by Mike Puican
Published by Nightboat Books, 2011 | 103 pages
If the protestors of the Occupy movement ever decide to nominate a poet laureate, writer and translator Daniel Borzutzky would certainly make a compelling candidate. A writer and translator of Chilean descent who lives and teaches in Chicago, Borzutzky’s latest volume The Book of Interfering Bodies—his third book after Arbitrary Tales (2005) and The Ecstasy of Capitulation (2006), which are, respectively, collections of fiction and poetry—is very timely, and it constitutes his most ambitious and unified project to date. To be clear, the brand of ironic subversion Borzutzky invents in his latest volume probably doesn’t resemble the present populist resistance as it is usually formulated. Rather, in this new book on the fate of the human imagination in the postindustrial West, Borzutzky writes what might be called bureaucratically occupied poetry. The volume opens with an epigraph extracted from The 9/11 Commission Report, which Borzutzky suspends, chillingly, outside its original context: “It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.” But the reader who might expect a poet to resist this wintry recommendation along clean polemical lines and defend poetry as a final humanist stronghold will be entirely surprised. Instead of protest, The Book of Interfering Bodies deliberately embraces the 9/11 Commission’s prescription, working to demonstrate, and to deconstruct, what a bureaucratized “exercise of imagination” looks like through a set of incendiary poems and essays, with such titles as “State Poetry,” “Budget Cuts Prevent me from Writing Poetry,” “One Size Fits All,” “Poetry is Dangerous in America,” “The Relevance of Poetry in Our Current Climate,” and, “Bureaucratic Love Prevention Game.” Borzutzky’s wager is this: if the cultural function of literature really is to refract, capture, and meditate upon lived experience, then poetry written in a time of spooky government, dubious corporate ethics, and spectacle-obsessed media must be willing, however paradoxically, to bear the mark of decidedly unliterary phenomena in order to fulfill its purpose. To do so may in fact produce resistance, in a process perhaps analogous to Baudrillard’s famous example of clogging the escalators and austere industrial spaces of the Beaubourg in order to reveal the postmodern museum complex’s inhumanity.
The Book of Interfering Bodies is not easy to enter, or, ultimately, to read. It consists of free verse and abstract prose chapters, and at first glance it has the atmosphere—for its alternating chapter structure, as well as for its insistence on arriving at complex ideas by way of deceptively simple examples—of an apocalyptic update to William Carlos Williams’ modernist classic Spring and All. The essay chapters, which frame the poetry at regular intervals, are particularly difficult to figure out. Usually centered on a description of an imagined “book”—including, to name a few, “The Book of Flesh,” “The Book of Graves,” “The Book of Echoes,” “The Book of Collapsing Nations,” as well as a chapter reiterating the volume’s title “The Book of Interfering Bodies,” which is the final chapter—these abstract, hypothetical tomes accumulate to form a “tower,” a recurring image in Borzutzky’s text. Yet they are also referred to as “nations,” and they do not behave like any “books” we are used to. The “Book of Flesh,” for example, “contains pieces of flesh”; and “[t]he reader who opens the Book of Echoes finds a village where no one lives and nothing grows and where all the houses are empty.” On the basis of these book chapters, some critics have made comparisons between The Book of Interfering Bodies and the Jorge Luis Borges story “The Library of Babel,” where Borges refigures the universe as an infinite library, although I suspect that assuming too clean a legacy here may be to mistake Borzutzky’s distinctly metapoetic impulse for a metafictional or purely philosophical one. When books become nations in The Book of Interfering Bodies, or, for that matter, graves, they are always already metaphors for something else. We are always walking on a symbolic minefield in this text. Where bodies become placeholders for inhuman phenomena here, as they frequently do, books might as well be thought of as “interfering bodies” too. Or to put it another way, Borzutzky’s argument in The Book of Interfering Bodies seems to have more to do with the effects of bureaucratized imagination on language itself—on words and grammar—than on ideas and discourse.
The best evidence for this is probably the fact that the most powerful, innovative moments in the volume seem to occur in the verse chapters. Consider the opening gambit of “Resuscitation,” the first poem in the volume. Be forewarned, poetry that willfully submits to Patriot Act-era regulation in order to make its point is, predictably, very disturbing poetry (it will come as no surprise that some of the voices in The Book of Interfering Bodies descend from Borzutzky’s fellow Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s fictitious fringe literary movement the “barbaric writers,” who are decidedly unafraid to imagine the desecration of the sacred, and whom Borzutzky’s cites on several occasions). Here, Borzutzky’s words scrape at the skin of our ears:
I fellI tripped over the horse corpse and its dead bones crackedI was stuck between the horse legs and they came with a cleaverChop off the legs, they demandedI chopped off the horse legs and the vermin that sucked on the dead beastscrambled across the floorboardsI chopped the horse legs into thousands of pieces and they said what do you seeI said I see thousands of bone shards and blood and bits of hair and in eachfragment there are villages, towns, hamlets, inlets, streets, suburbs, cities,states, and countries
Taken as straight-faced allegory, this forced mutilation of a horse corpse appears to capture the logic of an affair of Althusserian interpellation gone completely mad: the speaker does not so much as flinch when “they,” the apparent authorities, command him to “[c]hop off the legs” of the horse. No one is shocked in this poetic world, not even a few lines later when the speaker is told to “make … a work of art” from the mutilated horse legs. We have to continually remind ourselves that Borzutzky’s entire book is, in the first place, a thought experiment. This isn’t the poetry of the apocalypse; it’s the simulated poetry of the apocalypse, which is all about inhuman hollowness and simulation. The speaker’s provocative response to the question “what do you see,” that the bits of horse he has been ordered to chop up are themselves like the bureaucratic units who ostensibly have sanctioned the chopping, is thus ambiguous and disruptive: it at once constitutes a dark resignation to a bureaucratic tautology and serves as a most clever reminder to the insane powers that be of some of the classic bureaucratic units of civilization it ought to be protecting. The subtle pun of the book’s title may be instructive here. The meaning of the “interference” in The Book of Interfering Bodies is double, and it depends upon your perspective: it is either a problem to be dealt with (if you are the one responsible for keeping the Machine up and running) or a matter of resistance (if you are a mere cog).
