:: Article

Also against shopping and for it: A review of Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer

By William Harris.

Garments Against Women

Anne Boyer, Garments Against Women (Ahsahta Press, 2015)

Few writers today feel as urgent as Anne Boyer. Who else toils so originally to open a futile door out of a room full of literature leading, impossibly, to a negative space? I feel as if I read her book at a poet-stuffed party and then looked up to find the door slamming in the wind, the cake vanished, the war happening live on TV, and the poets gone. She hadn’t done away with the poets, and I hadn’t forgotten about them. But something had changed with the architecture.

Beckett once spoke to an interviewer about art turning away from itself in disgust. “And preferring what?” the interviewer asked. “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Boyer’s concerns aren’t exactly Beckett’s, and yet she shares much of the same paradoxical impulse. In her new collection, one essay/prose poem is called ‘Not Writing’, another is ‘What Is “Not Writing”?’, another is ‘A Woman Shopping’, in which she imagines writing the book A Woman Shopping—“this book would be a book also about the history of literature and literature’s uses against women, also against literature and for it, also against shopping and for it”—all part of an actually existing book called Garments Against Women.

Garments are literature, and literature is garments. Both contain, both obscure, both are seemingly open and apparent, both are imprisoning and appealing, and both are against women. The problem is how to continue to operate within them. The book begins with two black pages and large white text demanding “WHO EATS IN A CAGE? OR WITH A CAGED MOUTH?” An epigraph from Mary Wollstonecraft follows, describing a bookish woman who writes “rhapsodies descriptive of her state of mind”, to “perhaps instruct her daughter, and shield her from the misery, the tyranny, that her mother knew not how to avoid”. The misery and tyranny, in part, is in the historical injustice of literature, and Wollstonecraft’s character tries pointing a direction out, while being aware that for her an escape is impossible. In the postscript, a similar note is struck—Boyer dedicates the book to her daughter, “who has allowed me the possibility of a literature that is not against us”. Garments Against Women is a dispatch from a cage, but the possibility of an exit, of subverting the mock-eternity of literature’s historical conditions, is what gives Boyer’s book its urgency, its paradoxes and its shape.

Lisa Robertson, a poet from Canada, captures the oblique rigour of Boyer’s writing; on the back of the book, she calls Boyer a “political thinker who takes notes and invents movements, social and prosodic”. A political thinker who invents—what is foremost on display in her writing is logic. It’s a dream logic—displacements, condensations, reversals—and a Marxian one, in which things are always turning into other things. Happiness, pornography, literature, photography and information become scrambled concepts, and the rest of the world falls into a simile-d relational order: “writing is like literature is like the world of monsters is the production of culture is I hate culture is the world of wealthy women and of men”; “epics are the dance music of the people who love war”; “movies are the justice of the people who love war”; “information is the poetry of the people who love war”; “that feed is your poem”; “the flaneur is a poet is an agent free of purses, but a woman is not a woman without a strap over her shoulder or a clutch in her hand”; sleep is dreams is gossip, architecture or civic planning; shopping is a woman shopping; garments are literature; transparent accounts are literature; and “the fin is not a fin of a shark at all though it is a reproduction shark fin strapped on a boy’s back”. A political thinker who invents.

Anne Boyer

Boyer’s is a political imagination, but aestheticised: “What at first kept me enthralled wasn’t justice, it was justice-like waves, and a set of personal issues, like the aestheticization of politics.” Sometimes her prose gives way to lists, as if only in minute specificity can meaning emerge, or as if only in specificity can she attain the right amount of vague complexity, channeling the aleatory, stringing together an unclear life. She claims she considered writing a treatise on happiness, “but only as a kind of anti-history”. “For,” she goes on, “who better to consider sleep than an insomniac?” Part of the anti-book negativity of Boyer’s project is how many shadows of unborn books keep flitting around. Included here is a memoir that’s not a memoir that is a memoir. (“Memoirs are for property owners.”) Included also are scenes from the unwritten book A Woman Shopping: “Lavish descriptions of lavish descriptions of the perverse or decadently feminized marketplace, some long sentences concerning the shipping and distribution of alterity.” She doesn’t write Leaving the Atocha Station by Anne Boyer or The German Ideology by Anne Boyer but she would like to write Debt by Anne Boyer. And she does write

many small books using methods and forms popular and unpopular with my contemporaries. Among these books was a book of my terrors, a book of my dreams, a book of imagined things, and a book about the rabbits in the yard. I wrote a book for computers with voices. I wrote a book based on euphonious sounds. I wrote a book that was a universal novel. I wrote a book for an avant-garde collective. I wrote a book of traumatic facts. … I wrote this memoir that you are reading, then I wrote a book that was a history of the future in advance of itself. I wrote a book that was the story of a prostitute who walked the streets of Google earth. I am now finishing a book: it is called ‘the innocent question’ or it is called ‘garments against women’ or it is called ‘this champion: life.’

