September 9th

On Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human and Daniel Marder’s Sound of Metal

About a minute ago, I finished Marder’s 2019 Sound of Metal. The film, in case you ignored it (as did I) amidst 2020’s Oscar’s nonsense, centers upon a drummer, Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed, in a career-ascending turn), who loses his hearing. This is not to say it’s a film about music, though, or even disability, at least not primarily. No—Sound of Metal is a story of addiction: to a drug, to an art, to another. It’s a film about the utter intolerability of our world, and how desperately we cling to that to which we cling in order to cope. It’s a film about survival and its costs. And although I refuse to spoil it for you—please, please watch it for yourself—I will describe, as best as I can, its final shot. In a close-up, the camera lingers on Ahmed’s face. Everything else in the film, all its abundant love and hurt—addiction, abuse, codependence, community, God—falls away. All we get is a visage, the suggestion of the emotions beneath. And Ahmed’s expression, despite what other reviewers have claimed, doesn’t connote peace, or even acceptance. Slowly, he blinks—once, twice. Then he lowers his gaze from the sun. Stone, by the film’s end, has only arrived at a state of inhabitation. He is able to exist in and with the present. Nothing easier. Nothing else. What follows is silence, and then the credits.

About two and a half hours ago, just before putting on Sound of Metal, I finished Daniel Borzutzky’s collection The Performance of Becoming Human. Like Sound of Metal, it’s probably my favorite work of its medium that I’ve consumed this year. Also like Sound of Metal, it deals first and foremost with the difficulty of existing in this world. Borzutzky, the son of Chilean immigrants, writes of everything his existence in America entails. By way of his ethnicity, he is an outsider. But by way of his profession, his privilege, his gender, his sexuality, he is speaking from a position of power. No matter where he stands, though, what pedestal or pit from which he chooses to speak, it doesn’t matter—all is inevitably, irrelevantly doomed. In “The Private World,” the poem that stands as synecdoche for all of The Performance, he captures this feeling in three pithy lines: “Nothing that can’t be fixed / By a full-scale overhaul / Of absolutely everything.” There is little reason to hope in Borzutzky’s poetry, but so much hope. The position he speaks from requires it. As in Sound of Metal, though, this hope is for naught: the facts of the matter cannot be changed. All that is left is to inhabit. To exist.

That both works conclude on such a non-conclusion—not an epiphany, just a painful sort of forfeiture—traces first and foremost to the way each treats dissonance and harmony. Because the obvious route for both is to make the divide clear: chaos cedes the floor to order. Poetry takes over for prose. The Beautiful and the Good and the True win the day. In Sound of Metal, though, this doesn’t occur. The film alternates between sound and silence for much of its run, contrasting Stone’s experience with that of those witnessing his story. His world is loud, but his experience of this world is in silence, and we get both. His victory, at the end, isn’t—it’s an armistice. And the same can be said for Borzutzky’s poetry.  In “In the Blazing Cities of Your Rotten Carcass Mouth,” he asks, “Are they ordinary people, these trapped voices?” A line later, he answers himself: “They are ordinary, I said. Demolished, relentless, alone.” And throughout the rest of the collection, he answers himself again and again. He dips into street slang, challenging us to locate transcendence within the mundane. He intercuts his poetry’s dominant English with his family’s native Spanish, reminding us that the worth of America’s dispossessed requires no justification, no explanation. As a poet, his words are expected to sound, for lack of a better descriptor, nice—for his vowels to be assonant, for his rhymes to land aslant. And while these elements are there in abundance, the collection finds its center in cacophony. “The Broken Testimony,” a poem about violence and its socioeconomic origins, ends on the image of the speaker being buried in asphalt while embracing a mutilated corpse. “A scavenger has a shovel and I write him into our faces… [W]e cannot move and the end of his shovel is caught between my cheek and your cheek… My face {to the beat} relational to your face {to the beat} relational to the tar that holds us together relational to the tar that binds you to the earth.” His is a brutal poetry because it has to be. To write it otherwise would be to lie.

The two share more rarefied ground in their treatment of form, as each disrupts its respective medium’s conventions in surprising ways. As a story about addiction, the narrative beats Sound of Metal might otherwise be expected to hit have been thoroughly exhausted. Helped by [loved one(s)], our protagonist breaks their addiction to [substance], beginning a new life of [wholesome pursuit]. In this case, Stone’s girlfriend, Lou, might have stayed, or at least returned; the community of deaf addicts in which he lands might have proven a more permanent home; the moment Stone cuts his hair at the end of the second act might have signaled the start of new life. This is my fear of any story about addiction and redemption, and it was my fear here. Suffice to say, none of this comes to pass. Addiction is more complicated than that. Someone very close to me reminded me just today that everyone is addicted to something—that this is how one survives. In service of this truth, Stone’s redemption is left forever incomplete. There is no after. There is only one’s life, and one’s ability or lack thereof to cope with it.

In The Performance of Becoming Human, the defiance of form is even more startling. By and large, the unit of prose poems is the paragraph: one or two solid blocks of text with a prosodic lift at the end, a suggestion of epiphany, a gesture toward peace. But Borzutzky torches this structure. His poems fracture, either breaking apart into discrete sentences or collapsing into fragments. No truth awaits us at their end. The same phrases—“authoritative body,” “rotten carcass economy,” “constant beat”—repeat, creating what is at once an insistent protest and an acceptance of futility. Capitalism has done its best to turn him into meat. Racism has done its best to mute his words. The only act left to him is to shout. Articulately, poetically—yes—but shout nonetheless. All is violence, and what isn’t is resistance. The more typical territory of poetry—love, loss—is trodden only rarely. And when it is it is not a haven, but a temporary respite.

As far as my writing is concerned, my main takeaway from both Sound of Metal and The Performance of Becoming Human is that landing on ambiguity is an option. And it’s a good one—one braver than most. Addiction is a monster of many faces. The thing that (or who) saves you can become a thing you need saving from. Or it can remain precisely, purely the addiction you need. Our world is a broken, stupid, dying place, but it is also so, so fucking precious. Love does not exist because of, but despite. There is no reason to hope. And yet we hope.

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