For the reader who persists in the unsettling terrain of The Book of Interfering Bodies, there is plenty of fun, and even pleasure. In what may be the most clever, moving poem of the volume “One Size Fits All,” Borzutzky allows a quintessentially corporate form to become poetic form, to spectacular effect. After a panoramic series of visions plucked almost at random from the bleak, wide world, Borzutzky addresses the reader with an all-to-familiar request made to guarantee “customer satisfaction.” The moment is worth citing in its entirety:
Dear Reader, Because we value your input, please take a moment of your busy time to answer the following question, which will greatly assist us in our mission to produce cultural artifacts that will further meet your aesthetic and spiritual needs.
Which of these statements most accurately reflects your feelings about the writing you have just read:
a) This is a splendid poem, distinguished by the clarity of its thought, the force of its argument, and the eloquence of its expression.
b) This poem is conceptually vapid, artistically shallow, and contributes nothing to the world of letters. It is little more than a collection of bad sentences and poorly formed ideas.
c) I like this poem, but I wouldn’t spend money to read more poems like it.
d) When I read this poem, I feel frustrated and annoyed.
e) When I read this poem, I feel nothing.
This survey is a gimmick, and a profoundly interesting one. Note the spectrum of potential responses offered here: there are only two answer choices the reader can select that affirm the seriousness of the poem, one very positive (a) and one very negative (b). These choices constitute readings that still recognize the integrity and relevance of poetry as an institution. The other answers are all nails in the coffin of literature, which represent different kinds of anti-intellectual impatience and indifference. When we encounter them, they nevertheless provide the poem’s punch line: the possibility of option “e” – the final line of the poem – prompts an experience of genuine bottomlessness in the reader who has approached this strange text with an open mind. The structures and language of bureaucratic nonsense, which are antithetical to literature, are here part of literature, deployed to teach us about the role of literature in our world.
Borzutzky’s occupied poetry, in other words, bears within itself the institutions that will presumably be responsible for the demise of poetry if allowed to reign freely, and it does so in order to (1) protest that demise and (2) explore the explosive tensions in the gap between the poetic and bureaucratic languages as the domain of a new form of a poetry. In this sense, The Book of Interfering Bodies is a little reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s frequently shocking 1973 novel Crash, which tracks the experience of two characters who unemotionally roam the expressways looping “London Airport” chasing, and sometimes causing, automobile accidents in pursuit of macabre sexual pleasure ground in the mill—pun irresistible—of bodies trapped in colliding machinery. There, too, the reader is expected to accept a series of senseless mutilations, disablements, and deaths as meaningless signifiers serving a much more interesting sociopolitical argument regarding the embrace of alienating technologies in the postmodern West. Kafka is in the background here as well: the cascading, inescapable bureaucratic absurdities of Borzutzky’s text strongly recall the experiences of Josef K. in The Trial, only reconfigured here as the province of poetry. Yet the most proximate comparison may be the writer whose work The Book of Interfering Bodies literally references through its cast of “barbaric writers,” Roberto Bolaño. In Bolaño’s sensational, recently translated final novel 2666, which represents the experience of a broad array of characters who all wind up for one reason or another in a fictional Ciudad Juárez and entangled to varying degrees in the murders of women that have plagued the troubled border city for years, there is a nearly three-hundred page central section (“The Part About the Crimes”) cataloguing the deaths themselves. Like Ballard, there comes a point where Bolaño’s gore becomes excessive and the reader is tempted to turn away. But to do so is to turn a blind eye to a brutal cultural reality, and, in so doing, to allow it to propagate. This larger point of Bolaño’s is also Borzutzky’s: in order to rethink the cruel, indifferent world it is necessary to confront it, to openly render art from it. Think of the speech act of The Book of Interfering Bodies, which is a political speech act, as something like the sly, hollow grin of the Guy Fawkes mask that has come to signify the most radical edge of twenty-first-century resistance. It is painted on, mass-produced, a copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy—inhuman—and yet, when donned in a determined fashion for radical purposes, it is all the more disruptive for exactly those reasons.
Kevin C. Moore is a PhD candidate in English at UCLA. He works on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, and he is currently completing a dissertation titled The Rise of Writer’s Block: Myths and Realities of American Literary Production. His essay “Parting at the Windmills: Malamud’s The Fixer as Historical Metafiction” is forthcoming in Arizona Quarterly. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.