Boise Idaho: Ahsahta Press, 2015 / Mute Books, 2016
$18.00 / £14 / €16
978-1-934103-59-3 / 978-1-906496-38-8
reviewed by Caitlín Doherty
It’s difficult to love in uncomfortable clothes. And it’s difficult to write poetry when there are clothes to be tightened, loosened, adapted and fixed. Or when there are miles of Midwest still to drive to pick up your daughter, or the heating in the condo won’t work for days at a time and you have multiple jobs to go to in order to pay for the non-heating. Anne Boyer’s GARMENTS AGAINST WOMEN reads like a face laughing through gritted teeth, its blocks of prose bricks made up of prosaic details all relishing the perverse impossibility of writing Poems.
Women are told our complaints, especially domestic ones, bore others (men). Boyer asks you to pick apart the difference between complaint and testimony. There’s nothing unusual in the substance of these poems from many American women’s lives, only the inescapable differentiation: Boyer has chosen to write a book recording some of it. It’s a book which agrees that wages for housework, that valuing emotional labour as work, are great ideas bro, but there is meal planning to be done so excuse us, we have to leave your party early.
He is the man who looks at the blue sky and says, “Do not remember this sky as blue.”
Early in the book Boyer refers frequently to a self-help publication called The Strategies and Tactics of Happiness, Volume I: Background, which recommends a lifestyle of moderate resources. Neither want, nor waste. It is written by someone called Maynard Shelley and from here on I imagine all the anonymous men of GARMENTS AGAINST WOMEN to be Maynard Shelley: half bullish liberal economist, half dweeby Romantic poet. Boyer picks up the book at a low ebb – we don’t get a diagnosis but the illness takes root in her bones – and its advice is so contentless it could be a universal cure for everything. Slowly, in sparse movements through the book, Boyer approaches health or something like it again, changes her hair colour, her appetite for fresh fruit and books not by Rousseau returns to her. None of this is down to Maynard Shelley.
Boyer acknowledges the supermarket as a place of composition, the discount store, the kitchen table when guests have left. The difficulty of answering a child who knows what shoes she wants with the word: no, and a because that gestures to a price tag.
I will soon write a long, sad book called A Woman Shopping. It will be a book about what we are required to do and also a book about what we are hated for doing. It will be a book about envy and a book about barely visible things.
There’s a secret about reviewing which we’re not supposed to mention: we can’t afford to buy the books. So writing this review, in return for a copy of Boyer’s book, means I find the following line funny:
But who would publish this book and who, also, would shop for it?
Reviewing GARMENTS AGAINST WOMEN has led to my not-buying the book that I couldn’t have bought anyway. It feels like a reply from Boyer herself then when the central section of the book deals with this negation of value, exchange and purpose. ‘Not writing’ is Boyer’s phrase for this enormous part of human activity from which writing has to be carved. It will either be a familiar concept or it won’t. Two poems entitled ‘Not Writing’ and ‘What is “Not Writing”’ lay it all out for the uninitiated, delineating all the bathetic images of being a human poet. It’s the joke projects we’d go for if we were offered payment of any kind because they are the memoirs and novels and documentary poems and tightened poems and poems with and without epiphanies we most want to write but can’t afford to. How do these imagined projects not happen? Boyer has anticipated this query, and builds up ‘What is “not Writing”’, via five paragraph bricks, to the answer: everything else. Yet there’s no exasperated wink at the end that says: Lord, it’s a miracle any writing ever gets done! The ‘not writing’ persists through illness and love and breakups and whatever until the vanishing of the poem ‘Twilight Revelry’
Loving to disappear is not in itself l’amour fou. There is a controlling impulse also called “self-abolition.” It can also feel like warm things burning.
Insofar as the poem has landscape, it is a mirrored world of apartment blocks and highway turnings. Layered cities grow out from each other, referencing a war that kicked off their evolution. Anne Boyer lies in bed and imagines a state of full-employment for oracles. At four points in the book there are interruptions of blacked-out pages. It feels dishonest to interpret these as anything other than markers of time when there was no writing. Then Boyer picks up again and gives us a story about Charlemagne.
There’s a rhyme in the poem ‘The Innocent Question’ that bleeds into the other book I’m reviewing at the moment (a collection of essays about John Berger):
What is the difference between happiness and pornography? I mean what is the difference between literature and photography?
These are questions impossible to answer: you get trolled if you take it seriously, the difference is obliterated by the question, first, and the jangling insincere rhyme, second. I think of that meme going round, where a photograph of a naked marble woman has been photoshopped so she holds a smartphone in the selfie position. I think John Berger was gently taking the piss when the electric light cut out, and he lit a candle and told his friend the essayist “now we are oil paintings, before we were photographs”. But all these little plays are added to the Gospel of Berger, and Anne Boyer’s spam inbox is full of Jacobin hard-ons. Reading Boyer on herself was a great way of not reading other people on John Berger. Garments Against Women makes clear that reading doesn’t always lead back to writing. One can’t suckle the world.
Caitlín Doherty is from the northwest of both England and Ireland. Her poetry has been published by Tipped Press, Foule Press, and in various poetry magazines and journals. She is the poetry editor of the journal Salvage and has a new book of poems forthcoming from Critical Documents. She has recently moved to Brussels where she is working on a PhD in museum studies and aviation history.