158.1: Daniel Borzutzky:: Decomposition as Explanation & This Gurgling Thing Called Love 158

When we at TOA first discussed these poems by Daniel Borzutzky, one of our editors said, “These are [expletive deleted] horrifying. I love them.” Another said, “Horrifying and awesome. I didn’t expect to laugh so much.” Certainly these poems conjure imagery and ideas fit for the week of Halloween, but the horrors they convey aren’t so fantastic as ghouls, nor so poorly rationalized as evil killers on the loose. These are poems of excess—though neither neat nor tidy, their bulk is almost mathematically logical. The poems budget for excess, allow themselves the physical and mental space to go places that are gross and uncomfortable—horrifying, even.

Horror is simultaneously amplified and mitigated by the presence of currency in these poems. Can anything be truly horrible if you’re paid to do it? Borzutzky’s poems depict the economy of disgusting and humiliating work, conflating the concepts of employee and victim. Money in these poems is not fair compensation for job performance; rather, it’s a social obligation, a half-hearted rosary prescribed by an equally bored priest. Sometimes, even, it’s punishment. The economy in which Borzutzky’s characters struggle to exist is hauntingly familiar. Echoes of real trouble workers are experiencing post-financial collapse creep into these poems, such that it’s hard not to take a shaky breath in and let out an uncomfortable chuckle. No one expects to laugh so much, but here we are. S. Whitney Holmes

Decomposition as Explanation


               “The time of the composition is the time of the composition.”
                              —Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation”


1. There are always rotten bones and desiccated skin and bloody expectorations and pus and decomposition to think about it when it comes to locating the mind in the enveloping steam of the body that has lost the temptation to exist or that has been crushed by the ceiling that has crumbled from atrophy and has left the bodies it crushes to fight with and against history for a bed and a toilet and a floor amid the overpriced ruins of a civilization starving for collapse, dying for decay, opulent with bodies that have no choice but to piss all over their legs.

2. Everything is the same except decomposition. I see my body the way I see my bank account. Diminishing. There are small children who live on my block and eat glass. They eat egg shells from the garbage. They eat nails and the wood from the house that was destroyed after it was foreclosed and its occupants decided to bury themselves underground. They were waiting for an eviction notice when it occurred to them it was better to live in mud than in a world filled with dollar bills that had lost their value. They were living under the porch then they were living in the front seat of the excavator parked in the alley. They were eating their clothes, they were eating the cable television bills they stole out of mailboxes. They stand outside the CVS pharmacy and peer into my brain as I pick up my sleep medication. I haven’t slept for twenty-three days. I am engaged in the act of translating one voice in my head so it can be understood by another voice in my head. An agent of the literati suggested my tongue would be a more useful pedagogical tool if I dipped it in Trader Joe’s teriyaki sauce then chopped it into pieces and shared it with a table full of children who are learning the art of poetry. Have you heard the one about the boy who found a corpse in front of his window? The children in my dreams are screaming: “it is understood that everything is the same except decomposition and time, decomposition and the time of the decomposition and the time of the decomposition.”

3. To decompose is one thing, to know you are decomposing is another thing. To know that everything you have ever composed is decomposing is yet another thing, and there is another thing which is to know that the body and the breath and the thought and the thing that does the thinking and the voice that does the translating of the other voice inside the voice inside the thought inside the thing which does the thinking: to know these things are decomposing, well, it’s like making love to an incurable body that will only eat cardboard sandwiches. A Dionysian cloud is trying to assert the existence of others into my mouth. There are boils and masks and historical failures hiding behind the masks. There is a child’s mouth and it is stuffed with money. The child is bound to a chair. I see this on the ten o’clock news. There is a win, a quick win, and the child is bound to the chair waiting for the data to be calculated. Is it possible to eat myself, the child says, the moment the money is taken out of his mouth. The camera zooms in on his lips. There are tiny green specks and cultural fibroids and the camera focuses in on his eyes and inside of them is a website devoted to video clips of people who commit suicide. The time in the decomposition is indistinguishable from the erosion of the mouth. It is indistinguishable from the erosion of the dollar bill. It is indistinguishable from the verb “to sink.” We are all sinking in the mud. It is the only way to calculate our data, our bodies, our data-bodies. Our lovers are data-bodies. We need them to quantify our existence.

