Garments Against Women
It’s hard to figure out exactly how to praise Anne Boyer, not because she doesn’t leave copious evidence of brilliance, diligence, wit, and ethical rigor, but because I can think of no poet who has less interest in or greater distrust of the ideas of praise, brilliance, and all those wee glittering bourgeois items to be found in the gift bag of literary acclaim. Boyer’s writing is rewarding in the ways it smites the reader for wanting to be rewarded, but the exchange is never a hierarchical one; she’s right there with the reader, thoughtfully guilty even as she makes her charges, assessments, and accusations, most of which manifest as the best questions anyone could possibly ask of the bad situation that is the present moment. Garments Against Women is a rich thicket, one bent of making the cost of its making apparent, but also making those costs worth more than just that report. Indeed, it questions the very idea of cost—of money, time, effort or sanity—measure of experience.
If it’s hard to determine the appropriate register of praise for this work, that difficulty dwindles in comparison to the difficulties Boyer forces language to admit, including the inadequacies of language itself. Out of respect for this insufficiency, aspects of Boyer’s diction suggest a tone somewhere between cautiously vague and authoritatively clinical: she’ll use “attachment” to describe a complex of feelings normally described with words more sentimentally rich; “arousal” for the enactment or inhabitation of those feelings. She often makes the logic behind these replacements explicit:
What is the difference between happiness and pornography? I mean what is the difference between literature and photography? It would be easy at first to confuse that which makes us happy and that which makes us aroused.
Both the terminology and the method of this passage approximate science or history as a form of science: fundamentally impersonal, driven by inquiry, concerned with distinctions, with getting things right. None of these ambitions—happiness, pornography, or photography—remotely impersonal, of course; Boyer’s use of “I mean” immediately reveals that this is an actual person using a method, not a perfect instantiation of the method itself. The adoption of clinical remove is the desperation of someone in all ways and at all times bottled, baffled, or battered by the systemic conditions that infect their own analyses. A book like Garments Against Women isn’t something that gets written because the writer has a lot of faith in how and why things get written in the first place; it’s a record of the conditions that make it impossible to write.
What are these conditions, that make writing impossible for the person of Anne Boyer, and what are these conditions that make living impossible for so many? Look, their signature attribute is that whatever the conditions are, neither she nor we can get out of them, and the belief that we can is part and parcel of the trunk of the trap itself. Generally or particularly, the conditions look like this: hardship, which is neither just nor fair. We know it is unjust because it is distributed unevenly, so conspicuously unevenly that only a fool or a churl could regard the pattern of injustice and not immediately identify which groups were targeted and why. For example, from “Venge-Text”:
There’s a man. He tells me he does not like the version of the story in which he is like Simon Legree who ties me down to the railroad tracks. This is because he is like Simon Legree who ties me down to the railroad tracks. He is the man who looks at the blue sky and says “Do not remember this blue sky as blue.”
Despite the reality of the sky, that it is blue, a woman with any interior is trumped by a man with any exterior.
This is an elegant and funny and infuriating example of a dynamic that, if we extrapolate out from the initial scene, perfectly encapsulates a mechanism of injustice. Any member of those Boyer calls “the un-free” could offer an equivalent, whether the locus of oppression is gender or race or class or any of many other markers.
But scenes like these show inequity in addition to injustice, because even if the outcomes were distributed randomly, the conditions themselves are paradoxical, perverse, brutalizing.
For anyone with a mind to go looking, our social order presents intimate and infinite opportunities for righteous complaint. An encouraging plenty of contemporary poetry concerns itself with naming these systemic injustices. But one of the most difficult of the system’s traps to avoid is the temptation to describe the condition of the prison while also presenting a perspective that seems… free. I’m suspicious of any criticism that suggests that any condition that isn’t malignant enough to prevent its articulation can’t really be that malignant at all. But I’m equally suspicious of work that leaves no apparent evidence of the effect of the problem it indicts. Craft that so perfectly sunders itself from subject privileges the very idea of making, and the hazards in that idealization are abundant. And contradictory. Especially regarding its effects on our attitude about subjects altogether. Boyer neatly notes this in an examination of how to write about things as things,
But what you really asked was another question: is it possible to write about objects—way things look and feel, the garments on bodies and in furniture in the gardens and in the rooms without somehow also provoking a desire to acquire more things, or even if one writes about making things it is possible to write about making things without also provoking desire for them?
