Daniel Borzutzky, The Performance of Becoming Human, Brooklyn Arts Press (BAP), 2016

Reviewed by Paul Cunningham

[Review Guidelines]

When Daniel Borzutzky asked Raúl Zurita about the experience of publishing Songs for His Disappeared Love during Pinochet's dictatorship, the poet, then 59, replied, "It was very strange. There was a world that had to do with poetry that was full of conflict, and one had the sensation that we had to respond to the terror with a poetry that was just as powerful as the pain being delivered, but at the same time you had to try to avoid being punished. It was very difficult to find the language for this."

I have spent the days since the election meditating on the innocent bodies that once again find themselves muted, gutted, and embedded in this country's repulsive showground of op-eds and dead-ends. Many artists have been trying to find the right language to respond to this. We're left asking: What exactly is happening to our country? More accurately, it's what has been happening. It's the steady increase in carelessness surrounding fact-checking and parasite journalism. The fake, clickbait news chains distorting our perception with ‘sponsored content' and social media platforms that promise autonomy. The truly nauseating irresponsibility of billionaire CEOs. The numbers the data the percentages manipulated by state officials. But the thing is: it's not the year itself I am troubled by. As if "2016" were the name of a person or a character that will eventually be killed off and replaced by someone a little more thoughtful. It was like this in 2015, too. And even 2014. In 2015, we took to the Internet to desperately ask, "Is it 2016 yet?" And this year? "Is it 2017 yet?" It is our desire to fast-forward to whatever the next is—our repeated investment in invented, capitalist time—that I find disheartening. I assure you, 2017 will be no more dishaunting than any of these past protuberances of days.

I am troubled by something else as well. Not The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky, but a passage from Stephen Burt's recent Boston Review essay on poetry, "Reading Yeats in the Age of Trump." It is not the passage about the need for poetry to "champion the femme" that troubles me. Not the notion of the "worst" still being possible for America. It's this passage that gives me pause: 

Daniel Borzutzky, with his new National Book Award, looks better, and more frightening, than before.

Why does Borzutzky suddenly look "better" according to Burt? Is it the fact that he was the recent recipient of a National Book Award? If so, is that what also makes Borzutzky "more frightening" and, therefore, better now than before? In 2014, Burt described Borzutzky's "having-it-both-ways" style of writing as "self-righteous." In the same review, he also described the writing in The Book of Interfering Bodies (2011) as "vehement." Vehement poetry... Sounds frightening to me. After all, it's not that Burt claimed that The Performance of Becoming Human was simply more frightening than The Book of Interfering Bodies. Rather, it is ‘award-winner' Borzutzky—the poet himself—who now "looks" more frightening for some reason. Borzutzky's  collection of poems opens with a body "congested with images of mutilation." Is Daniel Borzutzky now "more frightening" because a book of award-winning poetry opens with a violence-clogged body moving among murmuring, decomposing bodies. Bodies saying: "There is no light that comes out of your body." To which the congested body replies:

I did not know at the time that there should have been light in my body

It's not that I am dead

It's not that I am translucent

It's that you cannot know you need something if you do not know it is missing

The focal body very clearly states that it is not dead. But is it the voice of a living or non-living body? The figure feels closer to something mid-decomposition—no longer alive, not yet dead—speaking a language in a dimension somewhere between presence and absence, always-already somehow censored by a gaseous amnesia or dreamscape. It's a frightening opening. I think Borzutzky's work has always been frightening. Shocking. Unrestrained in its thoughtfulness and depth. But should a reader interested in award-winning American poetry be expecting something tonally optimistic? Something more positive? James Pate thinks so.

Taking cues from works like María Negroni's Dark Museum and Eugene Thacker's In the Dust of this Planet, Pate argues in favor of a "spiraling vitalism" of the Gothic in a new collection of essays called Flowers Among the Carrion. He describes the Gothic genre as a:

refusal to prune the flagrant diversity of fancy into a restricted (and often utopian) notion of the human—that makes the Gothic, in its own anti-teleological way, radical.

and as:

an attraction to night and monstrosity, a focus on death, doubles and doppelgängers, a suspicion that a radically nonhuman Otherness dwells beyond our perceptions...

Pate believes the Gothic is too often dismissed as a "reactionary" genre and refutes such classifications by pointing out recent examples of contemporary artists who indulge in an excess of dreams, insects, counterfeits, ghosts, biological, and even pathological components in an attempt to combat a more humanistic, neoliberal vision of progress. Critics might dismiss The Performance of Becoming Human for the same reasons. I don't believe Borzutzky is trying to be some stylish epicure of violence solely for the sake of shock and awe. But then again, if readers do find the book shocking, I don't think that's a bad thing. The Performance of Becoming Human is charged with a similar Gothic vitalism in its anti-teleogical sentiments ("Natural beauty, I write on the mirror with lipstick, is not nearly as good as artificial beauty"); in the darkness of its worrisome "unitedstatesian" night; in the way the loss of light enables discovery; in its feverishly licking tongues and threatening intestines; in the way the ghosts of murdered immigrants "haunt" its pages; in the way bodies fly (like witches); in the way the lines struggle:

between decadence and virility, between virility
and femininity, between masculinity and clairvoyance, between godlessness
and transparency

In "Let Light Shine Out of Darkness," Borzutzky eventually inverts the coordination of lines in the book's opening by announcing the "images of mutilation" through a disturbingly casual, stand-up routine type of language that runs throughout the book:

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?

