"hugging the duct tape replica"

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

28 of 100: Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer (2015, Ahsahta Press)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • I learned about this book (which is a few years old) from Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace podcast. (Ann Boyer’s memoir Undying is also in my TBR pile; perhaps I’ll actually open it up to read when I am not feeling so heavy.)
  • The opening poem seems to describe both degrees of suffering and our attachment to suffering, and in this way, the rest of the collection continues conversations in which the narrator argues both for and against herself. It’s partly how Boyer is able to implicate both structures (like capitalism) and the self at the same time: systems are so internalized as to be indistinguishable from our human nature. For example, in NO WORLD BUT THE WORLD, she writes, “This brute like a shadow and a bear not a human is named survival-life. The brute is always saying something, is saying give me the labor of your body, not the work of your hands. We fall asleep in that bear’s arms.”
  • The book also argues for and against itself. Within its text, for example, the narrator questions the nature of poetry and the line: “The syntactical evidence of poetry without the frame of poetry is a crime that is so much more criminal. Or rather, if it is not in the frame of poetry, poetic syntax is evidence, mostly, or having no sense” (“NO WORLD BUT THE WORLD”). And in “MA VIE EN BLING: A MEMOIR,” the narrator confesses, “But poems weren’t written in any language I wanted to read. I thought I could maintain modesty writing prose. I wanted furniture that had been burned to resemble furniture that had been burned.”
  • The book’s form/format has helped to extend these arguments beyond its pages, as others struggle with how to label it. And of course, I just love that: having critics/publishers contort so much to define you is one way the female narrator can win. Here’s how some have tried to explain the collection:
    • “a book of mostly lyric prose”(Ahsahta Press);
    • “a book of poetry (or is it lyric prose? Essay? Must one decide?) that also turns away from poetry” (New York Times);
    • “it widens the boundaries of poetry and memoir as we know them, in ways that can be especially useful for people who distrust these genres” (The Rumpus);
    • “a book that works so hard to break down the notion of a ‘collection,’ a ‘book’ of ‘poems,’ ‘memoir’? What does it even mean to occupy the space of a book?” (Sink Review);
    • “a book of mostly lyric prose that pushes up against the boundaries of genre” (Full Stop);
    • “textual hybrid of rhythmic lyric prose and essayistic verse” (Publishers Weekly)
    • “a hybrid meditation… a freewheeling prose poem, written in coolly unspooling paragraphs that are both dense and fluid” (Prairie Schooner)
  • In addition to occupying the space between poetry and prose, the book thumbs its nose at conversations about what kind of container it is by continually being a thing within a thing: it is a series of books within a book, naming books that can’t be written but then manifesting things with those names. In other words, it’s a thing that isn’t possible but… is.

Lines I want to remember:

  • “Eventually all arousal will feel like shock.”
  • “the problem of what-to-do-with-the-information-that-is-feeling.”
  • “as if the smallest bit of drugstore blonde could alter a person’s person so that she would no longer be anxious and beleaguered and prone to many infections and tragedies and immune system over-reactions to the deep terrible of survival but would soon be wearing a fitted orange sundress with pink flowers printed on it and playing pool in a suburban bar and grill.”
  • “Wasn’t it stupid to take pleasure in the fact of being sort of well?”
  • “Everyone tries to figure out how to overcome the embarrassment of existing.”
  • “I think mostly about clothes, sex, food, and seasonal variations. I have done so much to be ordinary and made a record of this: first I was born, next I was a child, then I learned things and did things and loved and had those who loved me and often felt alone. My body was sometimes well, then sometimes unwell. I got nearer to death, as did you.”
  • “the workers walking to their strip mall jobs, the strip malls, the dumpsters behind the strip malls, the karaoke nights in the bars in the strip malls, physique training, hypertrophy, very heavy weights, Juicy Stacey, Toy Selectah, every apartment complex having its own ducks, waking each spring morning to those ducks, the stateless state of contract labor, the invisible iv also the invisible catheter, everyone hugging the duct tape replica like starving little rhesus monkeys,”
  • “The sewing book says the quality of one’s seam is really the measure of one’s character. that gets repeated a lot. That’s bad news.”
  • “a job cutting and pasting time”
  • “and when not reading and learning and working and making and caring and worrying also politics, and when not politics also the kind of medication which is consumption, of sex mostly or drunkenness…”
  • “I will soon write a long, sad book called A Woman Shopping. It will be a book about what we are required to do and also a book about what we are hated for doing.”
  • “I dreamed, wrote stories, acquired information, called my fellows to take action, fetishized parts for wholes, watched the pornography of the common disaster, submitted the spectacle of my humanity to humanity for entertainment.”
  • “Did I explain that those days were the days when the people wrote on machines that connected to machines that connected to machines that connected to people who wrote on machines? Those were the days when we believed in information.”

What others have said:

  • from the New York Times: “a sad, beautiful, passionate book that registers the political economy of literature and of life itself. … Boyer offers a self-portrait of the artist in a time of ‘indentured moods,’ debt collection, chemical spills, amid her attempts at and refusals of writing, sewing and the daily care of herself and her small daughter. … This is a deeply, quietly, savagely perverse book, ‘perverse’ in the sense of turning away: from the given, the mandated; from ‘things conferring authority,’ the logic of property, capital, productivity, the obligation to be happy, to be ‘working on yourself,’ to want things.”
  • from Nomadic Press: “Boyerā€™s writing is eloquent in its matter-of-factness, though facticity here is bent, slanted, so that the solidity and confidence of the known sloughs off like skin, exposing the subcutaneous.”
  • from Full Stop: “In these small fragments of everyday life we get something between theory and memoir, between poetry and newsfeed. Moving between the analytical and aphoristic, Garments Against Women gives us rigorous critique alongside wry humor.”
  • from Publishers Weekly: “This text is in constant upheaval, driven in equal measure by the poet’s insistent questions and by her refusals.”
  • from Prairie Schooner: “A frankly astonishing expression of great beauty, pain, and force. Like all such artifacts, it is extraordinarily resistant to summary; suffice it to say that Garments Against Women is a freewheeling prose poem, written in coolly unspooling paragraphs that are both dense and fluid, that improvises on themes of feminist identity, precarity, illness, the nature of capital, and the twin poles of production and consumerism. … The twin currents of the confessional and the analytic make for a potent voice, and the result is a document of remarkable expressiveness and force, one that combines high intellection with an unsettling sense of being in-tune with the body and the violence that both state and self can visit upon it.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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