This Power Point is What We Call Progress

by on Feb.13, 2012

Reading Daniel Borzutzky’s  ‘Book of Interfering Bodies’, I found Benjamin’s Angel of History once again floating before my (mind’s) eyes:

For me, the Angel of History parable (among many other possible readings) is about three things: accumulation, violence and paralysis. The Angel is transfixed before the ever accumulating pile of wreckage and “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” But the Angel is actually paralyzed with his wings outspread– “caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them.” The contending forces of violence and accumulation create the paralysis of the transfixed spectator Angel.

I wonder if we can think of these kinds of contending forces as creating the structural dynamics of the Book of Interfering Bodies. Structurally speaking, the book seems torn by violence, accumulation, and stasis. On one level, the book is quite static– it has two different modes– lineated, hyperviolent poems without enjambment, in which we proceed from one picaresque episode to the next; and a block text which discusses a hypothetical book– ‘The Book of Echoes’, ‘The Book of Glass’, etc. These two formats proceed in such largely consistent alternation that when one does break out of its assigned form (p. 48– ‘In Other Words’) the burst of one style of narration into the format of the other actually seems violent, a rupture, a violent breaking through of the pragmatic violence of one world into the hypothetical, parable-like space of the other.

To think of it another way, however, the book is not static. The ultra-violence of the lineated pieces is flat and unenjambed but necessarily accumulates from line to line like the wreckage piling up before the Angel’s gaze. For example


I ran into the tower and horse bones flew everywhere

They  fired thousands of bullets into teh horse legs

They struck a match and asked me if I wanted to burn with the horse legs

I said yes I would like to burn with the horse legs but they said tough shit and pulled me into the field by my hair


The speaker of these lineated accounts oscillates between victimhood and mini-agency– in fact his totally exteriorized experience creates a kind of microclimate of agency and passivity or helplessness, which we can evaluate by the currents of violence running through and to him. Meanwhile it is clear that there is a huge overriding macroclimate of violence and power swirling all around him against which his minimoments of agency or being the agent of violence (“I pick up the dead body of the hummingbird and fling it into the woods”)are almost ludicrously miniscule. Speaking of scale, I was interested in the contrast between the pinpoint minisculey located violences in which the speaker takes part(ex. “they fired a bullet near my feet and I ran toward the dormitories”) and the large, symbolic nouns which come into the book so often (mountains, desert, horse, countries, they, etc). This seems a significant way of communicating the vast power imbalances in which these speaker finds himself.

I know that Borzutzky is translated Zurita’s Song for His Disappeared Love so I couldn’t help reading his prose-block poems as mass graves. If the lineated pieces, line by line, are like dismembered bodies, in which we have to encounter each ‘limb’ of the story lying about and reassemble it into the ‘dry bones’ of the story itself, the prose blocks are like mass graves in which each sentence is inextricable from those around it. These are truly ‘blocks’, areas at once obscure and detailed, challenging to the attention span, because each stenence is important– there is no shading or chiarascuro here, you have to encounter each line as it comes. As Borges said of Cortazar,


“No one can retell the plot of a Cortázar story; each one consists of determined words in a determined order. If we try to summarize them, we realize that something precious has been lost.”
I wonder how we might compare this statement to Borzutzky’s work. Of course, in terms of the violence of 20th c. Latin America which is the operating universe of this book, ‘something precious has been lost’. On the other hand, given the immersive strategies of the narration, I’m not sure if anything so final as that can be said, or if, on the contrary, the book preserves the paradoxically frozen yet spasming relations of the Angel of History, paralyzed between violences, neither one of which can be either arrived at nor completely disavowed.


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