The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016; 98 pp
Reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts


What does it mean to have a body? To inhabit a body? To be unable to shake off the human condition that keeps one confined in one’s body? Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human deals with such captivity and imprisonment. The speaker is never at home in his body, his useless, mortal coil that continues to fail him. “I had a body once but then you made it illegal,” he writes. These poems are laid out more like little vignettes in which the speaker is rounded up by bureaucrats and “authoritative bodies” and held with other refugees in a dystopian Chicago prison. The speaker admits he lives “in a body that does not have enough light in it.” The speaker is a “disappeared body,” and a “migrant body.” The speaker’s body and refugees’s bodies are fetid. They are oozing. They are carcass bodies. Borzutzky writes:

Move your bloody face next to mine and rub me with it. We are dying from so many stories. We are not complete in the mind from so many stories of burning houses, missing children, slaughtered animals. Who will put the stories back together and who will restore all the bodies? I am working toward the end but first I need a stab, a small slice. The stories are there but we need a bit more wit. We need something lighter to get us to the end of this story.

Borzutzky’s poetry is part Orwellian nightmare and part politicized call to arms regarding the very real state of the world. The bodies in his collection are bordered. They are have been conquered and militarized. They have been dumped into gulags to fester. They are no longer their own. The speaker is no longer his own person. There is a sardonic and sick sense humor at play in these poems, too. Borzutzky writes, “They chopped up two dozen bodies last night and today I have to pick up my dry cleaning.” He also makes jokes like, “Did you hear the one about the refugees who could make the bus stop explode?” There has to be some comic relief in a book about interned rotting carcass bodies, and Borzutzky manages to weave it in. Among the putrescence, there is also such decadently sad imagery. Borzutzky writes, “We say that absence is a country . . . We say the sky is a night hiding itself in the leaves of the trees covered in the history of our people’s violence.”

This collection isn’t just about violation and mistreatment, it’s about tender longing. Perhaps the crux of giving the performance of a lifetime, or performing one’s humanity, is summed up in the line, “To be alive is a spiritual mission in which you must get from birth to death without killing yourself.” Borzutzky manages to instill a hope in his readers that although we remain trapped in our putrid and failing bodies, we, too, will succeed in our spiritual mission to persevere.