It’s just as worth asking if writing itself doesn’t create a sort of narcotic aesthetic that inevitably comes at the expense of the thing written about, regardless of whether the thing is material or abstract. If, for example, I want to tell you about the exhausting cost of living in constant fear, there’s always the suspicion that if I’m capable of articulating the fear at all, then it can’t really be that bad; I may even create a pleasure in or a desire for representations of the very thing I’m trying to put forward as not just undesirable but unbearable. It’s a paradox: How do you talk about—through, during, about—your jaw perpetually broken and wired shut? Silence is an option, but one into which it’s possible to project anything, up to and including an implication that neutralizes the motivation to remain silent.
Some attempt to solve this problem in gestural terms, or (in poetic language) via the lyric. I sympathize with this approach, but it only works insofar as the lyric is sometimes assumed exempt from the bird’s-eye paradox elaborated above. The hope of this exemption is best expressed in the dark thrill of the fragment of Akhmatov’s “Requiem” where she asserts her ability to describe those horrors that allegedly defeats those lacking requisite poetic powers. This places poetry— writing, really—“above” both its content and whatever occasions it. I don’t think it is. I think “the world” is brutalizing; I think it manufacturers cruelty by teaching and inflicting cruelty. And I don’t think poetry is immune to this cycle. Or—Boyer herself writes—
Poetry was the wrong art for people who love justice. It was not like dance music. Painting is the wrong art for people who love justice. It is not like science fiction. Epics are the dance music of the people who love war. Information is the poetry of the people who love war.
Twitter and text messaging may not be the best way to gauge the resonance of any given sliver of poetry, but I have seen the sentence “Poetry is the wrong art for people who love justice” recur many, many times, and if nothing else, this suggests that whatever suspicions Boyer has about the possibilities of justice and/or poetry, she’s not alone in having them. As she says elsewhere, “There is no superiority in making things or in re-making things,” a judgment that encompasses art, artificing and analysis.
But the whole sequence of claims is fascinating to examine, initially setting poetry and dance music as opposites only to note that love of war itself can turn dance music, nominally the genre of the justice-loving, into something poetic, something ill-suited to justice. Even poetry itself has a dark doppelganger: information. Subjection to and experience of self–as-data is yet another way of being un-free, but this too raises questions about how one can name a problem without furthering it, since lack of information (or resistance to information) is no better than subordination to information:
Often what is perceived by one party to be an over-reaction to circumstances is the case of that one party not having sufficient information because the information being reacted to is the inadmissible information of the other.
To feel deeply, or to admit to feeling deeply, is also inadmissible, though not as inadmissible as to admit to having been un-free.
If paradox appears here as a pattern, it might help to know that substantial portions of Garments Against Women simply list all the books it isn’t, all the things Boyer isn’t writing, all the reasons why you are reading something composed mainly of elaborations of what she hasn’t done, doesn’t want to do, doesn’t believe can be done. Boyer is extraordinarily good at painting herself into corners with a minimal number of brushstrokes. For example,
I think of all those things conferring authority and exclude them one by one, an experiment in erasing importance. I thought there would be no better game to play than the game set up already, the game called “voice in a crowd of voices.” I didn’t mark a piece of paper all month long. Here, an erasure of whatever partakes of dominion inevitably results in silence, but less radical efforts to avoid reproducing tyranny are no more effective; the downshift in scale from “Some of us write because there are problems to be solved” to the observation that “Sometimes there are specific, smaller problems” identifies something true in that particular, detailed, person-sized problems do in aggregate constitute larger, general problems. But also: trying to solve those smaller problems discretely can grow as absurdly inadequate as trying to solve them in toto, all at once.
And yet. The book that she is not writing and cannot write is the one we are reading; the lives that seem impossible to live are the ones we are living. Impossibility doesn’t prevent being.
