Poetry from a Year of Precarity / Michael Dowdy

Detail from cover of The Market Wonders (Ahsahta Press, 2016). Design by Quemadura.

Daniel Borzutzky. The Performance of Becoming Human. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016.

Susan Briante. The Market Wonders. Boise, ID: Ahsahta Press, 2016.

Don Mee Choi. Hardly War. Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2016.

Solmaz Sharif. LOOK. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2016.

Rodrigo Toscano. Explosion Rocks Springfield. Albany, NY: Fence Books, 2016.


Five exceptional books published in 2016 offer harrowing dispatches from a year of crisis and precarity. Written by American poets spanning stages in their careers—from Solmaz Sharif, whose first book LOOK was a finalist for the National Book Award, to Rodrigo Toscano, whose seventh, Explosion Rocks Springfield, is his most propulsive and perhaps his best—these urgent books share a number of inquiries. How can poetry address the entwined processes of capitalist globalization and American imperialism? How might poets stage encounters with the surveillance state, the carceral state, the “war on terror,” with “enhanced interrogation” techniques? How can poetry, that “under-performing commodity,” in the poet-critic Jeff Derksen’s words, engage the logic and language of derivatives, hedge funds, credit default swaps, the stock market? How might poets unravel the discursive regimes that dehumanize (and facilitate the imprisonment of) refugees, immigrants, persons of color, and religious minorities? How can poetry confront the twinned specter of right-wing authoritarianism and anti-immigrant nativism, the Trumpian iteration of white supremacy?

These questions don’t overstate the scope of Daniel Borzutzky’s National Book Award winning collection The Performance of Becoming Human or Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders, as their titles suggest. Nor do they incongruously scale up the specific historical geographies of Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam), Sharif’s LOOK (the “war on terror”), and Toscano’s Explosion Rocks Springfield (a city block in Springfield, Massachusetts). Each book dramatizes the stakes underlying these inquiries: always and everywhere real bodies are on the line in and because of language. LOOK makes this idea explicit, though it guides all five books. In the long poem “PERSONAL EFFECTS,” the speaker declares to her uncle (who died in the Iran-Iraq War when she was a child) that their language has been colonized:

Daily I sit
with the language

they’ve made

of our language


like you.

The speaker uses common speech to assess official, technocratic euphemisms. Colloquially, to “sit with” something connotes a roiling interiority, a stewing, wherein one reckons with unsettling truths, letting them sink in. Sharif’s speaker “sits / with” language itself, which she is both invaded by and alienated from. This recognition forces her to redefine who counts as being “at” war:

According to most
definitions, I have never

been at war.

According to mine,
most of my life

spent there.

For Sharif, war isn’t somewhere one goes or can be found; rather, “war” is an epistemological condition through which her knowledge, language, and experience are understood and from which her subjectivity, and thus her poetry, are formed. This expansive definition frames these books. The violence wrought by war and capital on the most vulnerable doesn’t simply constitute subject matter. Instead, these five poets explore how to write in the linguistic registers of markets, militaries, and police states.

Perhaps the most surprising convergence in these books isn’t that they focus on the most precarious human lives—refugees, the undocumented, religious minorities, sex workers—but that each book is fundamentally concerned with children. As books of war and torture, explosions and batons, they’re characterized by attention to heightened sensory perception and deprivation, an interplay that’s the hallmark of childhood development and torture techniques alike (i.e., waterboarding, loud music, around-the-clock artificial light; windowless cells, blindfolds, solitary confinement). The Performance of Becoming Human, Borzutzky’s fourth full-length collection, introduces this sensory dialectic through the abject body. In the opening poem, “Let Light Shine Out of Darkness,” a profound awakening slowly unfolds, beginning with the first two lines: “I live in a body that does not have enough light in it // For years, I did not know that I needed to have more light[.]” This paired alienation affect and awareness of embodiment (“I live in a body”) guides the discussion to follow. Organized by three senses—hearing, touch, and sight—that define these books, this review aims to show just how profoundly these poets “sit with” the languages of war and plunder, turning them into tools of insight, dignity, and justice for children and other precarious beings.

