Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women is a deeply intellectual book with purpose; it widens the boundaries of poetry and memoir as we know them, in ways that can be especially useful for people who distrust these genres. Boyer begins with a quote by Mary Wollstonecraft about a woman for whom reading, and more importantly, writing is “the only resource to escape from sorrow,” especially if she can create writing that “might perhaps instruct her daughter, and shield her from the misery, the tyranny her mother knew not how to avoid.” Can writing do this?
Boyer begins to address this challenge in the collection’s first piece, “The Animal Model of Inescapable Shock,” which invites us to turn our attention to the social engineers of our time, with a hope to escape their tyranny:
“the animal model of inescapable shock explains why humans go to the movies, loves stay with those who don’t love them, the poor serve the rich, the soldiers continue to fight, and other, confused arousing things.”
But before the reader has a chance to ask, “but is there any way to escape—or transform—this horrific dystopia,” Boyer answers by asking her own version of this innocent question:
“Also, how is capital not an infinite laboratory called “conditions? And where is the edge of the electrified grid?”
If that final question reminds you of The Truman Show, or the century long study of social engineering in the US (and UK), The Century Of The Self, you may not take it as merely a rhetorical, fatalistic, question. But in order to do this, you may also cross over the edge of what’s called “art” and elevate the ethical over the aesthetic that abstracts itself from it. “Some of us write because there are problems to be solved.” (3). She writes it so casually, but in many art contexts it’s defiant, even revolutionary, if its implications were taken seriously.
She troubles every frame she can find: “I think of all these things conferring authority and exclude them one by one, an experiment in erasing importance.” Yet Boyer is aware that there are those who need the assurance of convention, and tries not to speak down to them: “I’m an ordinary human who likes objects, too” as she theatrically tries on the conventions of self-help books and memoir with their bourgeois notions of individual happiness.
Yet Boyer excels when she grounds her vision in the class struggle, as Garments Against Women looks at this bourgeois world from the eyes of solitary, proletarian excluded from it (but also as someone battling with life-threatening cancer): “There are many things I do not like to read, mostly accounts of the lives of the free…” and “the constrainingly unconstrained literature of Capital produced aimlessness, alienation and boredom in me when I tried to read it.”
Throughout the book’s first section, she exposes how this literature of Capital manifests itself through the non-professional, but at least as alienating, social media of the early 21st century:
“In the comment boxes of a popular fashion blog someone suggested any documentation of individual expression is in fact anti-social rather than pro-social, in that it is a record of individuation from the human mass.” (14)
This is, of course, a charming account of a wild party that brings people together! But how different is it from “people picking through the trash for their food.” Boyer doesn’t mean it merely as a metaphor—as she shows the social paralysis created by the people who brought you both instagram and the wealth gap:
“Taste is a weapon of class. Those guys have gotten together and agreed on their discourse: it will make them seem middling, casual like a sweater.” (14)
She diagnosis the problem and instructs, but does this offer escape? As the sequence winds to its end, she returns to the innocent questions that occasioned it: “Who dips in and out of it? What does it mean to give stuff up?”
Perhaps now she can start—to be “against information” (17) as well as against bourgeois art (even if one has to get tangled—or seem to get tangled—in its language to do so) and, last but not least, the culture created by the internet (which makes bourgeois poetry, for all its limits, seem potentially revolutionary by comparison): “We’re good—cheering content providers, boring despots—with a notebook in which to record the history of our stockpile of foods” (17)–and second hand, trash-picked foods at that.
In “No World But The World,” she turns her attention more thoroughly to the politics of the literary world, the insistent search for legitimacy as “poet” is another contemporary malady she diagnosis. How the aestheticization of poetry—especially heightened in the late 20th century’s “free verse” era has led to a culture—in America at least– in which:
The syntactical evidence of poetry without the frame of poetry is a crime that is much more criminal. Or, rather if it is not in the frame of poetry, poetic syntax is evidence, mostly, of having no sense. (18)
And in which poetry has become “the wrong art for people who love justice.” (19)
After this bold statement, she adds that poetry “was not like dance music.” This implies that dance music, almost categorically, loves justice more than what is called “poetry” today, but in a culture of free-verse literary or academic snobs for whom the fact that dance music has done more to bring people and communities together than even the most thoughtful, seemingly moral poetry, is of course “inadmissible evidence.” But Boyer, to her credit, sees through the ruse of that frame: “My favorite arts are the ones that can make you move your body or make a new world.” (19). Although you could say that in many ways her own writing is the opposite of dance music, its solidarity with that “non-poetic” form comes through clearest when expressed in the conventions of idea-driven prose syntax rather than “poetic syntax.”
