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Daniel Borzutzky and Solmaz Sharif explore the poetics of war and exile, pushing the boundaries of a national literature.
“My DISTRIBUTION / over the globe debated and set to quota. A nation can only handle so many of me.”
—Solmaz Sharif, “Deception Story”
“The photographer asks the children to smile so that the rest of the world can see how well we treat the displaced people.”
—Daniel Borzutzky, “The Devouring Economy of Nature”
As if to counter both the puffed-up illogic of Trump-speak and the elegant drone of National Public Radio news, Solmaz Sharif’s Look and Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Being Human aggressively disrupt our expectations about what English language and poetry are supposed to do. Whether sampling official bureaucratese, shifting quickly through multiple viewpoints, juxtaposing extreme violence and deadpan humor, or refusing to fill in narrative gaps or be contained in tidy verse lines, this poetry is not easy or comforting. Instead it’s what Borzutzky repeatedly calls in his book “a bedtime story for the end of the world”—discomfort reading, perhaps, especially for those who expect a safe, stable home.
According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, in 2015 the number of displaced persons—those forced to flee their homes due to war or persecution—surpassed 65 million worldwide, the highest number ever recorded and a four-fold increase over the past decade. In the hands of these two poets the concept of displacement echoes in broad and flexible ways, revealing not only its brutal physical violence but also its devastation of language, culture, identity, and psyche.
How do you write about war if you did not experience it directly?
Both writers’ biographies may give them a unique vantage on global homelessness. Sharif was born in Istanbul, Turkey to Iranian parents and has lived most of her life in the United States; Borzutzky was born in Pittsburgh to Chilean parents and currently lives in Chicago. While these specific experiences of exile from Iran and Chile hover ghost-like over the books, neither of these authors speaks in a seamless autobiographical voice. Rather, each gives a polyvocal performance, with fragments of life story woven into a larger tapestry of personas. The effect is to reveal a mind’s experience of displacement, with all of its morphing identities and contradicting perspectives.
• • •
Of these two collections, Look offers more direct glimpses of the author’s life, a life of “repeated displacements and perpetual foreignness,” as Sharif says in one of her essays. A more overtly autobiographical poem, “Master Film,” depicts her unmoored childhood, separated from her father, her “baba,” while he drifts around the United States doing odd jobs. At the age of four she recalls seeing how
on the video our friend shows baba a pictureof me and asks how do you feel when you see Solmaz?and baba saying turn the camera off thenturn off the camera and thencan you please look away I don’t want you to see my baba cry
The filmic layering complicates this heartbreaking scene of Sharif’s fractured family. The reader looks at the young Sharif looking at her father who looks at a picture of her, embarrassed by his grief, then quickly the focus shifts back to the young Sharif trying to protect her father from anyone witnessing his vulnerability. This kind of tense, layered looking occurs in many other of these poems, often in even more disorienting ways, and adds depth to the book’s title, Look.
The central opus of this volume, “Personal Effects,” is a thirty-page elegy to Sharif’s uncle, who served and died in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The poem reads like a fragmented assemblage of memorabilia in a family album, with references to photos, letters, and family anecdotes. From her displaced viewpoint, the speaker’s relationship to her uncle and his war experience is sketchy, but the poem uses this sketchiness to its advantage, performing the anxious process of looking at evidence from various angles and through the haze of decades. The poem’s partiality makes room for the speaker to flesh out what’s missing with tentative imagination, as in these lines:
But to watch you sitting there between the sandbagsBut to watch the sand spilling out the bullet holesBut what did they expectBut what did they really think a sheet of metal could preventBut I sat rolling little ears of pasta off my thumb like helmetsBut it was not a table of fallen men
How do you write about war—or anything, for that matter—if you did not experience it directly? If readers wonder about the ethics of speaking for someone else (even your own uncle), the poem has already anticipated such questions. Its willingness to scrutinize its own methods is among the poem’s powers and charms. At one point, after describing her uncle “pissing himself,” the speaker inserts this meta-moment: “‘How can she write that? / She doesn’t know,’ a friend, a daughter / of a Vietnam vet, told another friend.” The poem doesn’t defend itself, but this reflexive move shows awareness of and willingness to risk a speculative knowing.
Such meta techniques—the poetry calling attention to itself as language, as artifice—pervade the book. The most notable of these gestures involves sampling from a source where we don’t usually expect to find poetry, as Sharif explains in the closing notes: “Terms appearing in small caps are taken from the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.” When one of these terms suddenly shows up in a poem, it’s like a slight breaking of the stage’s fourth wall, as in this passage from the book’s title poem: “Whereas the lover made my heat rise, rise so that if heat sensors were trained on me, they could read my THERMAL SHADOW through the roof.” Scattered throughout the book, these military terms destabilize our reading: potential threats of intervention are always looming. We are experiencing the porosity of the poem’s borders in real time.
Scattered throughout the book, military terms destabilize our reading: potential threats of intervention are always looming.