I. Hearing

To varying degrees, irruptions of noise and silence punctuate each book. The Market Wonders, Briante’s third collection, is structured around the daily fluctuations of the stock market, beginning with the meditative prose poem “Towards a Poetics of the Dow.” Here, the speaker describes a key aspect of her documentary poetics—to “record noise, interference, outliers, error.” Later, in “The Market is a Parasite that Looks Like a Nest,” Briante personifies the Market, adopting the fabulist mode Borzutzky uses regularly. Whereas Borzutzky mines the grotesque, Briante tends to the daily rhythms of the Market, who’s a “grandfather.” After the Market “showers” at dawn, it is “a season of silence except for the ceiling fan / with its tsk, tsk, tsk.” At such moments, we hear the convergence of stock tickers, ceiling fans, clocks, and bombs. The implications are manifold, but one resonates. As the title suggests, where sounds are muffled, calmed, and nurturing (as in “a nest”), it may be because a “parasite” is quietly, slowly consuming you.

Such onomatopoeic strategies shift to overdrive in Explosion Rocks Springfield. Its seventy-six poems are launched like bottle rockets from the headline that serves as each poem’s title: “THE FRIDAY EVENING GAS EXPLOSION IN SPRINGFIELD LEVELED A STRIP CLUB NEXT TO A DAY CARE.” As in his previous Deck of Deeds, Toscano blends procedural and absurdist modes. But here he eschews satirical narrative prose in order to deconstruct the event and the language used to describe it, to excavate its constituent parts, its etymologies, genealogies, labor and supply chains, and regulatory structures. Contra Badiou’s and Žižek’s theories of the “event” as a rupture immanent with possibility, Toscano drills down to the linguistic soundscape figuratively blown apart in the explosion. The virtuosic poems toggle between the barely perceptible hiss of a gas leak and window-shattering detonation. The former is rendered typographically loud, in caps, as in this sine wave gently modulated by font size: “PSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSH.” Elsewhere, frequent utterances such as “<doink>” and “jank” serve to halt and destabilize meaning while limning the soundscapes of pistons, caps, pipes, and valves.

In the three books that explicitly chart circuits of imperial and authoritarian violence, silence is often more telling than noise. Sharif’s sequence of epistolary poems, “Reaching Guantánamo,” uses redactions to great effect. Whereas in Borzutzky’s hands such erasures might be filled in the manner of a grotesque Mad-Libs, Sharif’s porous letters are quiet, quotidian, evacuated. The seven “Dear Salim” poems are preceded pages earlier by another epistolary poem “Dear INTELLIGENCE JOURNAL.” As in the passage cited above and the one below, Sharif’s collection has a primary documentary source. Terms from the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms are rendered in small caps throughout the collection and in most poem titles. The beginning of this poem leverages them into a black dinner masque:

Lovely dinner party. Darling CASUALTIES and lean
sirloin DAMAGE of the COLLATERAL sort.
a lengthy and essential PLANNING PHASE,
down to our party’s seating chart where I perfectly

placed gentlemen to avoid a HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT . . .

If a journal is a hushed, private, silent text (one which doesn’t speak to others), then an intelligence journal would be doubly so—clandestine, coded, impenetrable. Here, however, the poem’s levity, achieved again though a sort of Mad-Libs technique, lays bare the vacuous horror of the military terms. Sharif leaves the implications to the imagination: how are these terms used in a real “intelligence journal”?

But it’s at just an octave above the pitch of silence from which these books do their most evocative work. In the opening salvo of Hardly War, her second book, Choi describes her poetics as a “faint language”:

I am trying to fold race into geopolitics and geopolitics into poetry. Hence, geopolitical poetics. It involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power. It strings together the faintly remembered, the faintly imagined, the faintly discarded, which is to say race=nation gets to speak its own faint history in its own faint language. Its mere umbilical cord is hardly attached to anything at all. Hence, hardly=war.

