Daniel Borzutzky’s “Dream Song #17”



They took my body to the forest
They asked me to climb a ladder

I did not want to climb a ladder
But they forced me to climb the ladder

If you don't climb the ladder
we will bury you in the mud

I had to decide  should I die
by hanging  or by burial

I climbed the ladder and they wrapped
a belt around the thick limb of a tree

And when I could no longer breathe
they tossed me into a stream

And I floated to the edge of the village
where someone prayed for my soul

It's like this in a lullaby
for the end of the world:

The options for the end 
are endless

But this is not really a lullaby
for the end of the world

It's about the beginning
what happens when we start to rot

in the daylight
The way the light shines on

the ants and worms and parasites
loving our bodies

It's about the swarms of dogs
gnawing our skin and bones

Do you know what it's like
when a ghost licks your intestines

To avoid the hole
the children must sing sweetly, softly

To avoid the hole
they must fill their songs with love (1)


This poem is one of my favorites from Borzutzky’s collection, The Performance of Becoming Human. For me, the beauty of this poem turns on the lines “The way the light shines on//the ants and worms and parasites/loving our bodies.” These lines are the beginning of what the narrator tells us this “lullaby” is really about and the reference to light ties this poem to the themes of the entire book which begins with a poem I have already discussed entitled Let Light Shine Out of Darkness. The first line of that poem reads, “I live in a body that does not have enough light in it.” The title of that poem comes from certain translations of the Bible, 2 Corinthians 4:6 which is, in itself, a reference to Genesis 1:3 where God says “Let there be light.” Therefore the word “light” moves through The Performance of Becoming Human and shifts and changes meaning. At times it is literal light, or the human soul, or the voice of God, or light as in “light in spirit” or humorous, or, as in Dream Song #17, it is all of these and daylight shining on a scene of decomposition.

In some ways, it is this last sense of light that Borzutzky is embracing throughout The Performance of Becoming Human. His poetry is shining daylight on the price of late capitalism, if one can use a market term like “price” to describe what is anathema to the market itself – the costs (again, another market term) to our souls. It is a kind of ode to and celebration of what comes after, but before “what comes after” has begun or even been imagined. Borzutzky finds horrific beauty in the inevitable end of humanity as we know it that will result from our bureaucratization, marketization, and objectification of humans. There is little to be hoped for in this dystopic world which is, in fact, our present moment.

But Dream Song #17 ends with a wish of sorts. It ends with the image of children singing in order to “avoid the hole.” The hole may be the death by burial referred to at the beginning of the poem, it may be death generally, or it may be something more hopeful – to avoid the death of humanity altogether. The last lines of the poem resonate in at least two different registers. There is an almost sinister presence, the presence of “they” who make the narrator choose his method of execution, insisting that the children sing in order to avoid the hole. But then there is a more generous interpretation that allows for the possibility of human transformation into something more filled with light – a future that includes a new, more loving, iteration of humanity. It is this dual sense of Borzutzky’s poetry throughout – the horrific paired with and presented as beautiful – that gives The Performance of Becoming Human its power and, ultimately, transforms the dystopic into something not utopic but perhaps hopeful, something that is not about the “end of the world” but “about the beginning.”

(1) From p30-31 of The Performance of Becoming Human, published in 2016. I cannot always recreate the poems I discuss in their entirety, but in this case I chose to do so because the version that exists online, which was published in Poetry Magazine in May 2014, has several differences and one that I consider to be significant. Namely, in the older version, the “ants and worms and parasites” are “mauling our bodies” whereas in the version I have recreated here  the “ants and worms and parasites” are “loving our bodies.” 

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