poem I ever read by Daniel Borzutzky was “Failure in the Imagination;” it appeared several years ago in Action Yes. I was struck first by its subtle blend of the deadpan comic with the macabre: the poem is incredibly dark, involving terrorism and class warfare and violent acts of “poetry” that echo various performances carried out by the Viennese Actionists, and yet the poem is buoyed by lines such as “A poet I know says he has a long penis which he attributes to his village whose poets all have long penises.” It had a sense of play and invention that reminded me of the French Surrealists and the more antic side of the New York School. The piece wore its rage and grotesqueness lightly.
The second aspect to the poem I noticed was the way it de-mystified the American poetry scene. While some parts of that scene would have us believe that poets and poetry readers are part of a special and privileged community that challenges the current “late capitalist” moment, Borzutzky again and again reveals how “poetry” is as shot through with the capital, envy, and thirst for status that colors so much of contemporary American life. “A poet in New York City, he wants to get rid of all the other poets in New York City, and he hopes a terrorist will do this for him,” Borzutzky writes in “Failure in the Imagination.” And such lines dissolve the American poetry community into the larger world around it.
Borzutzky’s new book, entitled The Book of Interfering Bodies, furthers his ambition to situate both Poetry (that long-cherished ideal/activity) and poetry (the actual acts of writing/publishing created by actual individuals with competing career interests) in a vigorously materialist context. In poems such as “Failure in the Imagination,” “State Poetry,” and “The Relevance of Poetry in our Current Climate,” Borzutzky, in a sense, gives the Word Flesh. Or, to put it another way: in these poems the Spirit of Poesy looks less like Ariel or a cherub and more like one of Beckett’s decrepit figures, decomposing before our eyes.
In “State Poetry,” one of the best pieces in the collection, the poem we are reading (repeatedly called “this poem”) is taken through several stages, with each stage marking the poem in a profoundly material manner. We see the poem as commodity: “This poem institutionalizes poets by granting them immediate tenure as state universities they will never be able to leave.” The poem as object of loathing: “Poets shit on this poem.” The poem as an “object” circulating through academic and literary discourse: “This poem is rhythmically unappealing.” By the end of the poem, “this poem” has evaporated: only residue remains.
The main thrust of the new collection, though, launches past the world of poetry, and, I would argue, takes Borzutzky into very new and Dante-esque territory. In The Inferno, the soul becomes (for all intents and purposes) body, and that “body” is graphically transformed through a literal allegory of the prisoner’s sin, with the lustful, for example, being eternally blown about by a cyclone-force wind that represents uncontrolled passion. Similarly, Borzutzky takes the human form and drops it/relates it/transfigures it into various “Books.” We have “The Book of Flesh,” “The Book of Holes,” “The Book of Glass,” “The Book of Non-Writing,” and many more. As a devoted materialist, Borzutzky realizes the body is not a realm of truth or authenticity, contrary to the various creeds that tell us to “get in touch with our bodies.” The body is already disembodied, as Dante realized long ago. The stability of the body, the Body of the body, is a creative but limiting illusion. Growth, decomposition; piss, shit; nerve, muscle: the body is its own fantastical (and frequently unseemly) creature.
Yet if Dante saw religion as the element that transforms the soul-body, Borzutzky examines how media (in this case, the media of “Books,” whether it be in printed or Kindle form) continually mutates and etherealizes the human form. As he writes in “The Book of Flesh,” “Each page of the Book of Flesh dissolves as it is turned, and new flesh pages take their place…The flesh word breaks as it is spoken.” But these Books, much like Hell, are not neutral. Dante’s Hell is a diabolical mirror image of God, and especially the trinity (hence why Satan has three heads); in Borzutzky’s Books, writing (or more abstractly, discourse) is linked to brutal class exploitation and political repression. As he writes in “The Book of Prayers,” “The next page contains a body inside a television screen. Veiled with hair, wrinkles, filth, and slobber, the body prays that the first blow it receives will be the last.” Borzutzky, who has beautifully translated the works of Raul Zurita, Jaime Luis Huenun, and others, is well aware of the way Art has often been welded in what Joyce called the nightmare of history.
Yet Borzutzky purposely leaves the cartography of this nightmare open to our own time and place. In “The Book of Echoes” for example, we are told, “On the first page there is a country and everyone in it smiles. They are not happy but the law says they must smile or their teeth and lips will be ripped from their faces.” And as with so many of the “Books,” we are not sure where to locate the coordinates for this line. It could be a medieval countryside; it could be an African village in the Belgium Congo; it could be some country in the near or distant future. Like Beckett, and the artist/director Steve McQueen, Borzutzky strips away the historical context from his vignettes, a move that some might criticize as an attempt to universalize and therefore simplify the suffering and exploitation in this work (a criticism I’ve seen regarding McQueen’s film Hunger), but I would argue that such a move actually brings an immediacy to Borzutzky’s project. The atrocities do not take place “back then” or “over there.” He does not put us in the position of possible First-World donors to various causes, nor are we allowed to be armchair historians who can shake our heads at the terrible crimes of the past with no little degree of self-righteousness. He openly exposes us to these crimes instead.
But The Book of Interfering Bodies is never heavy-handed. Borzutzky’s work has long been animated by an impulse toward havoc and wild juxtaposition that we find in certain 60s writers especially — writers like Koch, Pynchon, and Reed — and though this new collection is more concentrated and politically enraged than his previous books, Borzutzky never makes the mistake of believing that seriousness is its own moral good. Many of these poems are dark in the extreme, but they have a humor (often a gallows humor) that suggests a galvanizing force moving contrary to the oppression and authoritarianism we encounter in this work. As Borzutzky writes in “Dream of Laughter and Silence,” “This is a story about laughter, but it has its roots in a story which has nothing to do with laughter.”