4. In the beginning there was data. There was bubbling and murmuring data and later there were quantifiers of this data which was a subset of universal data and now there is either quantifying or there is faith. There must be calculation and a robust administration. There is a mathematics of decomposition. By this I mean death and the absence of time. There is a song we sing to our children. We sing it in our data palaces, we sing it to the decomposing bodies that cannot be contained by their frames, we sing it to the leaking carcasses, we sing it to the murmuring ghosts, the murmuring revolutionaries who transformed into bureaucrats once they achieved the destruction of the means of production. There is a song we sing to ourselves when we have no one to calculate our data. We sing:

5. A ghostly day     in data town     we start to sink     we start to drown     suddenly     there were starving bodies there     and in ghostly data town the facts were rising everywhere.

6. It is a problem for the child with the money in his mouth. He is tempted to exist. It is a problem for the body that eats nails and cardboard sandwiches. It is tempted to exist. It is a problem for the body that laughs at its inability to determine where one life starts and another life ends. It is a problem for the translator who translates the voices inside his own head so that they can be communicated to others. A man walks into a bar and the bartender says why are you gagged, why are you choking on dollar bills. The man can’t say anything so the bartender hops over the bar and begins to pull the dollar bills out of his mouth, but they keep coming and coming and finally after ten minutes of pulling dollar bills out of the man’s mouth he pulls out the man’s tongue and next there are lungs and the man’s intestines and the bartender twirls an intestine above his head like a lasso and the man who had the money in his mouth whispers I would like a vodka martini and a round for all of my friends. The bartender twirls the intestines then lassos an immigrant who just walked into the bar looking for work. The bartender captures the immigrant and forces her to wash dishes forever in a kitchen filled with steam and rodents. There is the decomposition and then there is the distribution of skin, the distribution of bones, the distribution of money, the distribution of blood, the distribution of wood and nails and cardboard sandwiches. I have to go now. I just got a text message from my lover, my data body. My noodles have just arrived. Let me eat before my voice dies: a slaughtered pig’s death on this page.

7. Let us conclude at the beginning. There is really nothing that makes a difference to the decomposing mouth. It rots in public and asks us to rot inside of it. There are mouths that throughout the history of words have been decomposing. Really everything is the same except the vehicle for decomposition. The train carried the Jews along the river Jordan. The African slaves were transported by helicopter along the Danube. The Jews and the Africans were pieces of meat waiting for the murmurs of the proletariat to subsume their bodies. Decomposition is a thing that decides when it is to be done. It is impossible to distribute your data to bodies when the vehicles for delivery are decomposing. But when the vehicles are not decomposing it is not impossible thus what is quantifiable is what can be composed which is the key to what can be decomposed for nothing changes except decomposition the decomposition and the alchemy of the quantification of the composition of the decomposition.

8. And then. There is now. The stupid stupidity of tomorrow.



This Gurgling Thing Called Love


               “Some never had a body to call their own before it was taken away.”
                              —Caroline Bergvall, “Crop”


Shrink, they said

And they paid us to get smaller and they hit us

And they paid us to disappear and they smashed us

And they paid us to bury ourselves and they pissed on us

And they paid us to lie on top of each other and they kicked us

And they paid us to smash each other and they smashed us

Paint their bodies, they said

So they paid an artist to paint our shrinking bodies red so they would not lose us

They paid us and covered our bodies and sat us in bleachers and formed our bodies into names and symbols we did not recognize

And they paid us to smile sweetly as we smashed each other

Then they brought in fathers and they paid them to tell us stories about the moon and how the moon enters our bodies and we enter the bodies of the moon and they paid us even more to say da-dah we love you because you are our friend

