When It Regards Poetry: On Anne Boyer's "A Handbook of Disappointed Fate"
Anne Boyer | A Handbook of Disappointed Fate | Ugly Duckling Presse | May 1, 2018 | 240 Pages
Despite all technocratic prognostication to the contrary, the resurgence of leftist politics in the Midwest has suggested that the conventional wisdom about the electoral geography of America—coastal blue flanking heartland red—is finally a thing of the past. The problem with the past, though, is its inertia, just as the problem with the future is its tendency to outrun the present; with industry and institutions as decimated as they are, whatever newfound sense of hope there might be finds its match in an equally strong sense of disrepair.
So it’s a particular accomplishment of Kansas City poet Anne Boyer’s collection of essays, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, to pose questions of hope in terms of that ruin, as questions of people who have nothing to rely on other than one another and their own desires. What sets Boyer apart from writers like her isn’t just that her work retains a political edge, refusing to refashion those frustrations into literature proper. It’s also that genre itself is always in question when it comes to her writings—is it essay or poetry, aesthetic or critical? How can writing resist its own passivity as a consumable object? As a question of cultural economy, it’s the classic artist’s lament about the commodification of their art, but Boyer prefers to ask the political form of the question: how does one write in good faith when words themselves are a condition of immiseration?
These questions Boyer already poses in Garments Against Women, the 2015 collection that secured her current stature in literary circles. “Not writing is writing,” Boyer explains there, and it is the demands of textual production that prove the impossibility of a writing that is not always partly attached to the body frustrated and disfigured by life and labor. The essays of her latest collection, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, seem to come together around that copula’s converse: writing is not writing. If there’s an argument to be found in this collection, it’s the first essay, “No,” that poses it: “Refusal, which is only sometimes a kind of poetry, does not have to be limited to poetry, and turning the world upside down, which is often a kind of poetry, doesn’t have to be limited to words.”
What’s striking about A Handbook of Disappointed Fate is just how closely this book of essays hews to the voice she has already established in her poetry. It’s hard to say what could distinguish her essays from her verses. The former, often free of rhythm and meter, often spill out into verse paragraphs which aren’t all that different from unusually well-crafted paragraphs of prose, except for the awareness of reading them out of a book of an accomplished poet. If these are essays, one gets the sense that Boyer’s definition of an essay is just poetry spilled out onto the page, an excess of words that can only be contained by the page’s margins. How words spill out onto the world, and conversely how the world hems in the word, which Garments figures as a limit to the possibility of writing, is what here explains their capacity to open onto one another. “No,” again: “There is a lot of room for a meaning inside a ‘no’ spoken in the tremendous logic of a refused order of the world.” Why? Something to do with words and their political economy: “they are cheap, ordinary, portable, and generous…”
With all the talk of the disjuncture between word and meaning, between text and writing, it’s easy to shunt Boyer’s writing into a tradition of philosophical criticism that insists on the hard kernel of negative dialectics, or the aporetic impossibility of a practice of writing adequate to the ills of the world. Those are expensive words, and watching a professional critic perform that value-addition in real time is a sight to behold. But as far as words go, it’s characteristic of hers—cheap, ordinary, portable, and generous—to resist being reduced to the expression of philosophical concepts. One gets the sense that the references to the philosophical canon should be skated across rather than mined for conceptual data. There’s more here than the easy critical gesture. That’s why it’s more exciting to read her as a cover artist, as in the essay “Formulary on a New Feeling,” which her footnote describes as a retelling of a situationist text but extends further back to embrace a history of social planning that starts with utopian socialist Charles Fourier (of whom she can’t be unaware, as her citations elsewhere evince). These moments are exciting because they serve as direct evidence of a poetics that doesn’t foreclose upon its own premises. Those citations are necessary only in the negative, as points to touch off of, to register that this new thing that she’s given us isn’t wholly new, it has a history, and yet that history comes here almost to nothing because it determines nothing about our reading of the text.
Despite all of Boyer’s bluster and the constant citations of Marxist thought, neither her essays nor her poetry should be read as commentary on that tradition. She has nothing to contribute there. I mean this as a compliment, keeping in mind what George Scialabba once had to say: “I’m not sure that Occupy—or the American citizenry as a whole, if it ever rouses itself to reassert its sovereignty—will really need Marx.” Nothing’s more tiring than the constant quibbling over the modes of production and the determinations of class consciousness, to say nothing of the protocols of ideology critique. Leave the prescriptions of the last century and a half where they belong; there’s a different way to ask the social question. Boyer’s questions are less about the means of production than about the means of exchange: the exchange of commodities, to be sure, but therefore also the exchange of thought, and hence the possibility for poetry to express something other than their formal exhaustion under market logic. Hence the refusal, which amounts to a political claim, to justify her principles of composition. Consider how she casts the local Occupy in Handbook’s “Kansas City” (the first one):
“When I ask some people “Why?” one person says it is God and another says it is the Buddha and another says it is the great feminine force of the earth and another says it is Ron Paul and another says it is human reason and another says it is the greedy thieves and bullshit and some guys talk about being at Zuccotti Park and some other guys go talk to unions and one person tells me it was the tear-gassing of the young women and another person says it is so parents can have more time with their kids.”
What we have here is neither an explanation of these reasons nor an account of their affinity. These people’s reasons are partial, not partisan, and it’s only the breathless breadth of Boyer’s sentence that lets them hang together. There’s no exhausting the answers that could be given here, no way of terminating the sentence, because there’s no reason not to tack on another response.
Moments like this are why Anne Boyer should be considered a properly American poet: not because she captures a national essence, but because she captures a democratic one. There’s no shared experience of belonging, only people’s own ordinary desires and indignations, strung lightly across the meter of a line. To borrow Bonnie Honig’s appropriately ambivalent formula, those moments are representative of democracy in disrepair. Is democracy itself ruined? Or does it continue as an activity amidst ruins? If it’s true that when the chips are down, we won’t really need Marx, it’s because we will have writers like Boyer who, laboring in a world in want of repair, might give a sleeping sovereign a start.