Sunday, September 25, 2016

Daniel Borzutzky, The Performance of Becoming Human

We say that absence is a country

We say that in this country the mouth and the lips rent the present tense to the humans who rummage through the garbage in the bodies of the ghosts: the brothers who carry syrup and blood in their cheeks     the crazed deer     a thick, grey liquid escapes through their teeth     the love we look for what a shame to not be able to touch the soul in its hair in its cadaver in the central orifice of its iris

And the ghosts rise from the wet grass into a blood-filled night     a howling night     a night of coronary arteries exploding in a painting in a mouth in a country in a city flooded with garbage and the radiant blood shining forming a layer of paint on the squirrels’ fur     the urban skunks     the coyotes calmly walking through the streets of our city that no longer has any public employees

Stranded poets stranded insects abandoned factories (“Archive”)

Chicago poet Daniel Borzutzky’s remarkable book, The Performance of Becoming Human (Brooklyn NY: Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016), is a collection of poems-as-direct-statements, each written, seemingly, to be performed from a podium or stage, one after another. Whether the book and/or poems are themselves the performance, or Borzutzky is suggesting that being human is, in itself, the performance (suggesting that the consideration of humanity is a social/performative act and not necessarily our original state of being) might not matter, as the poems here speak to both sides of that reading. “I want to give you more room to move so I am trying to carve a space, with light, for you to walk a bit more freely,” he writes, in the opening poem, “Let Light Shine Out Of Darkness.” There is something in his use of direct statements reminiscent of, say, Canadian poets Lisa Robertson or Stuart Ross, all of whom play around with different levels of directness. The satirical poems in The Performance of Becoming Human critique the political as well as cultural/racial divides, language and the simple fact of being (and performing) human in savage, and occasionally surreal, punchlines. As he writes in the poem “The Gross and Borderless Body”:

Hello, my name is _________________

I come from a village where there is no clean water and where if your nose is shaped a certain way, or if you are too tall, or too short, you are likely to be murdered, raped, or dismembered

These tribal feuds date back to the 14th century when a short guy with a long noses slept with the wife of a tall guy with a small nose

Since then, our peoples have hated each other and many of us are in the diaspora

This is not an academic problem

There really is an element of the monologue in the poems collected in this book, pieces that not only demand performance, but manage as much performance from the bare page as they might see on stage. To say: it is possible to read this as script, and one that manages, if not a narrative line per se, a richness of content, language and critique enough to hold such a sequence together. In the poem “Memories Of My Overdevelopment,” Bortzutzky writes: “To be alive is a spiritual mission in which you must get from birth to death without killing yourself[.]” Later on, some of his sentences could easily be mistaken for Ross’ own, writing:

On the other hand, it is absolutely my fault that my life is so fucking miserable

I touch myself nightly to make sure my organs still work

And there is no one here to make my life feel any less mediocre than it already is

I want to talk, today, about my overdevelopment

But instead I pay someone to wipe the dust from my bookshelves and tables

Every body I look at looks exactly the same as my body

That is what’s it like to be a defenseless animal

You die because you have failed to install the necessary equipment in your body

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