Poet Daniel Borzutzky’s newest collection, Lake Michigan, out from the University of Pittsburgh Press last month, is his latest in a series that explores the underbelly of government, capital, and the privatizing, punitive regime of neo-liberalism—all the acts of violence that uphold current systems of power but that we've largely agreed to ignore. Its predecessor, The Performance of Becoming Human, won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2016. (Full disclosure: I am a former employee of The Wylie Agency, which represents Borzutzky.)
In an essay for The Poetry Foundation, Borzutzky explained the motivation behind his recent collections. "If I have any idea why I write poems, and I'm not sure I do," he wrote, "I might guess ... I write poems in order to expose what a neoliberal inferno is like ... who it eats, who it shits out, who it absorbs, who it refuses to absorb, what it kills, how it kills, why it kills, under what conditions it kills, how much money it uses to kill, what it smells like, what it makes its citizens smell like, what it does to the brain and the body of the people it hates and loves."
Born in Pittsburgh to Chilean parents, Borzutzky now lives in Chicago. In his words, he’s "a falso-Chileno living in a Chilean province called Chicago," a nod to the deep connections between the two places. From the 1950s to the '70s, University of Chicago economists trained a group of Chileans to privatize and deregulate; later, these policies would find their way back to their city of origin.
Lake Michigan is set in an imaginary prison camp on the shores of that great lake, a piece of fantasy embedded in an uncomfortably familiar socio-political landscape: police brutality, rising anti-immigrant sentiment, and the "savage bourgeois" who are content to ignore any violence that doesn't happen in their own backyard. Even then, Borzutzky half-jokes, they'll explain it away: "They say one broken body in my backyard doesn't count for anything...."
The 19 poems in the collection are stark and simply constructed. Their building blocks are short, familiar verbs and pronouns: "beat," "die," "sing," "they," "us." With long lines that make complete sentences, the poems are deceptively prose-like. But instead of building on one another in a coherent way, as lines in prose traditionally do, these lines are connected by a twisted, perverse logic. It's the logic of the interrogator, the bureaucrat, and the fascist—a logic that has gained new life in the Trump era.
"They said I was illegal," Borzutzky writes. "They said I was an immigrant / They said I was an illegal immigrant who roamed the streets in a gang / They said I raped people /... They said I didn't speak the right language / They said my boss exploited me and I tried to kill him / They said my boss treated me well and I tried to kill him / They said my heart was dark."
One reason these poems feel so stark is that they strictly limit our access to the speaker's interior life. An "I" speaks, but glimpses of his mind are almost non-existent: There's no stream of consciousness offering a shortcut to empathy. Rather, the "I" tends to limit his speech to descriptions of violence and reaction: "He asked me why I couldn't keep my balance / He hit me when I tried to keep my balance / He spat on me when I fell to the floor / He kicked me when I fell to the floor."
The "I" often melds into a "we," and punishment is received as a collective body. When the first-person speaker is asked to describe the constituents of this collective "we," he "points to the list of the names of missing people." He's binding himself to the many kinds of disappearing bodies that appear in the collection: predominantly black Chicagoans, taken to the secret Homan Square interrogation center and held without the knowledge of family members or a lawyer; migrants who vanish on desert journeys or into detention centers; public servants; and dissidents "disappeared" by authoritarian governments, as under the Pinochet regime in Chile. "I"'s body dies many times without dying, just as individual bodies die but the body politic survives.
"I think that survival must be vulgar," Borzutzky writes, offering a challenge to the prevailing neoliberal logic that we survive—or perish—on our own. "Vulgar" can mean common, or related to the common people; it can also refer to common or vernacular language, the kind Borzutzky uses in his poems. A "vulgar" idea is one in common circulation, though one that isn't necessarily held in high esteem by the upper classes. One such idea, held in common by Borzutzky’s collective, undying "we," is that we depend on one another for survival. In his telling, the powerful seek instead to transform life into brutal competition.
Borzutzky reminds us that "at one point in this life we were something other than what the bureaucrats knew us to be"; and even as they're beaten, tortured, and imprisoned, his collective "we" continues to "sing about the many ways there are to love and we refuse to collapse into nothing." They refuse to accept an existence as "privatized bodies," shorn from family, community, and social bonds.
"We live in the blankest of times," is a refrain that echoes through the collection. Blankest, as in featureless and empty: Picture "crate #17," where our speaker is kept before being shipped "across the border to the financiers who own me." But blankness also offers an opportunity: Picture the blank page, or the pointed typographical pauses within individual lines, ready to be inscribed with something new. "How much of me do they own," "I" wonders, inviting us to imagine the components of humanity—blood, soul, or private suffering—that could escape capture by the wealthy.
There is no easy optimism to be found in this collection, and even less trust in the power of poetry to make suffering meaningful or beautiful. In fact, through heavily ironic uses of simile, Borzutzky critiques the idea that poetry could ever do any such thing. "And a massacre at a Black church is like a massacre at a Black church," he writes. "And a massacre at an elementary school is like a massacre at an elementary school / And the nazis with torches are like nazis with torches / And the police who kill are like police who kill."
Lake Michigan is hard to read, and harder still to enjoy. It's the only collection of poetry to have ever given me nightmares—twice. It makes readers confront the worst stuff of headlines, and the violence that's too commonplace to make it into the headlines. Some readers may believe poetry should be a space of escapism or refuge instead.
Others may wish that Borzutzky offered solace in the form of praise for resilience, hope, or beauty. He doesn't. The only time the word "beauty" appears in the collection, it comes from the mouth of the "Chicago liberal [who] gives birth to the fascist": "At dusk they line us up and tell us about the beauty of the trees the beauty of the / leaves ... the beauty of our hate and fear."
But as climate change accelerates, inequality multiplies, and xenophobia hardens across the globe, Borzutzky's central concern—how to preserve a "we" capable of surviving this "neoliberal inferno"—is pressing and crucial. As he told the Chicago Tribune,"I think it's hopeful to write poetry about how awful the world is."
For our grotesque times, Borzutzky offers difficult, grotesque poetry with only the slimmest opening for optimism. In his final words, Borzutzky exclaims in seeming triumph, "We live in the blankest of times!"