WordCraft: The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky

BK’s NOTE: With only two exceptions, I read all the books shortlisted as 2016 National Book Award Finalists prior to the November 16 ceremony, but I never posted my thoughts about them. I intend to do that with a series of posts in the coming days.

The 2016 National Book Award-winning poetry book, The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky, describes a depressing and violent world of wars, societal dismemberment from the assault of free trade agreements, migrant crises, inequality, xenophobia, and dictatorial oligarchs.

Borzutzky’s prescription for living in this mad world is to take on a “spiritual mission in which you must get from birth to death without killing yourself … ”

But while you’re living, your body has become a prison of sorts. You’re dying and parts of you are rotting, although you may not realize it.

Your body has become a target for militarized aggression.

Your body has become feed for privatization. An object of forced feeding at other times.

And along with other people who are trying just as hard as you are to become human, you’ve become yet another potential molecule in the expanding mass incarceration universe.

An incarceration that’s just a staging area for your eventual death, or a stage where your comrades can witness your beautiful resulting flight.

Ay qué bonito es volar

Some of you may have other things to worry about other than your virtual or actual death — like whether or not Starbucks has fair trade coffee, and if your neighborhood drug store has self-checkout kiosks. You also also have dry cleaning errands to do …

The Performance of Becoming Human isn’t a book for those despised migrants seeking a land with food, more freedom and fewer flying bullets.

This book isn’t for the bureaucrats and central planners who bear some responsibility for those flying bullets.

This book is for you.

Yeah. You. And folks like you.

Folks like you who think you’ve changed the world by creating a smartphone app that can say “Justice” in 13 languages.

But while you toast glasses of Shiraz at your startup’s launch party in your office loft space — paid for by your gracious investors — you and your colleagues don’t seem to realize that you all are dying prisoners too.

Or as Borzutsky would say it:

Once, I walked around my city on a dying morning and a decomposing body approached me and asked me why I had no light.

Your first reaction when reading Borzutzky’s book may be “Wait, these are poems?” since the prose can appear as paragraphs instead of lines.

But it’s all there — literary devices and all. The poems also have connective tissue which could qualify the book to be a brand of creative (non)fiction — they seem to flow into one another.

For instance, there’s a consistent reference to bodies and rotting carcasses, not to mention migrants.

There’s also the recurring sardonic device Borzutsky uses that makes you wonder if the poems should be delivered onstage by a Vaudeville performer in a twisted standup act:

Did you hear the one about the boy who was thrown into the fire?

His charred meat was hacked up with a cleaver and fed to dogs while his parents watched from a cage.


Did you hear the one about the man they found torched in a garbage can

The police shoved a gas-soaked gag in his mouth and lit a match

The psychiatrists came quickly to counsel the police officers who were required to set the body on fire


Did you hear the one about the guy who picked up chicks by quoting the oral testimonies of the illiterate villagers who watched their brothers and sisters get slaughtered?

That last quote underscores another recurring theme which further explains why this book’s for you — we all benefit from the oppression of others:

I have run out of all my imperialist shampoos
I only pay $6 for my shampoo when I used to pay $60
I look vulgar lately.

And the social strife is next door — and in your own house — as illustrated in the piece “Lake Michigan Merges into the Bay of Valparaiso Chile” where mass actions and emotions are dictated by institutions.

Social messaging aside, the writing is consistently explosive. Check these lines from “The Broken Testimony”:

There is a beat behind this writing
A nervous type
Against a plastic-coated cable
A body is trying to move forward
It is blocked by its insistence on movement
The performance of stasis played backwards
It disappears or its absence appears

What’s the role of  creatives in a world where some people live better than others? Borzutzky explores that question — and you may be uncomfortable with his answers.

The Performance of Becoming Human suggests that prophet Nina Simone may have a point when she sings about dying in order to know what freedom looks like.

The bad news about death in Borzutzky’s world is that you still may never see justice …

song currently stuck in my head: “heart don’t stand a chance” – anderson paak

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