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Binding Cartesianism(s): on Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate

By MH.

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate review

Anne Boyer, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)

At its very best, interrogative writing can be angry and unapologetic, bypassing our beliefs and picking at our sensibilities because it couldn’t care less. Anne Boyer’s latest collection of essays, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate inflicts writing that perfects its own oppositions and rehearses riotous tonalities of no against the mandatory, capitalist yes. Saying nothing or staying put as foreplays for saying “not this” are the constant practices of refusalists who don’t put a muzzle on their biting no each time they refuse the prepackaged order of the world, and try to overturn it instead. Without eluding their uncomfortable yet not-that-obvious collusion with death, refusals seem to perform at their best when whimsical or, as Boyer notes, taking the form of poetry: “Every poem against the police is also and always a guardian of love for the world.”

Non-human mediators have a long history in philosophy, literature and even more popular mediums such as film – take, for instance, Ildikó Enyedi’s latest cinematic endeavor, On Body and Soul (2017), a gorgeous yet flawed attempt at rendering non-human taxonomies that unfolds (deliberately or not) against its premise of mind-body dualism. Boyer’s essay ‘When the Lambs Rise up Against the Bird of Prey’ works in a similar vein, reminiscent of Deleuze’s description of non-humans as beings living steadily “on the lookout”. Rejecting the innocence that keeps being attached to “lambness”, and replacing it with the shrewd education violence engrafts on living bodies regardless of their degree of consciousness, this piece darkens the boundaries between us and lambs. But this analogy doesn’t work in our favor – on the contrary, it’s the lamb that becomes liberated, extricated as it is from the position of the always losing protagonist in anthropocentric fable.

The lamb knows all it knows through awareness of the patterns embedded in a generalized state of risk. The lamb’s way of sensing is a clear-minded sensing of the world as world aligns against the lamb: demystified, dependent, and with brutality intact. The lamb—like all prey, and unlike any predator—is a scholar of the all, but the bird of prey flying overhead mistakes its expertise in corpses for proof of its own general acuity.

Flagrantly, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate feeds its appetite for impractical questions with shattering ruminations on artists like Missy Elliott, Bo Diddley, Mary J. Blige and Willie Nelson that conjure disappointments and traumas while imagining a future beyond pain and abuse. A spatial counterpoint to such intensities, but also a marker of living in the present, Kansas City emerges as a protagonist in its own right, false nostalgia eschewed. The accelerated privatisation of the welfare system to boost the non-profit industrial complex while forcing the most marginalised to choose between their continued personal abuse, and the impersonal one at the hands of the state, gentrification, the desolation of the vacuums generated by capital only to be left behind for more profitable playgrounds – these are all facets of the same economy, of the same assemblies of repression that obscure, but don’t get to wipe out the historical border between freedom and slavery, or the ruins of Quindaro, an autonomous community built in Kansas City by abolitionists, formerly enslaved, and indigenous people.

I once wrote “There are no politics in Kansas City. In Kansas City, instead of politics, we have two things: money and race. We have a third: children, and the way they are hated and feared here has mostly to do with the two other things.”[…]I have a problem this time in Kansas City because I have no longer refused poetry. Because what I come from now is poetry, and poetry is also my city, and poetry is a city whose citizens also have a tradition of admiring and profiting from and colonizing the suffering or tragedies of others. What is the poetry of Kansas City is a society erupting into firefights and tragedies, of the natural comedy of ruined cities, of puppets and shams, of holy and unholy divisions, of ghosts given free reign over life.

Incessant longing gets its due too, and, as usual, it’s an utterly difficult category to pin down. Boyer goes for intense yet tender erotologies that could even lure in Jenny Hval’s “blood bitches”. But then again, desire is not exactly something you can put in cold, humidity-proof storage, and writing about it is sure to unpack unrequited feelings – “Could the passing of hours, the spinning of the earth, the silence of birds, and all operation of time have a heartbreak whose cause is category, too?” Against all this messiness, it’s only reasonable to long for utopia, a “formulary for a new feeling” that dissolves the tyranny of coupledom where what passes for love gets swapped between two bodies under a contract with no mouse print. Against all this messiness, it’s only reasonable to question “human fondness for received structures”, and dislodge it with makeshift avant-gardes that could only be matched by equally “impractical” ways to publish poetry. See, for example:

4. Carrion
Arrange animal corpses in the shapes of letters in the shapes of words in the shapes of the lines of a poem. Wait for scavengers to eat flesh off bones. Using crayons and a giant sheet of newsprint take rubbings of the bones. Scan rubbings into the computer. Print on photo-transfer paper. Iron photo transfer paper onto an apron. Embroider. Give to chef to wear on TV cooking show. Your poem would be published on TV.

supplies: dead animals, spread of land, giant sheet of newsprint, computer, scanner, printer, iron-on photo transfer paper, thread, needles, mailing supplies, chef, television cooking show

While pondering how the solitary act of reading is so often perceived as menacing to others, as neglecting someone/something else or refusing to fully internalise the politics of care (especially when a woman is the one doing the reading), and tracing her own fight against breast cancer, Boyer moves towards what is arguably one of the main ideas of the collection – the sick, gendered body as a different kind of worker, as a steady source of profit due to its dependence on drugs and expensive therapies (“Disease has bullied me into Cartesianism, but the mixed tears undo division through liquification.”). It’s a raw, painfully honest take on what it actually means to “stay healthy”. With all the constant talk about individual responsibility, and emphasis on nutrition, and fitness as key factors for staying healthy, we might forget the most basic thing: health under capitalism (itself a “necrotic tumor”) is mostly about what you can afford in terms of food and care, namely your wealth/class privilege.

In ‘Open-Stomach Woman’ (from Disobedience, 2001) Alice Notley notes: “It’s tiring to abolish/ten thousand years of tradition/in order to live a life,/be a functioning “woman” poet.” When referring to Notley’s incisive understandings of womanhood, Boyer chooses ‘Alma’ (from Alma, or The Dead Women, 2006), a funerary poem that works as guidance, as a handbook for the kind of provisional freedom that sickness and death might allow once the foreknowledge caused by repugnant generalities is evaded. Positioning refusal against professionalisation, countering blows not with fear, but pondered rage, and laying bare the woes of women writers and artists, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate concludes with a series of fierce interrogations taking aim at Boyer’s own, self-promoting “class” – the poets.

If what is poetry cannot be written until the infinite servitude of women has ended? […] Is the trial of the poet that is today an arena in which we perform only in fidelity to the tradition of what is unanswerable? And how in this shall we in the arena of today make the new arenas, who must always stare in the eyes of the police?


writes Dissonance(s), a series devoted to chapbooks for Anomaly (Anomalous Press).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 20th, 2018.