Daniel Borzutzky has published several collections of poetry and translations, and he’s won prestigious prizes, including the National Book Award. If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll want to pick up his latest, Lake Michigan. If you’ve not yet read his poetry, you should begin now, with Lake Michigan. Although the book is organized into scenes and acts, the individual poems are each structured similarly—each line, long or short, a sentence, straightforward and devoid of punctuation. The book is inspired by an unbelievable and yet absolutely believable investigative report asserting that the Chicago police run a secret interrogation facility where they torture individuals into confession and where they can keep these individuals hidden from their families as well as from the (more public and documentable version of the) judicial system. Borzutzky’s stylistic choices reinforce his stark chilling content, though you may finish the book wishing you did not know the truths it reveals.
The collection opens with a prologue that captures Borzutzky’s tone and style as well as foreshadows the degree of implicit and explicit violence that will be described throughout the book. Here are the first few lines:
There are 7 of us in front of the mayor’s house asking questions about the boy they shot 22 times
There are 7 of us in front of the mayor’s house screaming about how the videotape of the shooting was covered up so the mayor could get reelected
And a police officer says down there where they live there was a shooting you should be protesting that shooting a 9-year-old boy was shot by a gangbanger why aren’t you protesting that shooting why are you only protesting this shooting
Another police officer wants to know why we are protesting this shooting when just yesterday there was a drive-by shooting in Rogers Park and two innocent bystanders were shot and one of them died
We don’t answer instead we do a die-in in front of the mayor’s house and the camera crews from the nightly news stand above us as we lay stiff and motionless on the cold wet pavement
They shot the boy 22 times
Here in the prologue, the collective speaker understands how precariously we hold those things we claim to hold dear: democracy, equality under the law, basic human rights—as state-sponsored violence makes absolutely clear. While the questions the police ask are valid, and while every form of gun violence in the United States needs to be addressed, state-sponsored violence against citizens and other residents is qualitatively different from any other type of violence. State-sponsored violence reveals that we, especially if we are not white, have no rights, to paraphrase Justice Roger Taney, that the police are bound to respect.
The poems in this book, titled as scenes, range from two to five pages. The speakers are occasionally collective as in the prologue, though more often they are individuals or presumably omniscient figures external to the action in the poem. Despite the stylistic consistency, the poems hold the reader’s attention because the details are so chilling, and because the events narrated here have become so undeniably typical of American life.
This excerpt suggests that Lake Michigan is poetry of witness, which it is, challenging readers to position themselves among the witnesses who speak in this book. Individuals become witnesses because of what they observe, but more significantly because they testify to their observations. Neither witness nor testimony is served very well by the pensive lyric that has constituted the dominant mode of American poetry over the last few generations, so Borzutzky’s choice of this straightforward, almost non-poetic, form is strategic and effective.
Nevertheless, Borzutzky exploits elements of traditional poetic craft, sometimes by drawing the reader’s attention to what it cannot accomplish. Here are the first several lines of “Lake Michigan, Scene 10”:
The police shooting boys are like police shooting boys
And the nazis burning Jews are like nazis burning Jews
And the police protecting nazis are like police protecting nazis
And the prisoners who are tortured are like prisoners who are tortured
And the psychologists overseeing torture are like psychologists overseeing torture
And the mayor privatizing prisons is like the mayor privatizing prisons
And the rule of law being suspended is like the rule of law being suspended
And the broken prisoners on the beach are like broken prisoners on the beach
I dream I am pregnant and my baby is a revolutionary plan to destroy the global economy
And my baby is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth who is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth who is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth
And the disappearing public employees are like disappearing public employees
And the puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner is like a puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner
Similes are insufficient; everything here can only be like what it is. Language can describe only what is. Attempts to imagine similarities between what is and what isn’t only dilute the horror of what is. Borzutzky extends this catalog nearly to its limit, shifting the rhythm slightly—by exaggerating the catalog even further—in line 10, just after he has interrupted the pattern in line nine. Subsequently, the poem shifts briefly into concrete imagery, “the puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner,” before returning to the catalog of more straightforward violence, eventually linking these events to the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, Virginia, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As the poem progresses, however, it distinguishes between witness and bystander, suggesting that the two roles are mutually exclusive. If readers begin to feel implicated here, the book has achieved one of its goals.
Lake Michigan is a serious and disturbing book. It is ambitious, not simply for the success of its art, but for the survival of the nation which has made it necessary.