On the Poetry of Institutional Violence
Feb 1, 2017
11 Min read time
The anonymous collective BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP transmutes voices from the archive into lyric form.
BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP
Wesleyan University Press, $24.95 (cloth)
Few books of contemporary poetry crack open the inner workings of institutional violence in the United States, and elsewhere, as widely as The Work-Shy, the BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP’s new book. An anonymous collective, operating at the intersection of the documentary and the lyric, the BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP transmutes a forceful “chorus of voices” from archival sources into poems: each poem in The Work-Shy attempts to resuscitate, through what it calls “close listening,” the voice of someone curbed and isolated by the state. Divided into three sections, the book opens with “Lost Privilege Company,” an affecting, cohesive group of poems that reassembles “direct testimony” from the first youth prison in California. The central section, “The Book of Listening,” offers a series of question-based prose poems about the ethics of its investigative poetics in relation to the archive. Finally, “Creedmoorblanca” draws on a wide range of prose writings “by inmates of American and European asylums between 1909 and 1980” in order to construct remarkable poem-variants of the originals.
The Work-Shy is a sonic tour de force. Each lyric in the “Creedmoorblanca” section, for instance, while integral to the choral structure of the book, resonates individually. In “Aloïse”—poems are titled after their confined speaker—a cascade of language conveys the sense of a mind freeing itself from stricture, playing with diction that unfolds with alacrity and precision:
I saw you blush
like a cup of Ship
in the auto-orchid,
in the arms of
the general headquarters
on its knees, whither
goest thou lord,
ouchy often free of charge,
in music little Geisha chrysanthemum
[the red Catherine on horseback]
naked in the cords of
the sphinx of the [. . .] painted inside
Often playful in this way, the individual lyric objects of The Work-Shy counter the anguish of confinement with rich linguistic detail. Across their choral range of subjectivities, they pinpoint acute questions about existence and personhood, from the single, all-caps line in “Sandie”—“YOU ARE SOMEBODY”—to the poignant opening of the poem “Mary R.”: “No person, no death. / And I being poor / have only my dreams, / essence of winter’s lust.”
The metonymic bakery of the poem converts the closed, institutional space of the reformatory into a public space.
Alongside these sonic case files, images in The Work-Shy contextualize the poems and offer evidence for the urgency of its investigative poetics. For instance, “Lost Privilege Company” reproduces a terrifying image from the case files held by the Carnegie-funded Eugenics Records Office (active until 1939) of the pseudoscientific “eugenics genealogical chart” that unnamed “fieldworkers” constructed around Albert M, a Mexican American teenage boy incarcerated in California in the early twentieth century. In the top left corner, the first few letters of the rubber-stamped word “Whittier” can be made out. The prologue has made the significance of “Whittier” clear: Albert M, whom the State of California considered “ungovernable,” had been sent to the Whittier State School, a now-defunct reformatory whose Wikipedia entry makes no mention of eugenics—of the sterilization project at its core.
Amid the ominous marks that crowd the chart, the recurring symbol of a white hand, labeled W.S.S., points at four tiny squares in a row. If one of those squares represents Albert M’s institutional fate, then the strength of The Work-Shy is its attempt to reveal not only the violent mechanisms at work—the pointing hand—but also “relic feelings,” that is, archival traces of Albert’s subjectivity. On the opposite page, in blazing counterpoint to the “eugenics genealogical chart,” and excised from the case files whose intent had been to sterilize him, a single-line poem salvages Albert M’s exact words: “I want to be a bakery.”
Albert M voicing his wants almost a hundred years after the fact—what deprivations at the Whittier State School, hunger among them, would make a teenage boy want to be a bakery?—shocks the reader into confronting, if not comprehending, the institutional horrors he must have faced. At the same time, it is likely that “bakery” is Albert M’s lexical mistake—he may have meant “baker”—or it might have been a transcription error on the part of the fieldworker interrogating Albert M about his desired vocation. “In some case files,” as the prologue states, “all direct statements by teen inmates were deliberately suppressed.” Given this, the solecism may offer lyric poignancy: the survival of Albert M’s utterance, while not ameliorative in any way, speaks to the value of the BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP’s attempt to read the case files against the grain of their intent.
The Work-Shy tears out pages from the bleak archives of California’s founding to reveal the hidden schematic of white supremacy.
At the same time, as a line with lyric resonance, “I want to be a bakery” brings to mind possibilities other than deprivation: to “be a bakery” suggests generosity, a wish to feed others. To be a bakery, which is feasible within the language world that the poem constructs, denies the confinement that the State of California impinged upon Albert M. In other words, the metonymic bakery of the poem converts the closed, institutional space of the reformatory into a public space, where others are free to visit—and with delicious things to eat. To be a bakery, then, is to resist via poetic language the factory-like “mills,” in which “[o]ver 20,000 people were sterilized” through “a policy legalized by the California legislature in 1909 and pursued with great vigor until the early 1940s.” Eugenics in California foreshadowed the catastrophic discrimination that would emerge in the twentieth century on a larger scale. As the BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP points out, “the social engineers of Nazi Germany drew directly on the California model.”
Other poems in The Work-Shy echo the intense psychic pressures of confinement and desire found in “Albert M.” In the final lines of “Mary M” in the “Creedmoorblanca” section, the subtle alliteration of “b,” “d,” and “t” sounds stresses the allure of “glittering bad / things”:
I cry out after some known-unknown Thing
as I hurry over my sand and barrenness. Oh,
Kind Devil, if you are not to fetch me Happiness
then slip from your great steel key-ring
a bright little key to the door of the glittering
bad things and give it to me.
Likewise, in a recurrent image that the poems discover amid the decades and continents documented in the source texts, a clock becomes a choral metonym for the tyranny of asylum time. In “Paul,” for instance, language itself assembles to gaze up at its face:
Our words are like people.
