Garments Against Women
reviewed by Natalie Eilbert
R. Will that too be in the character you praised me for earlier? No, I was setting a trap for you. Leave things as they are.
—Rousseau, Julie, Or the New Heloise
If an animal has previously suffered escapable shock, and then suffers inescapable shock, she will be happier than if she has previously not suffered escapable shock—for if she hasn’t, she will only know about being shocked inescapably. But if she has been inescapably shocked before, and she meets the conditions in which she was inescapably shocked before, she will behave as if being shocked, mostly. Her misery doesn’t require acts. Her misery requires conditions.
What does it mean to be shocked? Why is shock the prevailing feeling in this book opening, and what about shock—as in, what circumstances—could render an animal’s shock inescapable? Is shock here a way to enter another field, and is this a cruel conception of hope? Is hope misguided? Could such a poem—could it even be called that—built up from Anne Boyer’s theater of philosophy, cause one to wonder about pain outside of the question of pain? The poem outside the question of poems? How safe are we? I am unable to write of Boyer without a battery of earnest hypothetical questions following afterwards. How does one review a book that works so hard to break down the notion of a “collection,” a “book” of “poems,” “memoir”? What does it even mean to occupy the space of a book? And so, armed as I am with all this theatrical skepticism, I want to follow her words into the absence of society until there is only the absence of society and many daughters. I also want to follow Boyer back into the world. And I don’t much like the world. Such is the magic of Boyer’s work.
Anne Boyer poses everything in the logical construction of if/then, so she can elevate her driving politics—“how is Capital not an infinite laboratory called ‘conditions’?” She is really asking this. She reveals the animal of course is human, and that our being caged—not by pain but by real physical damage and the aftermath of pain—traps us further in imperialistic systems. “Perhaps she will develop feelings of attachment for electrified grids. Perhaps she will develop deep feelings of attachment for what is not the electrified grid.”
The prison bars that render you a prisoner or the system that necessitates prison bars or the factories that form alloys into prison bars – which is most inescapable? The book’s first utterance is one of partial thought experiment and one of partial treatise. “Eventually all arousal will feel like shock. … She will not always be able to dwell in science, as much as she now believes she loves it.” At this point, I thought that Boyer must be telling us about poetry—how, even when we attempt to shirk its institutions, the poem is there, muttering in the frameworks. Maybe poetry isn’t the point at all, at last. Maybe it’s time to let the Great Phallus of Work soften back into its pickled foreskin, even as we believe we love it.
One inalienable value of reading Boyer is that the partial treatise is encountered so immediately and so is sustained. “Treatise,” from Old French, traitier, to deal with, to set forth in speech or writing. Delightfully, one hears “traitor,” a not so distant etymological cousin—from Old French, traitre, and further back to Latin as traditor, one who delivers. Boyer uses a compelling blend of French Philosophy and its implications of ennui and authoritarian ethics with the spoils of 21st-century technology-as-lifestyle in order to deal with specific systemic betrayals. The betrayal and deliverance of the body; the betrayal and deliverance of poetry; the betrayal and deliverance of the book; the betrayal and deliverance of money; the betrayal and deliverance of the state; the betrayal and deliverance of et cetera. Traitier/traitre/traditor.
Later in a poem called “Ma Vie en Bling: a Memoir,” we enter a science fiction book within the book within the book: “I wrote a book of traumatic facts. I had written only one book before that time, but at last I put the point of my life to immediate use.” This idea wrecked me, not just for its discomfiting tense, but these words “immediate use,” which inspire graphic visions of women and industry. Here we face the imperialism of its verb, use—that life is a fabric and to confess its wears is to see its seams and to see, further away, the manufacturing hands condemning life to a consumable thread. The books of Anne Boyer are a looping of these awful threads, a series of patterns which become the objects of her mind—not accomplishments per se, but at last, the fantasy of achievement and failure. She goes on: “I wrote this memoir that you are reading, then I wrote a book that was a history of the future in advance of itself. … I am now finishing a book: it is called ‘the innocent question’ or it is called ‘garments against women’ or it is called ‘this champion: life.’ ”
In Mathias Énard’s woefully under-read, one-sentence-long novel Zone, a former intelligence officer is en route to Milan and deliriously recapitulates his time in “the Zone”—an unspecified Mediterranean area where much violence occurred. In this one-sentence-long novel, the former intelligence officer picks up a book written by a female Lebanese soldier and begins to read it—and we are then made to read it too. A lot of Énard’s use of immediacy and calculation reminds me of Boyer, and he describes his partial need for distraction (reading the book) in the same way that Boyer needs to describe for us, say, how to prepare a cake when you have only one small round cake pan. There is a recipe. It is a simple recipe. Then she moves on:
These were the years that I believed it was still possible to move in cars down streets while socked-in-the-gut about the terror hidden in the history of objects, in the stores full of objects, in the homes, also, full of objects. I believed that leaving most of the furniture for the neighbors made room in the bed of the truck for my books, but having left all I had so I could keep for myself what I had tried so hard to gather, my books were soon ruined by rain. I was deprived of objects and the world of objects, but because of this I was in the thrall to such boring things, like finding chairs by dumpsters, and in this I was reminded exactly of my resentment of you.