It’s impossible for me to see so many problems articulated so precisely without wondering how to solve them, but since all efforts to solve them run, at the very least, the risk of reproducing them and, at the very worst, the risk of inviting new and even worse problems, Boyer doesn’t really try. Or, if she tries, she does so by attempting to do the one thing that does seem possible, which also happens to be the one thing central to bigger and bolder efforts to name and fight these injustices: she tries to communicate what it’s like to live with them and under them, the task so basic and elemental that the paradox of its possible enactment is the very first problem we started with. She writes because she can’t; not being able to do it is her technique.
The key, here, is Boyer’s understanding that the agents of injustice are large, both in that they are distributed widely and composed amorphously or concretely (depending on what serves power at any given moment). But the basic unit of injustice is the self, the person who is harmed, reduced, compromised, imprisoned. Knowing that subjection to injustice creates suffering, but that confronting the asymmetry that enables injustice with a practice that lends itself so treacherously to asymmetry is also a kind of suffering. Poetry is the wrong art for people who love justice, but once you know this, what’s left? In lieu of suffering, happiness? No:
And happiness had always seemed the province of the idiotic and the immoral, which is why I wanted it so-much so-often so-all-of-the-time. There are many things I do not like to read, mostly accounts of the lives of the free.
Boyer puts the problem as simply as she can:
I wanted to be ordinary like an animal. I thought it was my writing that was making me sick.
But even assuming an abandonment of writing could solve one of her problems, it would not and cannot solve the bigger one, which is that while the individual is the unit of suffering, no individual can ignore the reality of other individuals without reproducing the harm she is trying to avoid for herself. Again, one can change what one says by electing silence, but into that silence may rush more of the voices in and of the crowd, and in those voices one will hear what one refuses to say, thereby obviating both the ethos and the utility of remaining silent. Or, as Boyer says of herself, “I am the dog who can never be happy because I am imagining the unhappiness of other dogs.”
Maybe the paradox resolves itself that simply. Happiness foreclosed, but imagination is eternally active, even if resolutely committed to the real, and whatever the real compels that imagination to do.
This concept is brought into action at one point in Garments Against Women when Boyer narrates a brief conversation with her daughter.
Around that time my daughter and I had this exchange:
Anne, imagine if the world had nothing in it.
Do you mean nothing at all—darkness—a world without objects?
I mean a world without things: no houses, chairs or cars. A world with only people and trees and dirt.
What do you think would happen?
People would make things. We would make things with trees and dirt.
I think it’s fascinating that the terms of this hypothetical are, for her daughter, so social. She isn’t wondering what she would do in this world she’s imagining; she’s wondering what people would do, and the assumption is that she would do as they did, as would anyone, as will everyone. It’s possible to regard this belief that we would make things with trees and dirt as a grim, prophetic distillation of the impulse that would inevitably result in houses, chairs and cars, but for me, what matters isn’t whether that fatalistic interpretation is accurate. I’m struck more by the equipoise of the belief itself. Whether stupid or dangerous or beautiful or necessary, we would make things. Whether constrained or compelled, free or un-free. We were never going to be free to decide whether or not we are free, and that will inevitably change what and how we make. But the things made thereby—like Garments Against Women, the book that is because it can’t be—sometimes the expansion of what freedom we can have. Limits challenged or eased or even broken, by living and making right up against them.
Recent reviews by
- L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems Elisa Gabbert
August 19, 2017
- Trouble the Water Derrick Austin
February 20, 2017
- A Small Story About the Sky Alberto Ríos
May 4, 2016
- Garments Against Women Anne Boyer
December 6, 2015
- Playtime William Fuller
July 22, 2015
- End of the Sentimental Journey: A Mystery Poem Sarah Vap
May 31, 2014
- The Self Unstable Elisa Gabbert
April 8, 2014
- Hymn for the Black Terrific Kiki Petrosino
December 15, 2013
- Young Tambling Kate Greenstreet
September 25, 2013
- Dear Editor: Poems Amy Newman
July 28, 2013