July 24–30, 2017
Winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry for his collection The Performance of Becoming Human, Daniel Borzutzky is a Chilean American writer and translator living in Chicago. His other poetry books are In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy, The Book of Interfering Bodies, The Ecstasy of Capitulation and the chapbook Failure in the Imagination. He has published one collection of fiction, Arbitrary Tales. His books of translation include Song for His Disappeared Love by Raul Zurita and Port Trakl by Jaime Luis Huenun. On Sunday, July 30, Borzutzky will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at the NYC Poetry Festival with Elisabet Velasquez and t’ai freedom ford.
The Privatized Waters of Dawn
The appraisers from the Chicago Police Department prod my body in the bathtub
They can’t stop coughing in my face
They want to know what street I come from
What code I speak
Who I bought my hair and skin from
What disease I hide in my veins
There are holes in my arm and the appraisers put their cigarettes in them
They don’t smoke their cigarettes
They just jam them into my arm
I have a faint idea of what it means to be alive
But almost all of my feelings have been extinguished
I feel my hand at the end of my arm
It is weightless
There are eyes floating in the air and the river won’t stop exploding
Earlier, when I was sleeping in the bathtub, I looked up at the ceiling
The little hole of a window exposed a sky the color of blood
I cried into the water and I thought about a note I needed to send to my parents
I needed to tell them my key was with a neighbor
I needed to tell them the four-digit code to my bank account
I needed to tell them that if I died in the water, if I died in the warehouse, if I died in the mud, if I died at the hand of the appraisers, there were some things I needed them to do
The city has disappeared into the privatized cellar of humanity
My street was obliterated from a love that could not be contained by mathematics or emotion
I could not sleep the night before my appointment to be deposited into the private sector
I stared out my bedroom window at 3 AM on a night I could not sleep
I was startled by a police siren
And from my window I watched the police pull a young man out of a black sedan
The driver had long hair
He was gangly and underfed and they asked him to a walk a straight line
You could see hunger in his jawbones
He walked the line perfectly
They put a light to his eye
Follow the light with your eyes, the officer said
They made him stand on one leg
They made him walk on one leg
He walked perfectly on one leg
He stood perfectly on one leg
They made him do twenty pushups
Why do I have to do twenty pushups, he asked
Because you’re a decrepit, public body, the police officer said, and you do not own yourself anymore
And the starving driver did the twenty pushups as gracefully as he could
I hid behind the blinds and I wanted to send a signal to the man who was being made to exert himself, to let him know that from here on out every institution he enters is going to be harsh, austere, inflexible
I went back to bed knowing they would put him in the privatized jail cell where he would wake up shrouded in a horrible halo of light
I went back to my bed and a voice kept shouting:
Do you speak English? Do you eat meat? Do you rub meat on your body? Do you own your own body? Do you like to eat raw organ with me? Do you like your organ maggoty? Do you want to know how you can get to the other side of the river?
The voice did not have a body
But it had a mouth
It was the biggest mouth I had ever seen
It opened its mouth and there were small animals inside of it
A dog with two heads was on its tongue and so was a newborn baby and the baby screamed:
Do you have a job? Do you have transferable skills? Do you understand the implications of your inaction? Would you prefer to be grilled, roasted or boiled?
I said: Where are your eyes?
The mouth said: Your city has disappeared, what are you still doing here?
I said: I work for the city. I was responsible for supplying the youth with degrees of economic value
But this was another life
This was another story
Now I squirm with the other bodies and together we sleep and squirm in the giant bathtubs they cage us in and we do not belong to ourselves
When we are dry we swap bits of clothing, wrinkled up rags, and we warm ourselves in towels filled with our partners’ sweat and dirt
The bureaucrats laugh at us when we talk to them
They slurp down raw oysters when we talk to them
They sink their feet into our mouths when we talk to them
They say: Poet your favorite poet from now on is my boot
The poet-boot kicks one of my teeth and I feel it fall into my mouth
I swallow my tooth and wash it down with the bath water I’ve been sleeping in for the last few days
And when day inevitably breaks I watch the morning ritual:
They take away the horizon
They take away the sky and the streets
They take away the sewers and the beaches and the river and the trees and the birds and the cats and the raccoons and the garbage
And as usual I watch from the bathtub of dawn until someone comes to conduct the daily appraisal of my body
I cost much less than my historical value and the bank has no choice but to deny the loan I need in order to buy myself back
My deflationary wounds
My privatized blood
My rotten carcass sinking into the privatized waters of dawn
—From The Performance of Becoming Human, Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Among other things, I think this poem imagines the consequences of extreme privatization: the privatization not just of prisons, public services and water supplies. It also imagines the privatization of an entire city as well as the privatization of a city’s residents, their body parts, the streets they live on and the air they breathe. Chicago—only a little more privatized than it actually is, and with an analogous level of police violence.
What are you working on right now?
Finishing up a manuscript of poem-things called Lake Michigan, centered around a prison camp on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago. Should be out and about next year.
What’s a good day for you?
Lots of reading. A little bit of writing. A really good meal with people I love. A really good piece of fruit. A really good pastry. Reading, talking and playing with my son.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I’ve spent lots of time in Brooklyn over many years. I have family and friends I visit when I go to NYC. But I don’t really know its complications. Still, it’s a place I associate with people I care about and who care about me.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
Since I arrived in Chicago almost twenty years ago, I’ve seen many different poetry communities come in and out of circulation, and I’ve also seen a kind of core poetry community that has been sticking it out now for decades. Lately, for me, a very rich one has formed around MAKE magazine and Contratiempo (a Spanish-language publication), which has centered around Spanish-language writing, and has built lasting and deep connections between writers from Mexico and Latin America.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Joe Pan, of Brooklyn Arts Press. He’s a great friend, a great person, a great writer and I was lucky enough to have him publish my book, which he worked so hard to promote, as he does for all the Brooklyn Arts books. But Joe’s activism, his care for his community, his work with hungry and homeless people, is a sign of his selflessness and bravery and compassion.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I just finished reading Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a moving, beautiful, important book about her work as an interpreter for immigrant children from Mexico and Central America stuck in the bureaucratic entanglements of our legal and judicial system. It’s a book that observes, that analyzes, that tells the truth and offers hope.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I read multiple books of poetry and nonfiction at once, but hardly ever from cover to cover. Novels I read one at a time. I prefer physical books for reading in English. I like to read prose books in Spanish digitally because of how easy it is to look up the meanings of words I might not know. Just touch the word and there’s the definition. I take lots of notes.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
To write a novel.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I used to have time to write in places that were not my home. Now, with a child and a full-time job, I rarely write outside of my house and I rarely write before 9:30–10 PM. I am writing right now on an airplane. And I have always loved writing on airplanes. Something about the containment, both being trapped on the plane as well as knowing that your time being trapped will end, is liberating.