For these five poets, a “geopolitical poetics” must be attuned to the faintest of frequencies, ranging from what Borzutzky calls “the murmurs of the rotten carcass economy” to what Sharif presents as redactions latent with possible speech acts. For it is at these frequencies that the most precarious voices speak and might be heard. Such a poetics must also be attuned to various materials and languages often deemed unpoetic. For Choi, photographs and collages; for Briante, the Dow; for Sharif, the military dictionary; for Toscano, OSHA and union regulations, industrial inventories and supply chains (called, tongue-in-cheek, “The Aesthetics of Repurposing”); and for Borzutzky, fables.

In the ASAP/Journal forum “For a Global Poetics,” Walt Hunter argues for reading books such as these as variations on a global poetics. “We must undertake,” he contends, “a major revision of the premises under which poetry in general has been understood: the gap between critical global studies—the interdisciplinary critique of global capitalism—and poetic criticism must be annealed.” These books dramatize the urgency of such a critical project, even providing a template of sorts for sketching its aesthetic parameters. Poetry, Hunter observes, is “no longer ontologized by either the fiction of a lyric subject or the deconstructive possibilities of textuality, but rather by its adjacency to other language.” These books affirm this dynamic. Each can be located on the continuum of documentary poetry (which is always adjacent to, even coterminous with, other languages), as defined by Mark Nowak. Each pushes the archive’s limits, a key feature of docupoetry, as defined by Joseph Harrington. Docupoetry is thus a capacious mode, with many tools and materials, for undertaking this “major revision.” As Briante asks, “what is feeling without document?”

In testing the bond between “feeling” and “document,” Borzutzky’s title poem echoes Sharif’s silenced speech and Choi’s faint language. Focusing on children, as suits the fabulist mode, Borzutzky merges into a dystopian “bedtime story for the end of the world” the Holocaust and the present refugee and migrant crises in Syria and along the US-Mexico border. To this end, he has revised the poem for video performance. Set to a muted episode of Speedy Gonzales, the looping sentences are vintage Borzutzky:

There was only one gag, says the rabbi, as he tucks his children into bed. So the soldiers took turns passing the filthy thing back and forth between the mouths of the two prisoners. The mother and the son licked each other’s slobber off the dirty rag that had been in who knows how many other mouths.

You love to write about this, don’t you?

I am paid by the word for my transcriptions. Just one more question about the gag.

He wants to know what color the gag was, what it was made of, how many mouths had licked it. Hundred, thousands, tens of thousands?

They used their belts to bind them by the waist to the small cage they were trapped in.

Everything reminds me of a story about an ape captured on a boat by a group of European soldiers who showed him how to become human by teaching him how to spit and belch.

Everything is always about the performance of becoming human.

Observing a newly processed refugee, the rabbi says: “I have seen those blue jeans before.”

At times like this, he thinks: I can say just about anything right now.

This is, after all, a bedtime story for the end of the world.

“The performance of becoming human” is defined by the imitation of guttural effluvia, diminishing the human capacity for language, which like spitting and belching emerges from the throat and lips. The poem ends with a direct address: “But seriously, friends: // What do you make of this darkness that surrounds us?” Coming after the narrator’s pop culture allusions—to Speedy Gonzales, Karate Kid, Phil Collins’s “Illegal Alien”—Borzutzky exhorts readers: attune to the dark, ignore “the bucket of murmuring shit that is the unitedstatesian night,” and perform humanity synaesthetically by listening for the light.