We talk and react to words
like crowds in the streets
as they look up at the big lightbulb
clock, the six changing to seven, the seven
rapidly adding a curved bottom
and a rounded top
to become eight.
This is the destruction of time.
The Work-Shy bears comparison to Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, perhaps the first modernist foray into document-based poetry. Reznikoff’s method—painstaking condensation of extensive court records—and the time period under investigation, 1885–1915, overlap with those of the BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP. In the “Lost Privilege Company” ensemble, each poem condenses and repurposes the case file of a single individual by listening to and reassembling the language therein. Albert M’s name, for instance, doubles as his poem’s title. These case files range from fifteen to twenty-five typed, single-spaced pages: as with Testimony, the amount of research underpinning The Work-Shy’s investigative poetics is staggering. Whereas Testimony offers a cross section of structural violence at the turn of the century, as if an architectural drawing of the future, The Work-Shy tears out pages from the bleak archives of California’s founding to reveal the hidden schematic—an exploded view—of white supremacy’s moving parts. Without such a view, these poems suggest, the humming machinery of eugenic thought cannot be dismantled.
The social engineers of Nazi Germany drew directly on the California model of eugenics.
This exploded view relies upon a strict constraint: each word in “Lost Privilege Company” has been sourced from the Whittier State School case files. Italics indicates the documented voice of the “wards,” such as Albert M, whereas plain text signals that of the so-called fieldworkers who wrote the files. In this way, The Work-Shy avoids the procedural vagueness of Testimony, where it is not always clear when the language of Reznikoff’s sources has been smoothed out to maintain the “recitative” tone throughout. To its credit, The Work-Shy sees its choral approach as a way to support the range of, rather than blur, individual voices. In the poem “Josephine,” for instance, her actual words have been lifted from her case file: “might as well have been a table / as a father / I’d rather get out // and lose my relatives.” Likewise, the un-italicized words “had to be taken out of school and strapped frequently” shows the fieldworker’s institutional voice.
No poem can completely extract Josephine’s voice from the case files; at the same time, “Lost Privilege Company” helps the reader to hear her suppressed lyric voice, amid the noise of the machinery intended to crush her. In other words, “Josephine” opens new interstices between Josephine’s voice and that of the institution. The percentage of “wards” at the Whittier State School who were Chicano or African American, as the BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP points out, was disproportionately high. And so, through its exploded view, the poem fosters Josephine’s personhood without losing sight of the white-anxiety machine that had confined, interrogated, and possibly sterilized her.
“The Book of Listening,” the central section, anchors The Work-Shy. Here, an anonymous, self-reflexive speaker articulates, through a series of prose poems, the ethical questions that the book as a whole implicitly asks. For instance, the earlier poems in “Lost Privilege Company,” such as “Albert M” and “Josephine,” enact the first question posed in “The Book of Listening”: “Listening and being voiceless often go hand in hand, but could speech become a way of listening?”
That these question-poems remain unanswered throughout the unfolding of The Work-Shy furthers their ethicality. Even the poems without question marks still ask rather then declaim: “The poem hovers between the obligation to seek permission to listen and the impossibility of obtaining it from a voice that cannot be reached.” “The Book of Listening” encourages further questions about the ethical impact of investigative poetics, and invites other inquiry along these lines.
The fifteen-year-old Ella Fitzgerald was confined in 1933 and marked as ‘ungovernable’ before she escaped.
In “Creedmoorblanca,” the final section of The Work-Shy, the constraint narrows to include only the words of asylum inmates, in “the broken and furious language of confinement,” without the “killing language” of fieldworkers or other intermediaries. To an extent, the speakers in “Creedmoorblanca” have a greater degree of agency than those in “Lost Privilege Company,” as the inmates themselves wrote the base texts which the BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP turned, in the sense of Guy Debord’s détournement, into lyric poems using “steep compression and careful assemblage.” The authors of these texts were inmates designated “insane” by the Nazis, internees of the Breitenau Workhouse, or patients at New York City’s Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. The geographical blurring—the poems leave out the exact institution where each speaker has been confined, as if to pick out the common strands of confinement—is countered by the precise diction of each poem and by the tonal shifts of poems drawing on, for instance, source texts translated from German. That the line between sane and insane could be dubious, or arbitrary at best, is illustrated by the fact that “the fifteen-year-old Ella Fitzgerald was confined in 1933 and marked as ‘ungovernable’ (a prelude to sterilization) before she escaped and went on to fulfill her musical destiny.” Likewise, Lou Reed “underwent electroshock ‘therapy’” at Creedmoor.
The poems in “Creedmoorblanca” are lyric palimpsests that reveal rather than obscure the underlying texts. In many cases, the source language stems from painstaking transcription and translation from the archives of the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg. For instance, “Agnes R” culls some of the poignant language that Agnes embroidered into her asylum jacket—remarkable images of her jacket are reproduced in The Work-Shy and, of the textual embroidery, on its cover. In the process—the converse of erasure—the poem allows her exact words affective space:
my jacket is
my jacket is
I am not
I am not going home
Likewise, in the poem “August,” the wonderful line “a dish of lentils in the hands of slumber” leaps off the page. All sources for the base texts are acknowledged, giving readers a chance to further consult, if they so wish, the prose writings of Agnes R and August.
“Lost Privilege Company,” the title of the first section of poems, repurposes the name of the “isolation unit” to which inmates were sent for punishment at the Whittier State School. This repurposing becomes a microcosm of what The Work-Shy achieves: while poetry cannot undo the institutional harm committed against Albert M, Josephine, Agnes R, among many others, the chorus of voices raised in this book refuses isolation.
February 01, 2017
11 Min read time