This turn causes an instant feeling of unease and the punchlines never come. Perhaps the punchline is that there isn't one. Our yearly expectation of social progress is the punchline. On its way, but never actually coming. Maybe now more than ever would be a good time to reconsider the sanctity and professionalization of poetry:

But these are not screams, actually. They are unclassifiable noises that can only be understood as a collaboration between his dying body, the obliterated earth, and the bodies of those already dead.

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

Publish it some place good.

Maybe it's a good time to reconsider our culture of prized writing. Maybe it's a good time to be a skeptic. To scrutinize the media. To listen to the voices of those who feel silenced. To step up the spectacle. To re-evaluate. To respond to privatization with "horrible licks" in excess. Sure there's a gore to Borzutzky's poetics, but, in a way, I believe Borzutzky's layering and arranging of underworldly voices, figures, and language gives rise to something positively, ominously alive. A covert message spelled out in the entrails spilled throughout the book. Think: haruspicy. In "The Broken Testimony," his poetry thrives in the "nervous tap" of his paratactic lines. There is a pulse to each line. A pained insistence to his beat:

Meet Eduardo

He's extremely paranoid

He thinks that at any moment the dead bodies of his neighbors will awaken
and stab him in the neck with a machete or an ice pick

He steals their passports and wallets

He lies on top of a dead neighbor and hears a voice inside her

He prefers the word carcass to cadaver

He thinks

I will be thrown into a river to be mauled by by the engines of motorboats

Down, down, into a world of shrieking cadavers who look just like me

Surplus meaning in my nose in my hair in my broken Jewish eyes

There's actually a lively energy to these death-driven poems of borders and borders crossed. The farewell-esque "by by," and "down, down" moments of decline and rhythmic, cycling language accumulate and flatline with EKG momentum! Borzutzky's lines (unconstrained by punctuation) tend to sound aloud endlessly against death's finitude. Capitalism isn't going anywhere, so why not use poetry as a means for pushing against the threshold? Why not use its own language against itself? Like the economic language of "The Private World,"

According to the data, it is impossible for rich people to be friends with
poor people.

This, according to the data, is true in all societies.

In "Obliged to Perform in Darkness," progress feels more like subtraction. The images pile up, pull away from one another like limbs amputated from a body ("Infection crawls up my leg and into my knee / I don't have a knee / I'm a dead man clawing at dead grass in a pop song with a snappy rhythm." The imagery of the poem—the infection—is growing, building, but ultimately it feels more like a gradual falling away. Degeneration. Gangrene. An eventually disappeared image. Similarly, the voice of "The Privatized Waters of Dawn" sounds like a ghost-voice hovering above its own former body as Chicago police (referred to as "appraisers") perform an autopsy of sorts. I suddenly forget I am reading poetry and the experience begins to feel disturbingly voyeuristic. More like something from out of Caspar Noé's Enter the Void. The voice explains that the appraisers are interested in the "code" it speaks. The "disease" in its veins. I wonder if the voices of The Performance of Becoming Human are deliberately speaking in unfamiliar modes. Is it something more akin to a Gothic code? A "secret" language of degeneration in which our bodies "are not Ideal Forms: they age, they catch colds and diseases, their limbs sometimes break, their joints ache," as Pate asserts? If we've reached the end times, is Daniel Borzutzky's "disease" poetry a pathological threat to our increasingly healthy "unitedstatesian" police state? Has the poetry of Daniel Borzutzky been threatening all along? Is that what makes it frightening? Or is it the fact that this type of poetry is now capable of winning awards? Is that what frightens a poet like Burt? Isn't that then the problem with prize culture?

On the mountain, my body looks better when it is filled with other bodies.

And my mouth looks better when it is filled with other mouths. 

Despairingly hopeful and agonizingly beautiful, the poetry in this book is the poetry troubled artists need right now. It was difficult for me to read lines like "at times they say: pretend you are an immigrant and hiss for us" and not think of president-elect Donald Trump repeatedly performing the co-opted lyrics of Oscar Brown Jr.'s "The Snake" at various rallies this past year:

"I saved you," cried that woman
"And you've bit me even, why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I'm going to die"
"Oh shut up, silly woman," said the reptile with a grin
"You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in."

Trump turned to poetry—POETRY—to promote violence against immigrants! If our new commander-in-chief is going to use poetry to promote violence, artists will have to come up with new ways to covertly infect the increasingly ‘healthy' social order. We cannot lie to ourselves during this next presidency and just wait for everything to be somehow OK. We cannot simply hope that things will just be better next year. Artists must continue making art. Now more than ever. If a fascist is prepared to use poetry for the sole purpose of fueling hate, we have to be prepared to respond to the violence somehow. I believe The Performance of Becoming Human is a great place to begin to end.