This provocative mixing of disparate discourses is a form of political critique that Sharif explains eloquently in one of her essays. “Placing different languages in proximity,” she writes, “removes them from their prescribed roles, jostling them into new possibilities. And the caretakers of language, the poets, their role, the caretaking of language, is to keep it from calcifying.” Throughout this impressive debut collection, Sharif puts these proximities into play—one page imagines Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” tapped out in Morse Code while the next figures Henry Kissinger as a Harlem Globetrotter. In these and many other ways, Sharif begins to replace what has been displaced, or to reclaim displacement from official state power. And it produces a vibrant, dissonant poetry that refuses to calcify.
• • •
While almost every poem in Look has a unique shape, each organically evolving its own moves and tones to keep readers unsettled, the poems in Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Being Human blur together to create an incessant wave effect that reads like a book-length sequence. Key images and phrases repeat, including variations on “rotten carcass economy” and the standard joke opening, “Did you hear the one about,” followed by some violent or grotesque image. This repetition adds to the book’s hall-of-mirrors, “haven’t we been here before?” movement.
At first glance, most of the poems appear to be formatted in paragraph-like prose chunks, but the chunks tend to break down into single sentences or fragments, often without punctuation. So the term “prose poetry” doesn’t quite fit, but this work certainly has prosaic tendencies, sprawling and maximal and multitudinous. Although Whitman and Ginsberg may seem like obvious poetic influences here, it’s more convincing to connect Borzutzky’s work to a certain Latin American tradition—that impulse toward loud and rambling lines, surrealism and biting humor, empathy with common people against political oppression, as found in the work of César Vallejo, Nicanor Parra, and the more contemporary Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, whose work Borzutzky has translated into English.
Here’s a riff from “The Private World”:
Did you hear the one about the refugees who could make the bus stop explode?
The refugees were waiting at the bus stop for the bus to transport them from one detention center to another
They were from New Orleans
They were from Mexico
They were from Rwanda, Iraq, Eritrea, Chicago, Detroit, Sudan, Guatemala, El Salvador, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Syria, etc.
They were from my neighborhood and when they came to your neighborhood their bodies appeared as fields of wheat in flames
As the speaker blurts out these chunks, they sound less like parts of a linear narrative than the speaker revising himself with each utterance, questioning, seeing from different angles, doubting what’s real. As we read horrific images of displaced people from around the world, we also participate in the displacements of the speaker’s mind as he struggles to say what’s true.
This passage typifies the abject nightmare depicted in Borzutzky’s poetry, a relentlessly and unapologetically brutal vision at the center of which is the human body being violated, maimed, tortured, exploited, judged, imprisoned, surveilled, and otherwise unjustly controlled. The voice of the speaker moves from moment to moment through that of a refugee, a migrant worker, a child laborer, a prisoner, a dissident, a victim of racism or “ethnic cleansing,” a victim of police brutality, a victim of rape, a victim of corporate profiteering.
If Borzutzky seems at times to reach for the sickest image imaginable (e.g. “The sales clerk from Target pisses all over our purple bodies”), some might accuse this poetry of gimmicky sentimentality, even whimsically manipulating the real lives of victims whose circumstances should be portrayed with somber realism. But Borzutzky has presented a convincing rationale for his poetics: “What I want is to have the bloody inferno that the world is exposed to me in no uncertain terms and with no attempt to make this anymore palatable. . . . Vomit out the truths about the shameful, racist, bloody apocalypse that keeps killing and killing and killing.”
A global perspective is rare in American poetry. This is an opportunity to begin questioning what a national literature should do.
Borzutzky refuses to hide, nuance, or aestheticize the severe trauma caused by global injustice. The Performance of Becoming Human is not merely avant-garde absurdity and play but the real realism that we aren’t usually willing to see: perhaps this present-day phantasmagoria is what CNN, if the goal were to report the whole truth, should present. If you’re looking for hope and silver-linings, this is not the book to read—this is deeply pessimistic and bitter poetry. Still, it’s driven by an enormous love; as the poem “Archive” says, “I am writing a story of love in the time of data fascism.” For all of its despair, the book documents extraordinary compassion and empathy for people and populations that many Americans, including many American poets, have the privilege to ignore.
• • •
A global perspective is rare in American poetry, yet these two books that fiercely challenge an isolated national worldview have been nominated for a National Book Award. This could be an opportunity to begin questioning what a national literature should do, or if such a designation has ever been relevant and ethical, especially now in the age of globalization. Sharif and Borzutzky write an American poetry that can’t quite call this country its home, that lives in a state of displacement, not really here and not really wherever home might have been. Both poets see with intense clarity—from both inside and outside our borders—our national role in causing global displacement and dehumanizing its victims. Their poetry asks us to look abroad, then back at ourselves and take responsibility. As Sharif’s poem “Mess Hall” puts it, addressing “America” directly: “look at your lap: / even your dinner napkins are on FIRE.”
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