Eventually, so many books appear and vanish you lose track of where one stops and another begins. Garments Against Women is a work in eternal progress, a physical book trapped by covers which nevertheless continues its proliferating self-sabotage. Meanwhile, any notion of books as physical objects collapses. Meanwhile, you forget what book you’re reading.

Some of the most wonderful writing I’ve read on happiness occurs in these pages. Boyer becomes sick, a misery remedied by mixing pills and adding Frost & Glow to her hair. She remembers misery and yet isn’t quite miserable anymore, and it’s in this narrow window that she glimpses happiness. “I dressed a young man in a leopard fur coat and sent him walking through the neighborhoods like that. There was a rising interest in tango dancing. I allowed myself to eat liberal amounts of fresh fruit.” This, I think, is where writing can really delight: a portrait of a miserable person in slightly happier times.

The pieces are short, the book is slim, and it becomes obvious that writing this book took a huge amount of life. There is, after all, a memoir, Ma Vie En Bling: it takes up 30 mostly blank pages. In the memoir, life shows through movement, through drift. It’s a large, melancholy, poetic life—“the frame of poetry”—without any whiff of romanticism. (“The syntactical evidence of poetry without the frame of poetry is a crime which is much more criminal. Or rather, if it is not in the frame of poetry, poetic syntax is evidence, mostly, of having no sense.”) She lives in apartments named The Kingman and The Franklin Court; she has ideas; her daughter has ideas; she struggles against systems and geography; she works, writes, bakes, goes to China and many American states; she watches a dove die and seasons change and climate change progress and she stands at the edge of cities and economies. It’s a full life, ongoing and tied to politics, economy, history, and the book improvises around this chord. A Walserian trudge through the snow, but with the possibility of a new ending. (From the title piece: “To go to work and work all day and go home / to sleep to get up the next day to go to work / and then to think ‘that was walseresque.’”) Like in Beckett, the modesty and difficulty of carrying on becomes a major theme. A paragraph in the memoir ends like this: “You see I was a woman who took notes. Everyone was very kind and wanted to help, but in order to be clear about it, I will tell the story like this: it appears that she refused the ladder, but in truth she refused the rope.”

And yet this is just half a point: the book implies waves of lived experience through the continuation of life, yes, but also through the tightness of logic, the sharpness, the stunning stretched coherence of these brief pieces. The book reveals labour, but not necessarily the labour of writing: the labour of not writing, perhaps, of tranches of time spent thinking without a notepad—“the words of a restive me, sitting motionless for a year”. You can sense the pauses, the accumulations of ideas. Ideas distill into figurative parts, permutated together in logical relation, and then solidify back into ideas, all in the span of a few airy pages. ‘The Open Book’ employs as its figurative parts “transparent accounts,” kept transparent in the service of profit, along with the individual tallying the accounts, tallying also in the name of profit. The individual has two choices: to tally transparently, in the service of some larger corporate profit, or to steal, for her own individual profit. But maybe someone will discover a third option, Boyer imagines, outside of profit’s circumscriptions—what if she works not for some larger social logic but for herself? Here, at the piece’s end, the figurative parts sharpen: the transparent account becomes also literature, which likewise presents itself as openness and truth, its value supposedly clear, and which must be dealt with through negation, through denial and “conspiracy” and oblique independent motive. Here, in condensed figurative form, is Boyer’s project: the impossible possible revolutionary desire of undermining the smug transparent history of literature through a new literature, “off the books”. She’s given up literature to sew a garment that’s an anti-garment. Her tools? Logic, poetry, a sewing machine, and all of these things’ negations.


William Harris

William Harris
has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Point, Full Stop, and Enaegon Magazine. He lives in Minneapolis.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 12th, 2015.