Daniel Borzutzky’s The Book of Interfering Bodies

Daniel Borzutzky’s The Book of Interfering Bodies opens with a quote from the 9/11 commission report:

It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.

This is how the book begins. This book: a powerful parable about the routinization and bureaucratization of the exercise of imagination. This book: so strongly influenced by Zurita’s poetic and painful experiences. This book: a grostesque fairy tale about poetry and books, where the Poet is small and lethal and Books that contain all the world’s secrets waste away in a wasteland pile of shit.

Borzutzky’s book is a book about books, but not ordinary books, no, that would be too easy, and if it’s one thing that Borzutzky’s book isn’t, it’s easy. This is a difficult book, a dense book, one full of dense imagery and denser words. 18 of 38 poems are about the books that remain in a pile, not a neatly stacked and organized pile, but a mountain: books to be stepped on to climb higher, where the stakes are high and one misstep can make the reader fall with an avalanche of books, books covered in shards of glass, books made of flesh, forgotten bodies, prayers, voices, collapsing nations.

In the first book, “The Book of Flesh,” Borzutzky writes:

And toward the end of the book, where the flesh from the man’s back twists into birds and stars and butterflies and faces with thick lips and empty eyes, there is a story that the flesh readers call memory: here the flesh words tell of a man who falls out of an airplane, and when his bones splatter each shard of bone forms a country, and in each country there are men who have been destroyed but who have now been reconstructed as walking pieces of flesh formed into the former bodies they once possessed. The flesh men live in the bones and all day they cry for their loves, the loves they left behind, they loves who were forced to push them out of the airplanes by the bigger men with guns so that their last image of life, their last gasp of life, their last snatch of life would be death at the hands of those they love: this is the memory as it is written in the Book of Flesh. (7)

If you’ve read Raul Zurita, or, if you know anything about Chilean history, you’d know this was a tactic Pinochet used. And still, the image stirs new pain.

While reading this book, I kept thinking how close to cliché Borzutzky could get without crossing into that arbitrary zone, but rather than veering into cliché, he someone creates an unexpected image. He makes something beautiful, even in the grostesque.

For instance, I think pulling skin from flesh is something pretty cliché. The first poem in this collection, “Resuscitation,” closes with skin being pulled from the body. I started to read. I rolled my eyes. And by the end of three sentences, I was made a fool for my judgments:

The soldier had taken my pants and all I had left was skin

I wanted to peel off my skin and dissolve into the tiniest voice

I started to peel the skin off my arms and worked my way up to my shoulder across my neck to the other shoulder along the arms down to the hand

I peeled the skin off my chest and stomach and in my rib cage your voice said peel more

I peeled off my skin wishing to be what I would never become and you said forget and I forgot the name of my father, my mother, my country (6)

But Borzutzky’s book isn’t all about serious politics. It’s got humour, politically saturated humour, and very meta. For example, here is an excerpt from “State Poetry”:

This poem was written in the office of a state employee, and typed on a state-own computer, and as such it is a violation of state ethics rules which prevent state employees from using state resources for work that is beyond the employee’s job description.

Because this poem was written on a state-owned computer, and printed on a state-owned printer, and copied on a state-own Xerox machine, it is, by law, the property of the state.

This poem willfully submits itself to state ownership.

This poem feels that there is no better owner of a poem than the state.

This poem feels that state-controlled poetry is the poetry of the future.

When the author of this poem is anointed Poet Laureate of Illinois, this poem will instantly transform into an important work of literature.

This poem has an active staff of fundraisers who are seeking corporate sponsorship…

Critics hate this poem.

Editors laugh at this poem.

Poets shit on this poem.

Babies and graduate students eat this poem…

This poem is rhythmically unappealing. (16-19)

In many ways, though, the metapoetics of this collection – which can be funny – is also its weakest point. This collection is full of erudite jokes, which I’m not against in principle but when I don’t “get” them, it leaves me feeling alienated. This isn’t Borzutzky’s problem. It’s mine, but I’m guessing if I feel alienated, others will too.

That being said, when a poem contains lines like:

I want a poet who can be toilet trained to prevent shit from spilling out of his mouth.

or

I prefer the jargon of capitalists to the jargon of poets.

or

I believe in the rapture of syntax, and I take no responsibility if this poem suddenly falls into a coma, or if the economy of the poetry market experiences bloated bouts of inflation due to the overvalued chunks of language that glitter like diamonds in the glistening pool of vomit that spreads across the floor like the shadow of a lover long forgotten.

or

The poet scared her own children with her excruciatingly meticulous word choice.

well, I just have to appreciate it. Borzutzky is funny and serious and political and smart. There’s so much more I wish I could’ve crammed into this review, but it’s already too long. So, buy this book. Buy this book and read it. Read it and make your own conclusions. It’s worth it. Promise.

[Post-script: This was originally my introduction to the collection, but it went on for too long, and I wanted people to read the review. Anyways, if you’re interested, this was my introduction:

Daniel Borzutzky: It’s a name I’ve seen around for a while. I’ve seen it and known that I should probably read one of his books. He’s published three books, translated two, but I’m always hesitant to pick up poetry books. It’s my own bias. For a long time now, I’ve contended – fairly publicly – that I think poetry aims to be smarter than me. It’s my own bias, again. As a reader, I regularly feel stupid with a book of poetry in front of me. I think I’m missing 95% of what I’m reading. Like I understand the words but I don’t “get” most of the book. But this has been changing. And it all started with Action Books.

As a Notre Dame alum and a friend to the editors and editorial assistant for Action Books, I’ve received a steady stream of their books. (Sure, the fact that I write for HTML and review books elsewhere doesn’t hurt either.) Having a pile of beautiful poetry books, I became tempted. So I read one. And then another. And all of a sudden I was converted.

But the book that really converted me to – dare I say it? – a poetry lover (maybe a little strong: a poetry appreciator) was Raul Zurita’s Song for his Disappeared Love. Zurita’s book, thin and oversized, is power through and through. It is political poetry, it is a mourning song for Chile, for all spaces destroyed by greed and corruption, capitalism and colonialism and power. I read the book quickly, I couldn’t read it fast enough, I felt manic and dizzy, and then I read it again, slower.

Why do I start a review about Daniel Borzutzky by talking about poetry and Zurita? Well, Borzutzky translated Zurita. And so, I came to Borzutzky’s work through translation, which is itself its own form of poetics, and what I read was challenging and provocative, I wanted to read more.

Flash forward a couple months at AWP. I was walking around and someone said, Oh look, there’s Daniel Borzutzky, I’m going to go say hi. A shy person by nature, I didn’t want to meet him. I have this irrational fear of gushing and seeming moronic. It’s irrational because what poet doesn’t like to have a fan? Let’s be honest: not that many people read poetry – or conceptual fiction, but whatever – and fans are the best. Still. Eventually, I built up the nerve and introduced myself. He was charming and very nice. Our exchange was brief – conferences, you know? – but he promised to send me an email, which I immediately dismissed as conference politeness, but then, he did. And then he sent me his book, which, let’s be honest here, I was predisposed to like. Then again, it’s poetry, so I still had reservations. Still, one day, I took his book with me while I got my oil changed and my emissions test done. I read it in one sitting. I sat in a barely heated mechanic waiting room and read the book. The mechanic finished my car, and I stayed in the waiting room, just to finish the book, I didn’t want to stop, I couldn’t. It’s a compelling book, it’s that compelling of a book.]