Who should tell the stories of people suffering under repressive political regimes such as the United States today? This may be one of the most fiercely debated questions of twenty-first-century literature. Defacing the Monument, Susan Briante’s newest book, which is part lyric essay, part criticism, part poetry—and, most surprisingly, part workbook—thinks through possible answers to this question. Through intertextuality, Briante locates arguments and strategies that arise from contentious discussions about race, class, privilege, and free speech that have become central in the widening cultural and political divide that marks contemporary American culture. Poetry is no stranger to these deliberations and often approaches the topics in a more academic, thoughtful, and perhaps ponderous way than mainstream fiction does, less mediated by the world of marketing, celebrity book clubs, and commodification. Because poetry sits at a greater distance from the demands of the market, the conversation in poetry feels more nuanced and complex. Defacing the Monument is a book that extends that conversation. Briante is a white woman who writes about the treatment of migrants at the southern border, detainment, and ICE. At the same time, she pointedly doesn’t try to render the lives of the migrants. Instead, she is quick to point out her subject position and so writes a work that considers the ethical quandaries of writing itself, particularly writing authored by those whom empire is meant, ostensibly, to serve.
Since the late twentieth century, two modes that American poetry has employed to tackle the intersection of identity, privilege, and narrative are “poetry of witness,” a phrase coined by Carolyn Forché, and documentary poetics, the focus of Briante’s book. Documentary poetics isn’t necessarily a defined category of writing, but rather a loose category of work that often makes use of primary source material (public documents full of chilling legalese are good for this) to reveal, speak for, conjure, or otherwise display the missing narratives and voices that American culture must necessarily suppress to reiterate and concentrate hegemony. Often, the documents are erased, as in the poem “Declaration” by Tracy K. Smith, which deletes parts of the “Declaration of Independence” to great effect, focusing the reader’s attention not on emancipation but slavery: “taken captive / on the high seas / to bear—.” The original document says, “to bear arms,” so we see how the primary source is transformed to forge powerful new meanings while uncovering buried history.
Muriel Rukeyser was a pioneer of documentary poetics. The Book of the Dead (1936) is a book-length poem about the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster in West Virginia that killed between 500 and 1,000 black laborers. Briante cites Rukeyser frequently. “Poetry can extend the document,” Rukeyser says, and Briante uses this proposition to guide her book. How does a poet reverse the frame of the legal document whose primary purpose is to turn the subject into an object in order to rearticulate the borders of the nation state the other direction—from object to subject? And if we do that, how do we navigate the tricky territory of appropriation and identity? Defacing the Monument refers to a multitude of poets working on these issues, including M. NourbeSe Philip, who is Canadian. In her 2008 book Zong!, M. NourbeSe Philip writes and rewrites a two-page legal document pertaining to the tragic 1781 sinking of the slave ship Zong for insurance money. Briante notes, “after months of work and research, [Philip] began to cut into and apart the mere five hundred words that constituted the entire legal document, rearranging the words and letters to fashion the poems and stories of the murdered slaves, channeling an experience in order to conjure the full catastrophe.” This is the first page of the book:
The wave-like motion of words and sounds becomes a sort of haunting of the original; in some sense, it is a casting out.
Defacing the Monument also engages deeply with the text and performance work of Bhanu Kapil as well as the documentary poetics of Layli Longsoldier. When asking how white-identified poets might decenter whiteness and learn from these models without falling into the traps of appropriation, Briante places her book in an immigration courtroom in Tucson, Arizona:
Do you understand the rights that you are giving up, the consequences of pleading guilty and the terms of your written plea agreement? Are you pleading guilty voluntarily and of your own free will? Are you a citizen of the United States? On or about March 17, 2017 did you enter the United States from Mexico near Nogales without coming through a designated port of entry? How do you plead to the charge of illegal entry?
The text lingers on the way the court officials repeat the same set of hollow questions over and over to reveal the proceedings for what they are—repetitive, dehumanizing and, most of all, bewildering. What is notable is that Briante doesn’t in any way attempt to fill in or try to tell the missing narratives of the migrants whose stories are brutally elided by this system. Instead, she presents the process to the reader in all of its administrative frigidity. Thus, unlike the “poetry of witness,” which has the potential to engage in problematic and ethically questionable modes of empathy as told from positions of power, her awareness of her subject position allows her to navigate this terrain with intelligence and facility. Briante offers the reader some background on the United States’ punitive immigration policies:
In 2005, Operation Streamline began the prosecution of unauthorized migrants, often sending them to prison prior to deportation. Each migrant leaves the proceedings with a criminal record. In this sense, the process is documentary. Immigration rights advocates have called the proceedings “assembly line justice,” because as many as 75 migrants might be brought before a judge in a single day, plead guilty to the felony offense of unauthorized entry or re-entry into the United States to serve jail time or face jail time should they be caught again.
