Why “Writing In The Dark”?

Because. ‘Because’ is not an answer, my daughter would say.

Those happen to be the first lines of my only published poem to date.

Okay, okay.

Because I don’t know what I am going to write when I sit down to the blinking cursor.

I don’t have any idea of where to start, except I know I want to write. I like the physical act of typing on the keyboard. It is meditative. I like the process of reading what I have written. I like seeing something on the page. I like the thoughts it triggers in me. Well, not all the thoughts – for instance, I could do without the neverending jabbering of my inner critic.

Also, because this is meant to be an exploration of ideas website. I know I have nothing original to say (thank you, mind). So, I will begin by just saying.

I listen a lot in my daily life. I speak less often. Here is where I can do the speaking, er, writing. I could also have titled this page Writing Into The Dark because I am reaching out into the darkness of (self-)knowledge and trying to make sense of it.

Why would you want to join me on this journey? That’s your question to answer. I will try to entertain along the way. I cannot make claims to enlightening others because I am seeking to enlighten myself.

Note: I have collected some posts from a previous incarnation of my blog and most of them appear with the date of June 24, 2020. I’ve found it difficult, being a WordPress newbie, to keep those dates changed to their “original” dates. They were from the spring of 2018. For the record, Westworld lost me in season 2. I’m still learning from Borzutzky and Baldwin, though. And I think Sorry To Bother You is a masterful film.

At any rate… onward and upward. I hope you enjoy what you find here. I hope I do too.

Let Light Shine Out of Darkness

The title of this poem is an imperative. Whether it is directed at the reader or the author is unclear. The first line, “I live in a body that does not have enough light in it,” seems to frame the entire book. It is an attitude toward oneself that is critical and despairing, yet seeking.

“Once, I even said to the body I live with: I think I need more light in my body, but I really did not take this seriously as a need, as something I deserved to have.” Deserve is such an interesting choice here, for what are needs but those things which we deserve? We need food, water, shelter, clothing. We deserve them as human beings. Do we deserve light in the same way? And what is this light he speaks of? “… something blue or green to shine from my rib cage….” Like something unearthly within us. The soul?

“Other times when I am talking about lightness I am talking about breath and space and movement/ For it is hard to move in a body so congested with images of mutilation.”

This is our modern dilemma. How modern is it, one might ask? Isn’t it the human dilemma throughout our existence as a species? Violence. Mutilation. Toward one another, animals, the earth itself. How different is war and slaughter now than it has ever been?

Then there is the cruel framed as one-liners: “Did you hear the one about the illegal immigrant who electrocuted his employee’s genitals? Did you hear the one about the boy in Chicago whose ear was bitten off when he crossed a border he did not know existed?”

“I want to give you more room to move so I am trying to carve a space, with light, for you to walk a bit more freely.”

Is he really, though? It seems less like he is carving a space for us to move more freely and more like he is trying to shine light on the darkness – congest our bodies with images of mutilation. I find it hard to breathe sometimes reading Borzutzky. The denseness and the brutality of his writing makes me feel as though I am being buried alive.

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.

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.”