Urayoán Noel has called Daniel Borzutzky’s new book, The Performance of Becoming Human, a “canticle for the age of listicles.” It’s an apt description; Borzutzky’s work—its long, disjointed lines, its impulse to absorb and re-present everything it sees—is a sort of listicle for the post-apocalypse, a cataloging of a nightmare world (our nightmare world) where everything is bureaucratized and privatized, “overdeveloped” to the point of nausea.
Take, for instance, “In the Blazing Cities of Your Rotten Carcass Mouth,” which opens with an epigraph from a YouTube comments section—“Too bad we live in a world so uptight that we can’t / have things like the Frito Bandito anymore”—then continues:
The children were eating the bushes outside of their former houses that had been crushed by The Bank of America.
There was a boy in a bush singing an improvised song about a bulldozer that obliterates the bureaucratic centers of the earth.
Do you remember cheese, he sang to his friend.
Te acuerdas de la piña?
Do you remember ferries, he sang.
Te acuerdas de los patos?
Do you remember school bells and cowards and the boys who would come to our yard to eat the scraps of food we threw to them before the city started to blaze?
Bienvenidos a CVS. Si cuenta con tu Extra Care Card please escanea it now.
Borzutzky’s poetic vision is vertiginous, a mash-up of images and phrases reflecting the absurdity of a world in which everything is on fire but the drugstores continue to dutifully remind you to swipe your Extra Care Card, a world where “an automated voicemail on my cell phone from the incinerating bodies … said they were serving the city and that soon all of the city would blaze.” It is, of course, a caricature of our world—but a worryingly recognizable one.
Crucially, Borzutzky’s speaker doesn’t imagine himself to be immune to his own critique. Instead, as Noel describes it, “the socially engaged bro-poet is mercifully broken, relieved of his epic monumentality.” The speaker soon admits that, “Once I made $60,057 a year working for the city. This was before it blazed.” In other words, the speaker has been a bureaucrat like the bureaucrats he so despises. More importantly, poetry itself is fully implicated in the critique as the poem comes to a close:
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 gag in his mouth.
Write a free-verse poem about the experience. Write it in the second person.
Publish it some place good.
The vision of the poet here is one who shamelessly appropriates the horrific experiences of others in order to make art, art that can be published “some place good,” thereby keeping the Publishing Industrial Complex running smoothly. Poetry is no answer to this burning world—it’s just another problem. Everything in this world is infected and suspect.
We’re given a similar vision in the book’s closing poem, “The Mountain at the End of This Book,” which presents a world in which “We live in one of the deadliest cities in the world” is “a boring observation,” and where “the bodies of the neighborhood children are collected and tossed onto the base of the mountain that has emerged out of the sinking flatness.” Meanwhile “the free-market poems absorb themselves and regenerate into billions of the blankest verses there ever were.” As the book reaches its conclusion:
A pharmaceutical heiress dies and gives us six million dollars to spend on poetry.
The night sky is enjambed with rotten assets.
The poets on the mountain have barricaded my body and I will spend eternity trying to pry the wood from my flesh.
I look down into this mountain of gyrating bodies and sing a peaceful song about austerity and the privatization of our form and content.
At the base of the mountain there are frugal bureaucrat-poets making love in mud houses that float in sewers.
There are abandoned boys in the windows of these houses.
Come find us, they write on the sweaty glass, as they disappear into the bubbling mud.
The poets go on as always, singing their songs, making love, and so on. Our speaker, too, remains complacent in this world despite himself, and does nothing but sing “a peaceful song about austerity and the privatization of our form and content.” Meanwhile no one helps the boys as they are swallowed up by mud.
In confronting this bleak vision, I’m reminded of John Gardner’s famous description of the artist’s choice from his 1979 interview with The Paris Review:
If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, “There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller.” Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living.
The key question, to my mind, is whether The Performance of Becoming Human builds up those walls, or whether it counts the baby skulls again. Every reader will have to answer that question for herself; is Borzutzky’s message so scathing that it jars us from complacency, or is it so grim that it offers only despair at an inability to change the dying world it catalogs? The book, with its unflinching look at our corporatized lives and its condemning critique of the poet’s role in it, makes a serious charge. We can choose for ourselves how to answer—but we each must answer.
About the Reviewer
J.G. McClure holds an MFA from the University of California – Irvine. His work appears in Best New Poets 2015, Gettysburg Review, and Green Mountains Review, among others. He is the Craft Essay Editor and Assistant Poetry Editor of Cleaver, and is at work on his first collection. See more at jgmcclure.weebly.com.