The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2016

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JUNE 2016 Issue

Worry and the Mordant Wallow

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

If a soldier is a professional warrior, then perhaps a poet is a professional worrier.

Daniel Borzutzky’s new book of poems, The Performance of Becoming Human (the latest from indefatigable Brooklyn Arts Press, soldiering on for nearly a decade now) can be quoted so as to suggest that it is merely the latest in a recent string of literary apocalypses, all of imaginative provenance (storm, zombies, aliens, meteors, plague, etc.), but all relying on the sadly pessimistic belief that we’re basically fucked.

For example, at one moment Borzutzky self-diagnoses his book as a “lullaby for the end of the world,” and at another he groans out a mordant wallow: “I look out the window and into the sea and compose a suicide note on my typewriter.” The book’s imagery tilts toward gore-heavy Armageddons, and variations on the phrase “rotten carcass economy” occur so often that one can’t help suspecting that Rotten Carcass Economy once ranked high on the volume’s list of potential titles. (In point of fact, Borzutzky has already published a book called In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy—from which it can be deduced that rotting carcasses are not a fleeting authorial fascination.)

But it would be wrong to suggest that Borzutzky is only the most recent writer to turn his board and furiously paddle after yet another towering genre-wave of Freduian self-annihilation. It would be wrong to suggest that Borzutzky is only a worrier.

And while I’m at it, let me suggest, as well, that it might be wrong to suggest that Borzutzky is only a poet.

To make my case: The Performance of Becoming Human is made up mostly of sentences; i.e., “poems” that don’t even have line breaks. Like news stories, each poem is made up of “lines” that are sentences; as such they break not when the poet decided that something—a sound, an idea—had finished, but when the typesetter said enough is enough, and moved down to the next line. But you can’t really call Borzutzky a prose poet either because he has no patience for paragraphs. Nope, the sentence is Borzutzky’s unit of currency—and, as it happens, the subject of sentences pops up quite a bit. For example:

The best way to end a sentence is with the word “blank.”


The sentences are collapsing one by one and the bodies are collapsing in your bloody hands and you stitch me up and pray I will sleep and you tell me of the shattered bus stops where the refugees are waiting for the buses to take them to the mall where they are holding us now and there is a man outside our bodies making comments about perspective and scale and light and there is light once more in your bloody finger.

Not a whole lot of patience for punctuation, either! But I love this poem, and I love this sentence. I love the way the images and the meaning, like many in this sly and seductive book, slide effortlessly into your mind with a downright erotic sensation of penetration.

The goal of The Performance of Becoming Human, I suppose, is something edging toward Marxism or anticapitalism (it is a political book, and a good one because Borzutzky understands, as many political poets and prose writers do not, that if you are going to make a political statement, if you are going to engage in literary “worrying,” you must first and foremost aim to be good, by which I mean interesting, beautiful, and truthful) but what I found myself responding to best was something else, something only tangentially related to all that. What I loved best was the volume’s secret insistence that we should not think of it as a typical book of discrete poems, presented in that all-too-familiar scroll show of a poet’s various secretions, pressed down onto a series of microscope slides. No, there is something more, some controlling arc or vision.

Hence, Borzutzky writes:

There is a constant beat behind this writing


And this is where the story should end.

But bedtime stories for the end of the world don’t end where they are supposed to end.

Yes, Borzutzky is writing about the fuckedupness of the world, but he isn’t strictly a worrier: there is another side to it—“Nothing that can’t be fixed/By a full-scale overhaul/Of absolutely everything.” For me, what was most exciting about The Performance of Becoming Human was its refusal to accept a hard distinction between poetry and prose. That’s that overhaul.

Borzutzky is neither warrior nor worrier. But there is much to be concerned about—I think he would admit this—and maybe there is even a war. But in this conflict the best weapon is neither pen nor poem. Rather, what persists as the secret resource of those who continue to wander the rotten carcass economy is the totality of the book, conscious of its purpose and its beauty, and refusing to accept battle lines drawn between poet and writer, between broken line and meandering sentence.


J. C. Hallman

J.C. Hallman’s most recent book is SAY ANARCHA: A Young Woman, a Devious Surgeon, and the Harrowing Birth of Modern Women’s Health.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2016

All Issues