II. Touch

Unlike hearing, which frequently registers through eerily disembodied sounds and voices, in these books the sense of touch is intimately embodied. Together, their tactile poetries emphasize the body in pain and under duress, enduring exhaustion, war, and extralegal violence, in particular police brutality and torture. The bodies in these books broadly fit the two taxonomies structuring The Performance of Becoming Human: “authoritative bodies” and “data bodies.” These suggestive categories divide bodies with agency (and those who act on behalf of the powerful) from those subject to the agency of others. On one hand, the agents of the bank, the corporation, the state, the police, the army, the media. These figurations dramatize one of Hunter’s guiding questions for mapping a global poetics: “Who are the agents promoting particular flows, maintaining the priority of certain circuits over others, diverting or shutting down routes, installing checkpoints?” On the other hand, there are bodies to be used, applied, implemented, marshaled, assessed, processed, and modified, like “data.” The proliferating substitutions of modifiers in place of “data” in The Performance symbolize the present multitude of abject, disposable subjects. Whereas the most common “body” in these books is “immigrant,” their most salient, shared “data body” is “child”/“children.” Tellingly, none of the thirty-four instances of “child”/“children” in The Performance—not including “kid(s),” “boy(s),” and “girl(s)”—modifies “body”/“bodies.” So while “children” figuratively stand alone, occupying the subjectivity of nouns, never the dependency of adjectives, by definition they cannot be “authoritative bodies,” though they may grow into them.

It is relatively unusual in contemporary North American poetry for children to inhabit poems as they do in these collections. With the exception of Briante, who writes about her infant daughter, these are not parenthood poems. (In contrast, see Stephen Burt’s review of the “new” fatherhood poems and one of Carmen Giménez Smith’s motherhood poems.) Rather, these books are populated with and unsettled by children, and not just in the sense that children act as rhetorical devices. They explore the ways in which children are incorporated into the ideology of the neoliberal state, how they’re conceived by capitalism, disciplined by the state, and deported or shot dead when they’re deemed expendable. In LOOK, Sharif reflects on her childhood as an Iranian Muslim immigrant. “EXPELLEE” contains paratactic sentence fragments torqued into couplets, excepting the third sentence, which uses the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to depict the sick, vulnerable five-year old as a synecdoche of the “war on terror”:

Chest films taken at the clinic. The doctor’s softly

splintered popsicle stick. By five, I knew I was

a health threat. The daylong waits, the predawn lines.

Stale taste of toothpaste and skipped breakfast.

The No and Next metronome of INS. Numbered windows,

numbered tongues hanging out of red dispensers

you pull at the butcher shop. The ground meat left out

for strays, the sewing needles planted in it.

The last poem of LOOK is “DRONE,” which is comprised of seventy-four utterances that begin with floating colons. A “drone” is a remotely operated device, but it is also a sound—deep, unmodulated, unrelenting. The poem’s penultimate utterance combines both meanings: “we have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter.” In contrast to this forced, drone-like dirge with which adults calm frightened children, The Performance’s children sing to the adults (and themselves) to ward off impending doom: “To avoid the hole / the children must sing sweetly, softly.”

Like LOOK, Hardly War reminds us that the wars of modernity affect children most profoundly, and that our refugee and migrant “crises” are in fact better understood as the displacement, internment, and abuse of children. Here’s Choi introducing “Hardly Opera,” a polyvocal opera based on interviews with her father, who photographed wars in Korea and Vietnam:

As a child, I believed that the people and things that my father photographed followed him and lived inside his camera. I wished that I, too, could follow my father and live inside his camera. [. . .] Perhaps in many ways the entire book is about the experience of the Photograph not as the Spectator or the Operator, to use Barthes’s terms, but as the daughter of the Operator living inside the Camera with Spectrum, with History. Everything and everyone inside the Camera are mad. They also enact their wish, the wish to return to the world.

Choi’s figure of simultaneous diminishment and enlargement places the child on the frontlines of History. A thin lens and her father’s guile barely insulate her from wars beyond the glass, while only a will “to return to the world” momentarily eludes her capture by the “mad” technology of representation.

Explosion Rocks Springfield, unsurprisingly, takes the most oblique approach to children, though as in the above passage from Hardly War, Springfield’s children seem to “live inside” the rationalizing and paradoxically “mad” frame of the camera lens. One sequence of poems displays three versions of the procedures shared by utility technicians, adult performers, and day care teachers, respectively. Placed side by side, excerpts from the first and third amplify their echoes:

“Bleed it here, the gas—watch.               “Spread out the ice like this.

Gauge zero’s—see, both ends.                 Twelve chocolate, three white milks.

Cinch it—there, till it pools.                       Watch how I wedge them in.