And the fathers ran out of words and they paid them more to find more words and we said yes da-dah we love you because you understand your authority over our bodies and they paid us to say this and they whipped us and locked us in cages

And we said yes da-dah we love you and we will merge into you and we kissed their bodies because for once in our lives we felt love

We kissed them and they paid us and we praised them and they paid us and they struck us and they shackled us in the back of a pickup truck that drove into the mountains

For they wanted us to document the mountains

Record the mountains for us, they said, as they kissed us and struck us and paid us and loved us

For they wanted us to tell the evaluating bodies that the mountains deserved to be part of the country but they themselves did not want to be responsible for these words

So they paid us to say: the mountains are part of the country

Then they smacked us and shoved our faces in feces and told us we had no right to proclaim that the mountains were a part of the country

Who were we to decide what constitutes the country

Repent, they said

And they took away our money and they kicked our lips and noses and we bled and they collected our blood and dripped it on us and soaked coins and bills in blood and shoved them in our mouths and we repented and they said:

We will pay you to eat each other’s skin

And they gave us dollar bills and little knives to scrape the dead skin off the bottoms of each other’s feet and they watched us lick and swallow everything

And they told us it wasn’t enough

And they told us to eat more dead skin, but it wasn’t enough

And they made us scrape the scabs from each other’s ankles and elbows and they paid us to eat the scabs and they smacked us when we didn’t

And it wasn’t enough

And they asked us again whether or not we thought the mountains deserved to be a part of the country

And we did not know what response would generate the payment and blows so we remained silent

And they liked this

So they struck us

And they paid us for remaining silent for they could not stand to hear the sounds of their own voices

They wanted to hear us cry and they wept

They wanted to hear us breathe and they wept

They wanted to hear us eat each other and love each other and they wept and they beat us

And they asked us if the mountains were decentralized, autonomous structures

What is a mountain, we asked them, and they paid us, for this was the right question

And why should public funds be used to preserve this mountain, we said, and they paid us and they spat on us for again we had asked the right question

And what is a body, we said, and why should public funds be used to preserve it

And they beat us and we did not know why

And then the birds saw us and the wolves and sheep and coyotes saw us and they were on our side and we prayed we would dissolve into the mud or disappear into the piles of bodies gathering along the sides of the road that weave through the mountains

(And they paid us)

And there were immigrants on the roads and they paid them to hiss and they beat themselves

And the immigrants sold bottles of Coca-Cola and wool scarves and road kill and they hissed at us and we paid them and they gave us drinks and they shook our hands and told us that in order to survive in the rotten carcass economy we needed to understand complex calculations and we needed to be able to describe the ability of our bodies to exist outside of the algorithms they had used to create us

(And they paid us)

And they took away our shoes and socks when we spoke about algorithms and they beat us and paid us

For they knew the immigrants were doing things with mathematics that we could not understand

And we wanted to know what gave them the authority to verify our identities and just for thinking this thought they beat us

And then a banker came into our cage holding a memorandum written for the purpose of providing impoverished bodies like ours with useful tips for handling reinventions and total corporal transformations

And he shoved dollar bills into our mouths and punched us in the teeth and told us that the mountains were a prison and that we should love them and then he filled our mouths with dirt and shoved dollar bills into our underpants and bloodied our lips and noses

And they took us out of our individual cages and threw us all into one common cage where we had no choice but to live like parasitic bodies one inside of the other

And they paid us more but there was nowhere now to spend the money for we had no room to move and there were no longer any immigrants from whom we could buy road kill or Coca-Cola

But they paid us more and pushed our heads deeper into the bloody puddles that formed on each other’s backs and bottoms

And we filled each other’s mouths with leaves and they paid us

And we wondered if the blood of those we loved and the blood of those who paid us and the blood of the dead birds and the blood of the immigrants who were doing things with mathematics we could not understand, we wondered if all this blood would one day fertilize the earth and might this not be beautiful

And they beat us and they loved us and they paid us