On Lake Michigan by Daniel Borzutzky
I came to Daniel Borzutzky’s Lake Michigan with a problem. I’m working on a manuscript, situated in California’s central valley where I live, that looks at an ever-deepening homeless crisis and reactions to public suffering. I am trying to look beyond a bystander’s gaze into questions of responsibility and care. What narratives enable some/us/me to look away, rendering public suffering as a dismissible, inconvenient backdrop to something less marginalized people might call “regular life”? What can a poetic investigation of this kind do? Can my art even hold such questions? When Borzutzky states in Scene 11 of Lake Michigan, “There is distribution and there is despair and there are the things we decide to see when/ we look and the things we decide to see when we shield our eyes from the pain” (p53), I am thinking about the decision to look, the limitations of that gaze, and the moral and spiritual costs of that shield.
Borzutzky’s poetic project writes the disenfranchised body as a site acted upon over generations “where every body is a border between one empire and another” (Scene 3, p22). Borzutzky tells all the truth and tells it hard. The poetry of Lake Michigan performs its outrage in long, relentlessly embodied lines and looping patterns of repetition that generate a furious energy from within each scene as it roils down the page. I close my eyes. “I heard them drill into the mountain and it felt like they were drilling into my body”(Scene 2, p21). Reject the false narrative that the suffering of others is distant, separate. Open your eyes to the pain. The effects of Borzutzky’s craft is sometimes like layers of netting, overlaid one by one, suffocating and inevitable. Always there is a sense of urgent interconnection and a question: Who is responsible?
Positioning his work within a transnational, multilingual history of political poetry that exposes the bloody core of our economic and social structures, the speakers in Lake Michigan constantly shift position as Borzutzky slips through a chorus of personal pronouns: I/them/my/us/our. This is a creative risk, and while my head shakes in admiration at the chutzpah, it nearly explodes trying to process what Borzutzky’s shifting, prismatic speakers are saying about agency, power, and systems—about responsibility and the violence of deflecting responsibility.
I often lose faith in poetry, even as I read and write and need it. You can’t eat it or feed it to others, and you can’t use it to pay rent. When Borzutzky writes, in Scene 5, “form cannot contain the burden of the dying beach” I read it as a lament for what art cannot do. The burden of the dying beach is mine/yours/ours/theirs and we cannot write our way out of that responsibility. I want to write in a way that acknowledges that fact as well as this one, as old as our art: ”And we sing about the many ways there are to love and we refuse to collapse into/ nothing” (Scene 9, p43). Borzutzky’s work is as intense of a poetic refusal as I have ever encountered. Go ahead and get uncomfortable, says this poet. That’s not a problem: That’s your work.