Garments Against Women
Anne Boyer’s new book of poems, Garments Against Women, is a subtle feat of poetic mise en abyme. She conceptualizes the daily into the philosophical and, thankfully, collapses the philosophical into the quotidian. With her lyric prose, she does not spare words—there is no fear of that sort of economy here; and her language patterning is reflective of the template one might use for sewing: This is two-dimensional so that you may make of it something three-dimensional, something to walk away with, to cover you. These poems collapse her world perfectly onto the page, and in reading them, they become again the uncollapsed world—like a three-dimensional rendering of a mise en abyme painting, each frame falling into the next like an accordion: in and out, in and out (until it slips, beautifully); the music produced may not be perfectly in tune, but it is amazingly attuned.
Boyer’s work is a grand taxonomy, exploring not only what is and what is done, but also what is "not." Take, for instance, her poem "What is 'not writing'?" where she runs lists across the page, densely populating the spaces between with commas. She makes extraordinary the ordinary, and when proffering the obvious, makes us realize how often we miss it: "There are years, days, hours, minutes, weeks, moments, and other measures of time spent in the production of 'not writing'" (44). In her observance of the world, she makes visible what we often keep invisible: "Monuments are interesting mostly in how they diminish all other aspects of the landscape. Each highly perceptible thing makes something else almost imperceptible. This is so matter of fact, but I’ve been told I’m incomprehensible ..." (4).
And in her seeing, the very real world of women up against and among men, women writers among men, women seers among male logos, becomes even more frustrating, more poignant, surprisingly feels more unfair and unequal and angering than a feminist manifesto calling for radical action (okay, maybe that’s what certain of these poems are, but they are so beautifully quiet in their call). The naming of things, and the power therein, grows monstrous in its ability to, alone, validate things in their existence:
Despite the reality of the sky, that it is blue, a woman with an interior is trumped by a man with an exterior or that is what I read in the notes: even the color of the sky is stable only as long as it has a man’s proof [ ... ] I suspect, like many humans in this culture, I have seen more commands of men that I have seen the sky itself. (49, 50)
Boyer’s writing is eloquent in its matter-of-factness, though facticity here is bent, slanted, so that the solidity and confidence of the known sloughs off like skin, exposing the subcutaneous. It is here that we encounter "the problem of what-to-do-with-the-information-that-is-feeling" (3).
This book is evidence of escape. Escape in the sense that some constructs are built for leaving behind, while others may be rooms we cannot, without, be. Boyer, master builder, puts together words, and designs this:
One imagines that one can escape a category by collapsing it, but if one tries to collapse the category, the roof falls on one’s head. There a person is, then, having not escaped the category, but having only changed its architecture. Once it was a category with a roof, now it is a category in which everyone is buried in the rubble made of what once was a roof over their heads. (51)
The "what once was a roof" over our heads becomes new rocky terrain beneath our feet. Floors and ceilings are different and yet radically the same—it is about position and perception. Both are protective planes for the extremities that contain us. Yet what Boyer targets is the ways in which women, specifically, are even further contained.
"Everything in the world began with a yes," wrote Clarice Lispector (The Hour of the Star, 1977). That was a very long time ago, however, and Boyer understands that things aren’t so uncomplicated anymore: she writes, "the subsubsubcategories of a whatever yes" (86). There is such depth to what is expected—if only it was mind boggling. What it seems to be is mind numbing: "Every morning I wake up with a renewed commitment to learning to be what I am not ... No more jumping ahead, rebellion, daydreaming" (26). And that the complicated nature of our universe and the social structures in our small world(s) are layered so that the strata cannot be exhibited and witnessed in a cross section alone—that too much is held in the spheres themselves; too much is potential-to-be, and that is fragile: "To refuse a bookkeeperly transparency is to protect the multiplicity of what we really want" (36).
Boyer’s poems are simultaneously building to expose and cracking mirrors and breaking pattern, and the things within the frames are being moved outside. Because that is where the world really is (even interiorly). Reading this collection put me in mind of a recent essay by Christine Koschmeider:
I refuse to talk about happiness, for happiness has far more powerful advocates at its disposal: Food industry, health industry, entertainment industry, each of them offering applicable products to carry us towards happiness [ ... ] No, I’m not jumping for the happiness-stick. I want to talk about freedom. The freedom to select and pursue one’s happiness. ("Blame Me!," Christine Koschmieder)
Boyer and Koschmieder seem to understand that seeing beyond what has been built for us (this "us" means all humans), what we have advertently and inadvertently built, what we have consciously fought against building, and what we have failed to rail against—that this architecture of form and function needs to loosen into so much malleable, breathable mesh. Boyer writes,"a catalogue of whales that is a catalogue/ of whale bones inside a catalogue of garments/ against women that could never be a novel itself" (86). This Steinian moment offers the chance to break the boning in our corsets, to bust out of the constructed exoskeletons that have been sewn into our culture, our economics, our lives. It is a confinement that can feel like we have been placed into the abyss. There must be freedom to select and pursue an uprising.
Mullin resides in Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband, Bill, and her dog, Beatrice (no, not named after Dante’s Beatrice, but the divine French actress Dalle). Mullin is currently a doctoral candidate in Philosophy, Art, and Social Thought at European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland.