The Performance of Becoming Human

“So for now hasta luego compadres and don’t worry too much about the bucket of murmuring shit that is the unitedstatesian night.

What does it say? What does it say? What do you want it to say?” (19)

I begin at the end with this poem. What do we want it to say? Certainly not to be littered with the bodies and mutilations of this poem. At least, that is not the murmurs of the unitedestatesian night that I want. But it is the hand we have been dealt at this stage of late capitalism, global capitalism if you wish. Our oppression of others crosses all borders with relative ease, like capital itself and unlike humans who are shuttled in inhuman conditions from one place to another like so many objects.

~

One thing that strikes me about this poem is the shifting language and narrative and the starkness of its images. It is a vicious and surreal bedtime story, “a bedtime story for the end of the world,” (15) and dreamlike at times, almost like we are only getting pieces of the stories themselves, as though we, the readers, are drifting off to sleep while listening and missing important details.  The thousand refugees become just one mother and son who share a gag that has been shared by “[h]undreds, thousands, tens of thousands.” (15) Cows break open after falling off a cliff and “sheep and humans and countries” come falling out. (17)

~

“The broken bodies stand by the river and wait for the radiation to trickle out of the houses and into their skin.

They stand under billboards and sniff paint and they know the eyes that watch them own their bodies.

A more generous interpretation might be that their bodies are shared between the earth, the state and the bank.” (16)

Are we the “eyes that watch them”? (16) And who are we? Clearly “we” are unitedstatesians, but does it reach beyond that? Citizens of what might be called the First world? If so, what is our responsibility to these “bodies”?

I think we must be the First world citizens. This is at least one way to make sense of the “generous interpretation” – that we are all of us, the eyes that watch them and the bodies themselves, locked in systems – “the earth, the state and the bank” – that define us and delimit our “roles,” our “performances” as humans. And we are, each of us, “dying from so many stories. We are not complete in the mind from so many stories of burning houses, missing children, slaughtered animals.” (17)

One way of thinking about our position in all of this is to read ourselves into the last few paragraphs of the poem where the narrator, or Borzutzky himself (Is there a difference?), implores us:

“But seriously, friends:

What do you make of this darkness that surrounds us?

They chopped up two dozen bodies last night and today I have to pick up my dry cleaning.

In the morning I need to assess student learning outcomes as part of an important administrative initiative to secure the nation’s future by providing degrees of economic value to the alienated, urban youth.” (19)

The question is what do we do about it all and what can we do given our relative positions within said systems? I suppose the first step is to listen to the stories. But then I, personally, am somewhat tired of simply listening. I hear it. Now what can I do about it? It brings to mind an article I read in the New York Times recently about people selling off parts of Albinos in southern Africa. I read this on the train on my way to a work meeting. What possible significance could my work meeting have in the face of such horror? And yet, I went to my work meeting. I think part of Borzutzky’s question is, how do I not just stay in bed when faced with these stories? Or at least that is the question I ask myself. And yet, he doesn’t. He teaches. He writes. He picks up his dry cleaning in the morning, like all of us do. And at what cost to ourselves and to others? Is there another choice we should be making? Collectively, it is clear that other choices need to be made. But, individually, how do we respond?

I don’t expect Borzutzky’s poems to offer the answers to these questions, I simply put them out into the world. And I continue to read… and think… and write. And try to stay out of bed because these bedtimes stories may make me want to stay there, but it is probably the last thing that is needed at this juncture. Besides, with stories like these to put us to sleep, it is a fitful sleep at best.

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