Review: The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky

By Nicholas Hayes

Daniel-Borzutzky-Cover-FinalDaniel Borzutzky uses the word unitedstatesian, and it irritates me. The word is one I would never use in reference to the US or its citizens. It is a word that challenges the assertion of American Exceptionalism. It is a word that shows that US citizens and culture are objects with no centrality or universality. It is a humbling word that trains my tongue not to say American when I mean US. That irritant becomes shellacked with consideration and contemplation. The irritant once accepted smooths out and lets me feel a little more human for leaving behind my latent nationalist leanings.

Such abrasive strategy is one that Borzutzky uses frequently in his poems in The Performance of Becoming Human. His reliance on challenging phrases and jarring images reward the reader with a better understanding of the cynical and dehumanizing contours and limits of society. He shows how the barriers of the world dissect and mutilate individuals. Borzutzky sees the truth in people like Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live! He sees those aliens and occupiers, despite their most clever disguises. In so doing, he evokes pathos for the oppressed despite the absurdity of the oppressor.

In his titular poem, Borzutzky alludes to Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy.” The poem’s speaker says, “Everything reminds me of a story about an ape captured on a boat by a group of European soldiers who showed him how to become human by teaching him how to spit and belch.” In the story, an ape becomes an erudite and bourgeois member of European society after much work. He is not human, but he has crossed some barrier, some border which prevents him from even returning to his pre-captivity innocence. Borzutzky reminds us that after he was captured his first foray into the world of man was the sailors teaching him baser bodily functions. There is something so plaintive in this memory of the demands of assimilation. In the same poem, an imperious You declares, “There are countries in my bloody fingers. I am interested in the borders.” This interest manifests as definition and violence as separation by nation states, by the US’s terrifying obsession with immigrants and migration. Beyond this, the You’s interest serves as a reminder of the possible harm done by borders (whether geographical or psychological.)

Throughout his collection of poems, he directs the reader’s attention to national borders, bureaucratic shifts, police black sites as locations of trauma. As a US citizen (and Chicago resident), it is hard not to feel the throbbing urgency of having to examine these liminal spaces.

Borzutzky is not the first person to direct our attention to liminal spaces. Yet the spaces he draws attention to have an imminent exigency. This book is of our times and for our times. One hopes the exigency will diminish; one suspects it won’t. Perhaps such examination will allow our social wounds to form smooth, silvery scars before they become gangrenous.

The Performance of Becoming Human
By Daniel Borzutzky
Brooklyn Arts Press
ISBN 978-1-936767-46-5