This is a brilliant strategy that can unite the so-called “extremes” who have been divided (and conquered?) by an enemy that dresses up as moderation, as centrism, as middlemen’s rational golden mean (which can mean mean in both senses of the word)—as the choice between Democrats and Republicans, Coke and Pepsi or, in poetry, mainstream (say Helen Vendler) and experimental (say Marjorie Perloff); all the narrow choices that may suck us in as kids with their seeming breadth. And, by the way, I’d love to hear a performance of this sequence being read with otherwise instrumental dance music (old school R&B and funk, being my preference, but there could be several mixes)—especially the rhythmic list of “things” with which this sequence ends (page 20). With the right groove, it could become a track more popular than what’s called mainstream poetry without sacrificing any of its integrity.
Ultimately, Boyer hopes to change the ways we think about poetry, make it question its foundations, and reground itself at least as much as Blake, Laura (Riding) Jackson, or Amiri Baraka. If she can’t change the giant frame of the oligarchy, maybe her voice could at least have some say in changing the conversation that is literature. Is she can’t escape the cage, she can at least uncage her mouth!
In the long sequence, “Sewing,” the centerpiece to the book’s second section, she finds an alternative to the social media and high art of this consumer society that threatened to paralyze her (and us) in the book’s first section—to side with practical craft as a less alienated labor more analogous to dance music. As she points out how the invention of the sewing machine was threatening (and still is) to the captains of monopoly-capitalism:
“One of the inventors of the sewing machine didn’t patent it because of the way it would restructure labor. Another was almost killed by the mob”(29). Against this backdrop, it’s no mere fantasy to imagine oneself as the revolutionary Emma Goldman while sewing, even if capital has found a way to convince many to devalue this skill and buy overpriced garments made in sweat shops. Yet, if the first section of this book thinks globally, “Sewing” finds at least a foothold that can act locally. Even when she finds herself pressured by the needs of her daughter to by footwear, she is able to provide a heart-warming anecdote that can shield the young from the consumer “instincts” that social engineers from Alfred Bernays to Richard Berman (and the center for consumer freedom) have preyed on.
In Section three, “Not Writing” is a public list poem that calls attention to this refusal of the authority of any who wish to lock her up in poetry, or in memoir. The litany of negatives conjures a space away from commodified space to uncover the changing weather of creation. The follow-up piece “What is ‘Not Writing’” could be considered a manifesto against bourgeois notions of art as “play” rather than work, as she fleshes out her definition of work in more convincing ways than the proponents of the “free time” theory. If I’m ever able to start that “MFA In Non-Poetry” program (which would include everything currently called poetry, but yet be more capacious to include what Thomas Sayers Ellis calls “Perform-a-Forms”), I’d be more than honored to include this piece in its reading list.
With “Venge-Text” and “Twilight Revery,” the book takes on the tradition of the patriarchal love poem; as the speaker studies the dynamics of a romantic relationship with an intellectual, yet dissembling, control freak of a lover, she reminds herself. “This is just one available story. I have so far been able to construct 22.” This Petruchio-like male who fights for control on the level of language becomes representative of the “philosophical” male mode of the Euro-enlightenment tradition.
The 4th, and final, section consists mostly of a poor woman’s “memoir,” for those who distrust that genre and understand that memoirs are traditionally written by “property owners” (71). Yet, amidst all the horrors she recounts here of the inhumanity of the literary world, she manages to find some escape that may yet lead to genuine transformation:
I was poor, I was solitary, and I undertook to devote myself to literature in a community in which the interest in literature was, as yet, of the smallest. I believed that autodidacts were here to teach decency. I believed I’d lost my front.” (80)
I can absolutely relate to what she speaks here, as I see this in terms of my own shift to teaching foundational skills classes at a community college after teaching in an MFA program at a college with tuition so high it’s able to pay for—among other things—a million dollar bronze statue of the man who founded the school to help feed and educate poor people in “Let Them Eat Cake” France (he’d be rolling over in his grave if he knew).
As she accounts being rejected by, and or rejecting the conditional love of the literary world (the poetry “community”), she finds a kind of solace: “It appears she refused the ladder, but in truth she refused the rope.” To liberty, then, not banishment! Garments Against Women does speak the language MFA or Poetics sophisticates could appreciate, and perhaps this may yet help change the conversation, if not exactly “from within” at least close enough (as if she’s giving it one last chance to be real, even if she’s saying goodbye).
“Bon Pour Bruler” is a strong ending to anchor this collection, once again exposing the inhumanity of the European patriarchal voice as seen in Rousseau. Rousseau’s sexist account of why a young girl decided to stop writing brings us full circle, back to the quote from his contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft, with which Boyer began her book. Like Wollstonecraft, Boyer refuses to be silent. By the end of this book, Boyer seems to have found a possibility beyond escape toward transformation in solidarity with a ragtag group of autodidacts, sewers and the “anti-literature” of catalogues, as she emerges as a woman who is able to use the various “garments” of her time (from “high-literature” to today’s “social media”) against themselves.