anne boyer

Feministing Reads: Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women

How is Anne Boyer so good? Let me count the ways.

It might be that she’s the kind of poet and prose author who makes you come alive to touching feeling, which is to say, to forms of poetry that are alive. The Kansas poet’s most recent work, Garments Against Women, released this spring by Ahsahta Press, is poetry that makes you want to write your own “poetry” at 4am; as in, it’s the kind of writing that makes you realize you will be lucky to write a poor imitation.

In “Venge-Text,” which must be the greatest poem ever written about the crushing logic of patriarchy, a woman is told by a man that the sky is not blue. She, the speaker of the poem, processes this news:

I look with my eyes at the blue sky and see that it is blue, then also I look with my eyes at him and make a note to not remember the blue sky as blue. I make a note, also, to remember the proclamation, by him, against the color of the sky. I make a note, also, that I will have known the sky was blue, then I will have been told to forget what I know about the sky and probably did. I make a note to doubt the legibility of any of these notes for these are notes about people who together believe a human sentence—one spoken by a man and heard by a woman—can commute the blueness of the sky itself.

The poem is at once a send-up of rational language games and a display of their hypnotically oppressive powers. “The sky can exist as a knowable color,” she adds. “But the commands of such men are equally persistent and knowable, too.”

How else is Boyer is so good?

It might be that she’s not-writing. First excerpted in Bookforum this summer, her poem “Not Writing cascades like a list by Whitman, if Whitman had known about the “guy in your MFA‘s” tweets, Ben Lerner, or irony. “When I am not writing” she begins, “I am not writing a novel called 1994 about a young woman in an office park in a provincial town who has a job cutting and pasting time. I am not writing a novel called Nero about the world’s richest art star in space.”

anne boyerWhat makes the poem so funny is that each negation names a type of writing that is at once deeply specific and totally generic. Many  writers know other writers who is writing something like that. Many writers also know someone who is not-writing. 

But something else is also going on here: the poem mourns, in its laundry list of lost epics, what might be called the lesser, lower, culturally devalued forms of daily writing: “I am not writing Facebook status updates. I am not writing thank-you notes or apologies I am not writing conference papers. I am not writing book reviews. I am not writing blurbs.” In doing so, Boyer values these forms as writing, recognizing them as doing the same cultural work as, say, “writing stories based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s unwritten story ideas.”

In the companion piece, “What is ‘not writing’?” Boyer expands on the relationship between not-writing, on the one hand, and illness, feelings, work, and unpaid work “like caring for others”, on the other. For every someone writing, there is also always a someone not-writing because they are too sick to write, too poor to write. Boyer expresses how often writing is privilege, is power, is “the language of property owners.” 

In “Bon Pour Brûler,” Boyer pokes holes into a story from Rousseau’s Emile (1762), where a little girl learns to write nothing but O’s. According to Rousseau, the girl soon quits because thinks she looks unattractive when she writes. “Rousseau,” Boyer writes, “believed the O’s to be O’s, but every O could have been, also, every letter and every word for the little girl: each O also an opening, a planet, a ring, a word, a query, a grammar. One O could be an eye, another a mouth, another a bruise, another a calculation.” Boyer dilates each O into a little world of resistance, a universe of imaginative privacy, a room of one’s own. The girl quits writing, in Boyer’s retelling, because “she had written, already, her revolutionary letters in the code of O’s.”  Boyer reads these sentences made of O’s read against the grain as ciphers that might have meant: 

‘“I understand the proximate shape of the fountain”

“Apples are smaller than the sun”

“My mother”’

Boyer’s own secret code of revolutionary O’s is what she calls “inadmissible information,” which is “often information that has something to do with biology (illness, sex, reproduction) or money (poverty) or violence (how money and bodies meet)… Many kinds of inadmissible information are inadmissible because they provoke a feeling of pity, guilt, or contempt. All three of these (pity, guilt, and contempt) are feelings of power, are the emotional indulgences of those with power or those who seek it.” 

Inadmissible feeling in Boyer is often admitted by way of careful punctuation: her commas, her parenthesis, her colons, her periods, slay and spurn and throb. They make all the feelings—grief, money, sickness, color, gender—brighter, and more painful. Here is Boyer on the temporary happiness that follows intense sickness: “There was a rising interest in tango dancing. I allowed myself to eat liberal amounts of fresh fruit.”

Like the lines of Frank O’Hara and Anne Carson before her, Boyer’s greatest tool is the “nonce taxonomy.” So helpfully named by the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, these are descriptions that describe the indescribable and not yet described; they are taxonomies that resist and supplement the tired and tiny axis of previously existing categorizations and desires.

Boyer is deeply interested in what she calls “the category of thing, not thing, almost thing, of maybe thing but not quite.” Like an armchair naturalist, she constantly plays with the trope of “there are two kinds of people in this world…” to map out unknown types and pleasures. She writes of the people “for whom the ordinary worldliness is easy,” and “those whom the events and opportunities of the every day world wash over;” of “those who want only the best and those who believe only-the-best is immoral;” of “those who loathed the world and found themselves trapped in the terribleness of it and those who loathed themselves as foil to the world;” and, later, eerily, of “two different Anne Boyers, one like a cop, the other writing her name at a table.”

Her lists of imaginary books, of real dreams, of embarrassing feelings, of not-writings participate, to borrow language from Sedgewick, in “the making and unmaking and remaking and redissolution of hundreds of old and new categorical imaginings concerning all the kinds it may take to make up a world.” Or, as Boyer puts it in a recent interview in Poetry, “There’s a genius in bodies, too, in hands, in seeing and hearing, in feeling, in arrangement, in taking care, in imagining, in saying words aloud.”

Ava Kofman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.

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