Given recent events in the United States and abroad, one might conclude that hell’s hand basket holds many of us in its abrupt, irrevocable descent. For those passengers making art that might offer strategic and successful representations of our times, there are many tacks to take and pitfalls to avoid. This is especially the case if one attempts to take stock of global realities in all their violence-wrenched contexts from either near or abroad. The level of actual contact to a specific environment and the commitment to witness is pressurized by the gravity of the treatment — solemn? refined? ironic? engaged? sarcastic? indignant? — and thus any response or image that processes one kind of suffering and neglects another.
While responding to other poets’ techniques of coming to terms with the onslaught of horrors or reflecting on my own erratic grappling with politicized subjects, I am usually wary of falling victim to a syndrome represented by a falling man. Call it the Dying Gaul Syndrome. That well-known Hellenistic sculpture features a mortally wounded Celt exuding handsomeness, grace and beauty, blissful while bleeding. Agonizing death is given the facade of finesse and sensuous detail. Likewise, the poet who tries to express the violent realities of the world risks making bloodshed, mayhem, and misery things of fascination.
As I read the poems in Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human, I was on alert for signs of DGS. Never did my scrutiny waver, but I could not quite diagnose the syndrome. Nonetheless, in this panorama of pain that details the plight of refugees the world over, plots the corpse-trails of neoliberalism, and offers relentless scenarios of massacre, misery, and deprivation, I sensed a proximity to sepulchral glee. Fortunately, that border is never crossed.
Happy to yoke an unstable I with a recruited you (as in, you, the book’s reader), Borzutzky makes pathetic fallacy less an instrument of empathy than an agent of unsettlement, provoking strong reaction to the many historical and imaginary vignettes he creates. “In the Blazing Cities of Your Rotten Mouth,” a brutal picaresque of assassins, torture, and state-sponsored death, ends with the section “Imagination Challenge #2”:
It’s nighttime. You’re decomposing in a cage or a cell. Your father is reading
the testimonies of 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…
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 in some place good.
The kind of mischief Borzutzky is up to is gruesome, but morbid expressions are not tendered as a means of cheapening the spectacle of the awful. Rather, readers’ complacent consciences undergo shock therapy in order to enliven their sensitivity to dire happenings. Poetic appropriations of atrocity as blithe exercises ready for publication (“in some place good”) is critiqued here with the subtlety of a battle-axe. Yet one is left uneasily acknowledging how prevailing inhumanity can be both readily translated into a well-made poem and buried in a word-crypt of too-elegant design.
One of Borzutzky’s many manipulations is implicating the reader as actor in his poems’ horrific habitats. It’s a wicked tactic but crucial to his desensitization campaign. Being made imagined accomplice to various murderous mindsets, images, and occurrences can be uncomfortable. Borzutsky makes the reader feel provoked but not shamed, sullied but imbued with an instinct to resist or negate the world order under consideration. The performance of becoming human rests on learning compassion and conscientiousness by witnessing the logical outcomes of their opposites. Perhaps then a counter-movement to mass despoliation can take place, a transformation at once utopian and rooted in body politics:
Sorry, sing the bankers to the proletariat, you don’t really exist right now
A glitch in the system
Nothing that can’t be fixed
By a full-scale overhaul
Of absolutely everything
He’s not putting us on. Even when Bortzutsky seems intent on relentless parody of the engaged poem, setting desultory tones and adding smart-ass comments that would seem to operate practically as nasty rejoinders to the scrupulous witnessing exemplified in, say, a poem like Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” he gets his intended effect. Redoubled or renewed concern and care on the part of the reader. It shouldn’t work but it almost always does. I am left almost infuriated that I am not in fact infuriated.
I do have misgivings about the logic of such poems in terms of their future iterations and eventual trajectory of such treatment. Serially, spanning volumes, their power and effect might diminish. However, as a stand-alone volume, The Performance of Becoming Human, a 2016 National Book Award winner in Poetry, serves the poet and reader alike as a formidable blowtorch to one’s conscience, both curative, conditioning and cauterizing. Ouch.