Gauge should read 25.                                 Roster should say fifteen.

Double tap it, why not.                                 Do a roll call, why not.

Eight, has to be eight feet                           Four, only four can go

O2 tanks and this one                                  This bathroom and that one.

Or five feet wall between.                         That’s this center’s regs, right?

Now, that’s premise regs, right?            Other ones have their own.

C.O.’s have their own regs.                         Counties, each one decides.

Zone, each one has its reg.                        Similar norms, you’ll see.

Same principal, you’ll see.                         Yeah, check for leaky ones

Double strap it, always.                              These cartons, they rip, tons.”

These trucks, they shake, awful.”

The principles of managerial rationality central to neoliberal governance don’t distinguish among day cares, strips clubs, and public utilities. Toscano’s sequence thus offers a corollary on the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal’s observation of capitalism’s disregard for use values: “bread or napalm / the product doesn’t matter.” Neither, Toscano shows, does the process. Like Cardenal’s documentary poems, moreover, Toscano’s book inventories the strange languages generated in the capitalist incubator. For Toscano, the poem functions as supply chain, connecting bodies, processes, and products, with their specs and measurements. Yet this technical language is disrupted by onomatopoeia and cartoon diction, as in this Flintstones phrase: “frabba jabba: regulations, municipalities, nation states, civilizations, procreative policing for millennia, fire and ritual, thus stripping, though not ‘stripping’ per se, when care, thence.” Here, multiple valences of “strip,” including industrial and manufacturing meanings, accompany elevated, multisyllabic diction—equal parts nonsense, bureaucratese, and academicspeak.

Of these books, The Market Wonders most directly plumbs the consequences for children of state and market power. Briante’s explorations are twofold, though entwined: one is intimate (her daughter), the other sweeping (children generally, especially of color), though each is philosophically inclined and politically astute. One achievement of The Market Wonders is Briante’s extended meditation on how the Market, once personified, views children. The results are often surprisingly subtle. Whereas Borzutzky depicts the Market as brute force, Briante has us follow the Market during his daily rituals, observations, and calculations. Much of the book’s language is pedagogical: “I want to teach my child to shed numbers like a skin in the summer, in the shimmering heat of the ever-warming summer.” In the tour-de-force concluding poem “Mother is Marxist,” Briante writes, “The market scans my child, calculates pecuniary value.” While she thinks through the possibility of mothers as figures of resistance to capitalist valuation, the poem ultimately concerns the lives of children whose “market values” are diminished by citizenship status, religion, and skin color, who are shunted into marginalized neighborhoods and failing schools. Their lives are defined by precarity and their internalization of their worth. “In such places,” she writes, “children learn to read / their market value.” But one measure is most efficient and chilling: “A police officer flaunts his gun and in the amount of time your child is afforded / to pull their hand from their pocket // you can learn their market value.”

III. Sight

These books imagine the challenge of hearing as the problem of accounting for silence, the unheard, the faint. For the sense of touch, it is how to document the feeling of embodied alienation, of having a “mere umbilical cord [that] is hardly attached to anything at all.” For the sense of sight, the necessity of somehow recording the unseen is an urgent epistemological problem. Although critical attention is often devoted to social media’s hypervisibility, wherein so much is recorded, from police shootings to cat tricks, these poets attend to what isn’t seen: drones, Guantánamo, CIA “black” sites, migrant “family” detention centers, Homan Square (the Chicago Police Department’s secret interrogation site, the subject of Borzutzky’s “Lake Michigan Merges into the Bay of Valparaiso, Chile”), gated communities, corporate boardrooms. That is, places where cameras are forbidden. Hardly War, LOOK, The Market Wonders, and, to a lesser extent, The Performance, refer repeatedly to cameras and photographs. Briante’s and Sharif’s epigraphs from Muriel Rukeyser signal engagement with her documentary practice, which envisions poetry going where cameras can’t. Just as often, however, these books problematize the camera as a figure of illumination. In this sense, Sharif’s title, which comes from the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, calls attention to the ways that the camera, as a way to look at something, can be misleading, even violent. “Look” is defined there: “In mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence.”