Perhaps evidenced by the passages I’ve shared so far, it should be clear that a review of this book is not necessary. Boyer seems to have anticipated criticism and various readings of her work preemptively, so as to heed any questions of genre or even the structure of genre. In “Not Writing,” Boyer writes,
When I am not writing a memoir I am also not writing any kind of poetry, not prose poems contemporary or otherwise, not poems made of fragments, not tightened and compressed poems, not loosened and conversational poems, not conceptual poems, not virtuosic poems employing many different types of euphonious devices, not poems with epiphanies and not poems without, not documentary poems about recent political moments, not poems heavy with allusions to critical theory and popular song.
I will acknowledge the ghosts of every poet who fit the description and whom I admire fleeing from her sentences, as if to name all the types of poets is to vanquish all the types of poets. Anne Boyer is a name whom Anne Boyer softly vanquishes. And this vanquishing is a way to make space for all the types of poets, or else it is a way to collapse that space in order to focus on cataloging. That she is aware and even suspicious of poets makes us as readers equally suspicious of her own stakes. But this awareness is its recrimination. “As if the language of poets is the language of property owners. As if the language of poets is the language of professors. As if the language of poets is not the language of machines.” “Language prefers to live on the internet.” “Those were the days of information.” Information as explanation. If the language of poets is the language of property owners, professors, or machines, and if Boyer is writing the language of poets, perhaps she is at risk of her own machinery, despite a lack of ownership.
We are presented with an abstract, closer to axiom than extrapolation. “I thought to have a name was to have oneself abstracted and abstracted again into many bodies, … so far from you, they might as well be astral.” We see the dehydrated skins of memoir (“I thought memoirs were written by property owners”) by way of a busted car, a daughter, a one-pan cake, a 75 cent cookie; we see a former lover who has wronged the many Anne Boyers of Garments Against Women. This is what it is like to encounter Boyer—the relentless and perhaps reluctant intellectual driven to abstraction by reading, parenting, and infirmity. “The information I provided was my feelings, so there is grief in my dreams, square, red, and with a cluster of mountains rising from it.” She begins a piece called “A Woman Shopping” with this declaration:
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 barely visible things. This book would be a book also about the history of literature and literature’s uses against women, also against literature and for it, also against shopping and for it. The flâneur is a poet is an agent free of purses, but a woman is not a woman without a strap over her shoulder or a clutch in her hand. The back matter of the book will only say this: If a woman has no purse, we will imagine one for her.
Michelle Detorie emblazons in her book, After-Cave (another excellent Ahsahta Press book), “THE DATA IS FEMININE.” To achieve feminine data is to remove yourself of providence and live in the post-Platonic cave of dank with a sister. I am interested in Boyer’s sense of information vis-a-vis her sense of the book. To achieve feminine data in Garments Against Women is to be a truant and escape the markets of happiness, or the happiness of markets, and to do this all in Kansas. It is to conclude, as in this poem, “But who would publish this book and who, also, would shop for it? And how could it be literature if it is not coyly against literature, but sincerely against it, as it is also against ourselves?” Bhanu Kapil furthers this anthem in Ban en Banlieu, “I want a literature that is not made from literature.” In her next poem, “Venge-Text,” Boyer ends a thought on writing once more with “I make a note to doubt the legibility of any of these notes for these are notes about people who together believe a human sentence—one spoken by a man and heard by a woman—can commune the blueness of the sky itself.”
We experience the book of women still inside the book of men. It is no wonder that I am struck by her sentences, which seek to observe the estate of literature with the searing gaze of a future era, a daughter era. Boyer’s epigraph is from Mary Wollstonecraft’s bizarre book, Maria: or the Wrongs of Women:
The books she had obtained, were soon devoured, by one who had no other resource to escape from sorrow, and the feverish dreams of ideal wretchedness or felicity, which equally weaken the intoxicated sensibility. Writing was then the only alternative, and she wrote some rhapsodies descriptive of the state of her mind; but the events of her past life pressing on her, she resolved circumstantially to relate them, with the sentiments that experience, and more matured reason, would naturally suggest. They might perhaps instruct her daughter, and shield her from the misery, the tyranny, her mother knew not how to avoid.