Despite interpreters and other administrators being tasked with ensuring that the migrants are given “justice,” the most poignant aspect of what Briante observes—keen observation is her strength—is how confused and traumatized they become: “Do you understand the consequences of pleading guilty?” the judge asks. “Yes, I am guilty,” the migrant says. And when the judge asks the migrant why he does not understand the question, the indigenous migrant (for whom Spanish is a second language) explains: “It’s too fast.” Elsewhere in the text, Briante tells us there are only three words that migrants are allowed to use in the court record. They are yes, no, and guilty.
Even though Briante never directly imagines the personal stories of the migrants she writes about, since she views this as an intrusion, she does allow herself to weave her own family narrative into the book to consider issues of citizenship, power, racism, and how she is “directly or indirectly implicated in [the migrants’] suffering.” A child of Italian immigrants, she includes documents from her family history: the baptism certificate of her great-grandmother, for example, and a list of books, magazines, and other reading materials that her mother had on her bedside dresser when she died. She recounts that her grandmother had to carry an identity card during World War II. Italian immigrants at this time faced xenophobia because the U.S. was at war with Italy. Yet she notes the important fact that her grandmother was never deported. I couldn’t help but contrast Briante’s family’s assimilation into American citizenry with her presentation of poet Jennif(f)er Tamayo’s work. Tamayo’s family’s “assimilation” is much more fraught and problematic: “(I) worry about healing,” writes Tamayo in her chapbook to kill the future in the present, which reverberates with her and her mother’s own immigration detention. “every day i worry about the grounds that healing solidifies,” she continues. “who will be the last to heal? who will be forgotten in this healing process? i am not sure how healing is anything but a greater commitment to this very world before us. i want to resist the imperative to heal.”
Instead of healing, Briante suggests that the reader sit in the uncomfortable space within the matrix of subject position, family history, and the atrocities of the state; this is how we “extend the document” of our thinking. To do this, Briante has composed a series of questions “for further study” throughout the book after the major sections to give the reader practice pushing the boundaries of our thinking. The questions are thought-provoking, surprising, and don’t have obvious answers. Here are some of the questions in “For Further Study (An Invitation to Something Other Than a Mirror): “1. Declare a place of origin that cannot be found on any map. 2. Write the sound of a wall that is not raised. 3. Make a map without lines. 4. Write what you see when you lay your body down upon a geography of dreams.” I deeply enjoyed the interactive nature of the questions, because they didn’t feel “textbook-y” or inauthentic. They seemed, rather, to emerge from a genuine place of curiosity, asking the reader to gently imagine a space beyond borders, maps, and easy notions of identity. Perhaps moving beyond rigid ideas of right and wrong, legal and illegal, what is true and what is not true in terms of the law, what is one country or another country, begins with the imagination. Briante’s multimodal text invites readers to imagine new ways of living that benefit all of us, not just the privileged few. Here are my own responses to these questions:
Defacing the Monument is a text that believes in ethical constructs around writing. It stands firmly against conceptual work that Briante calls “vulture work,” such as Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading of the autopsy of Michael Brown, which she sees as a violation of the ethical imperatives of poetry. Because Goldsmith’s work is decontextualized, she argues, it uses documentation to perpetuate violence on black bodies. Briante’s project, instead, provides a framework for conceptualizing the document with multiple layers of context so that the document cannot be misused or misconstrued.
In one of the most powerful moments of the book, when the migrants are being charged with their crimes (Of what? Trying to find work? Merely living?), Briante is sitting in the back of the courtroom and takes note of these haunting words:
“Best of luck to you,” the judge says.
“Que le vaya bien, the lawyers say as the migrants begin their slow procession out of the courtroom in chains.
Though they seem like reflexive, passing utterances the judge must say over and over again in the court, I got the feeling when I read them that this must be what happens when words, completely given over to the brutality of the law, lose all meaning.
Blacksburg, VA: Noemi Press, 2020. $21.00, paper.