This euphemistic definition is brutal. If I’m reading correctly, the phrase “is receptive of an influence” can be rendered transparently as will blow a child’s legs off. It isn’t Sharif’s style to make this move; her redactions underscore how her poetry reveals violence in hints, glances, insinuations. What we don’t see conceals the horror. In contrast, Borzutzky’s plainspoken fables uncover how euphemisms of power are cloaked in propagandistic images:

The children sit on the sofa placed perfectly in a picturesque location on the river. The dogs are arranged so that they rest in front of the sofa. The photographer asks the children to smile so that the rest of the world can see how well we treat the displaced people.

Do you want to see what you look like, the photographer says to the children.

The children look at their images without recognition, stuck as they are in the fantasy life of the economists.

Long-time Borzutzky readers will find The Performance covering similar ground as in previous books (he admits this fact late in the collection), and sentences like these as recursive, deft, and sinuous as ever. But at half the length, The Performance is suffused with more breath and energy. In preparing us to think of the body as a camera that requires light to function, “Let Light Shine Out of Darkness” provides the most memorable opening of any book I read in 2016:

I live in a body that does not have enough light in it

For years, I did not know that I needed to have more light

Once, I walked around my city on a dying morning and a decomposing body approached me and asked why I had no light

I knew this decomposing body

All that remained of it were teeth, bits of bone, a hand

It came to me and said: There is no light that comes out of your body

I did not know at the time that there should have been light in my body

It’s not that I am dead

It’s not that I am translucent

It’s that you cannot know you need something if you do not know it is missing

Which is not to say that for years I did not ask for this light

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

I said: I think I need for something blue or green to shine from my rib cage

These books all provide energizing encounters with luminous, oneiric languages alerting us to the idea “that you cannot know you need something if you do not know it is missing.” This notion pinpoints the raison d’être both of poetry and corporate marketing. Thus understood, you can’t get far in The Performance before the light is eclipsed, often by stand-up routines that call to account the levity transecting these serious books. For instance, after this passage, the narrator interjects: “Did you hear the one about the illegal immigrant who electrocuted his employee’s genitals?”

Briante’s interest in what it means to “look” within the neoliberal surveillance state is likewise focused on light, especially its sources, movements, and attendant risks. The Market Wonders thematizes and formally resembles a stock ticker, a “bottom line” of sports scores, and the Times Square scroll of news and ads. Briante thereby examines what’s in the lights, alternately illuminated and concealed in flows of data and capital. She addresses how this flow relates to poetry:

A poem moves as does the Dow influenced by a variety of factors and events: mergers, oil spills, revolutions, suffering. Sometimes what does not move tells the story. I like poems that go to prisons and coal mining towns.

Alluding here (“poems that go”) to C.D. Wright’s One Big Self, Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, and Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary establishes a personal archive and stages an imperative to widen the poem’s aperture, to let in more light, more sources, more flow:

The archive is wide. The poem accepts yellow leaves, guide stars, a crop failing, my milk coming in. We need the aerial photograph and microscopic slides as well as something beyond our personal viewfinders.

For Briante, what the poem “accepts” and “need(s)” most of all is money. “I wish more poets would write about money,” she laments. Although she’s being literal, “money” also stands in for many things deemed improper subjects for poetry, such as the Dow, OSHA regulations, torture, drones, all the things “beyond our personal viewfinders.”

“Today, the links between poetry and finance,” Walt Hunter concludes, “are found not so much in the architectures of poetic form as in the rhetoric poets employ, question, or discard.” Daniel Borzutzky, Susan Briante, Don Mee Choi, Solmaz Sharif, and Rodrigo Toscano “employ, question, [and] discard” the rhetoric of global power in its shape-shifting instantiations, from the Pentagon to Bank of America. Their accounts of precarity dramatize the search for ways to assign value to our lives and to the lives of others—children, most vitally—that are beyond the logic of markets and militaries. Their books are urgent warning flares from a very dark year.