There are many young girls in this book—inquisitive, absurd, sophisticated, prophetic, broken and/or fragmented. They regard a shadowed world. Memoir trickles out, or its tyranny. They have agency of a certain point in history, and they seek to catalog the graces of such an era, which, by effect, disabuses the graces of such an era:
Around that time my daughter and I had this exchange: Anne, imagine if the world had nothing in it. Do you mean nothing at all—just darkness—or a world without objects? I mean a world without things: no houses, chairs, or cars. A world with only people and trees and dirt. What do you think would happen? People would make things. We would make things with trees and dirt.
And there I was, I thought, a reasonably justifiable distinction between she who was captivated by the imagination and she who was captivated by the world.
Boyer uses language as a material, as a means to express what Rousseau calls the “gothic aura” of speaking his mind. In her poem, “The Innocent Question,” Boyer is sick. Really sick. Her sickness readjusts her sense of equilibrium so that happiness, by degrees, becomes a type of inconsequentiality: “I thought I, too, would write about happiness if I were ever to write again. For who better to consider sleep than the insomniac? … [I] decided that happiness is a temporary state achieved in those days or weeks after one has been very ill and is not that ill anymore.”
* * *
A barista just asked me if this book was about corseting, and I said yes. I couldn’t explain to her that its resistance was part of a larger use of garments: the book-garment, the man-garment, the daughter-garment, the Rousseau-garment, the Boyer-garment, the garment-garment. Of course the corset. We chatted about torture and aesthetics. What she wanted to believe the title of this book to be—Garments Against Women—was clear and obvious. Her reading of the title and her taking that full leap toward this noun, corsets, and the genre of corsets, is a better reading than what I have mustered exhaustively, having sat down with Boyer’s inventory for days, weeks, months. To work and to not work is to be bound differently to the same anxiety, and Boyer sits in her frozen car, in her frozen apartment, not writing studiously. Yes, it’s a corseting: “Monuments are interesting mostly in how they diminish all other aspects of the landscape.”
Execution is a kind of sewing, both in garments, in the making of this book, in the way government understands the consequences of the body. Science fiction is part of the fantasy of dismantling Anne Boyer, of elevating Anne Boyer into the animal whose style has merged with her function. “Less typing more touching.” Here is a writer who is comfortable with her theater of philosophy insofar as she feels so captivated as to sometimes be bored by it. She will tell us how she is not writing, and the political resistance in not writing follows. Trauma is folded into her treatise, a singing color: “There is trauma which is fantastic in the way that it is brief and clear … It is like a mind which has a shadow and then is the shadow and then isn’t a mind or its shadow but isn’t at all.” This past weekend I thought of this shadow-mind as I sat seated at the same table as a man who molested me as a child, and I thought of all the not writing I was doing as a coping mechanism, the documentation in shadows, the sick in my gut, the embarrassment of acknowledgment. Boyer is laboring over the seams of a certain material acknowledgment—measuring a worth of resistance inside a dress that will simply hang as a useful and useless symbol of the consequence of the body in a midwestern thrift. Or it will give meaning to the body, the way a pretty wig and big bright eyes might also communicate its very comfort with the society that binds it so complicitly and completely to gender.
No one is not sewing a dress like Anne Boyer. No one is not writing like Anne Boyer who sees such actions as forms of not-labor and who sees still the chummy faces of the not-labor of literature against us. And so she writes against that ballast of omission, the terrible not. And so she writes to that unchartered other side and has managed to follow the omission of writing to the shadow of the oppressed to the stinging light of power. No one has drilled into my mind logical imperatives like Boyer—that there are books within books, a room secreted inside another room, a guerrilla intelligence swelling in the grammar of another literature entirely. I don’t say this lightly when I say this is writing capable of resistance, a resistance that ekes its way through the markets of towns and cities into the life cycle of community. Finally, from “What Is ‘Not Writing’?”:
It is easy to imagine not writing, both accidentally and intentionally. It is easy because there have been years and months and days I have thought the way to live was not writing have known what writing consisted of and have thought “I do not want to do that” and “writing steals from my loved ones” and “writing steals from my life and gives me nothing but pain and worry and what I can’t have” or “writing steals from my already empty bank account” or “writing gives me ideas I do not need or want” or “writing is the manufacture of impossible desire” or writing is like literature is like the world of monsters is the production of culture is I hate culture is the world of wealthy women and of men.