Here are two books that differ dramatically stylistically, yet are unforgettably linked by images of the dying human body.
In Jane Mead's book-length poem, "World of Made and Unmade" the failing body is that of a "beautiful and practical" mother. In Daniel Borzutzky's "The Performance of Becoming Human," the central obsession turns on how "authoritarian" nation-bodies absorb and destroy "powerless" bodies.
To the extent that these books are performative, we can read each one as enacting a fierce argument with death.
In her fifth book (a dreamlike, distractedly connected poem on the end of her mother's life), Mead performs a sustained feat of imagination. We are given details of a harrowing present, as "the patient's" selfhood dissipates, yet still renavigates the past and peers into an unforgiving future.
Mead focuses almost exclusively on the ongoingness of dying: a diminishing life witnessed by a reluctant yet attentive daughter-survivor. Her depiction of a growing tumor or a confused gauging of morphine dosages that could mean death make the reader want to look away at times. But in disjunctive yet fluidly linked moments, the landscape of the family vineyard, with its flourishing acres, emerges as a background distinct from the stark drama of loss. Harvest bounty is shadowed by fleeting memories in dropped stitches of distraction:
"Passing back to the house/from my mother's cabin/in the full moon light:/ her wheelchair tracks in the gravel/make a wide turn and disappear/into the shadow of the palm tree,/ as narrow-gauge tracks disappear/into the deep mineshafts/ of the Sierra Nevada"
Mead balances herself as narrator on a tightrope of thought running from her mind to her mother's elusive consciousness. This "aerial" movement is choreographed against a vast horizon that is split occasionally into memory's "borders," adding other contexts to individual death.
Mother and daughter cleave together as two minds in fraught alliance, just as two countries, (represented by the rancher landowners and the migrant workers who tend their vines) also cleave — as the great momentum of grape harvest moves forward:
"From my mother's cabin I hear them —/Viva los Estado Unidos/This year I haven't picked figs/or taken them sun-warm to the barn/or left them in the big tin bowl/where the flags of the US and Mexico/hang high in the rafters, left them/with the little sign, Viva Mexico/This year —/ I haven't balanced on the wagon/picking bad fruit from the two bins/or walked behind the pickers with my bucket,/or watched the bins being strapped/on the trucks, cinched down/my white hands/fruit-sticky at my sides./This year/I have disappeared."
Yet it is the mother who is disappearing, inevitably a figure of mystery ("I'm deaf and I'm blind and I'm not/ answering any more questions") no longer the whole self — a skilled artist, a bold traveler — but still her personality surfaces in sudden intimacy, clarity and beguiling humor like a child's. (An album photo of the mother pedaling an old-fashioned tricycle with a smaller sibling hanging on, dated Oct. 22, 1929, appears, coda-like, at the poem's end.)
The dying mother, who "made" a family, is being "unmade" herself. Mead recalls moving among the specimen jars of her ichthyologist father's laboratory as a child: "In my father's lab/…jars and jars/the egg/the embryo, the adult male,/the adult female../…All that perfection./World of made and unmade."
When Borzutzky's "The Performance of Becoming Human" was awarded the 2016 National Book award, the book's selection elicited some negative response. Criticism centered on his language: diction described as flat and repetitive; imagery deemed unrelentingly repellent; an authorial tone rejected as the unpoetic rantings of an ideologue.
It is undeniably true that while Mead's poems reveal a compassionate aesthetic imagination, Borzutzky (in describing shocking atrocities) offers little obvious compassion — and mocks those seeking to impose emotional "sensitivity" on his words: "The creative consultants waiting to turn this misery into poetry."
That charge ("creative consultants") is a bitterly acute one, wherein destroyed cultures, tortured citizens and the brutalized "other" form the backdrop for exquisite poetic "pain" (or what used to be called "the poetry of witness.") This indictment goes beyond our helpless removal from nightmare headlines: "over-development," torture, corporate greed, wars, attacks on immigrants, women, minorities — in fact, mocking those who write "movingly" about this suffering.
Poetry, in defense, might conversely deny the raw undigested "ranting" of this litany as ineffective on strictly aesthetic grounds. But to grasp Borzutzky's "project," the reader must confront the realpolitik that informs his style. Perhaps he is not a "bad" writer (his intelligence and learning are formidable); rather, he appears to be writing as a "bad" writer on purpose.
Implicit in his dystopic perspective is an indictment of poetic simile. Think of Neruda, (with his other-worldly lyrical gifts) reacting to state-sanctioned violence in Chile: "The blood of children ran in the streets like the blood of children."
It is important to remember that Borzutzky is not Chilean, but Chilean American, having lived his entire life in the U.S. Thus he has formed a uniquely hybrid sensibility — an American writer who is profoundly loyal to his Chilean heritage, who has distinguished himself as a translator of Chilean writers, but is a Yank.
He straddles a long Whitmanesque "American" line, but the line originates with an Orwellian Whitman — then to Neruda, then from Neruda to Mistral to Parra to Raul Zurita (whom Borzutzky has translated and passionately admires.)
"They say: Poet your favorite poet from now on is my boot/The poet-boot kicks one of my teeth and I feel it fall into my mouth/…And when day inevitably breaks I watch the morning ritual:/They take away the sky and the streets/They take away the sewers and the beaches and the river and the trees and/the birds and the cats and the raccoons and the garbage/… my rotten carcass sinking into the privatized waters of dawn"
Borzutzky's approach is "politically grotesque" — meaning if one understands politics and bureaucratic policy as twisted, then only grotesque language and imagery can create a literary response. Borzutzky seeks to "instill" words, employing language "as bureaucrats use power." If you hear music in the unlovely hypnotics of his lines, you may be learning to listen differently, as he said in a 2011 interview: "I'd like to think that art can keep that individual body from becoming invisible."
Carol Muske-Dukes is a professor of English and creative writing at the USC and a former poet laureate of California. Her ninth poetry collection, "Blue Rose," will be published in 2018 by Penguin.
By Jane Mead
Alice James Books: 100 pp., $16.67 paper
By Daniel Borzutzky