This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a poem by Daniel Borzutzky. 


I Explain a Few Things


They forced him to write his memoirs and covered his face in cocaine

He was an agent for the secret police or he was an agent for the mob

He believed in God     he believed in race     he believed in country

He believed that poetry was the only way to exit the time-space continuum

He tried to say I love you in a foreign language but the sentiment was lost in translation

He tried to say I love you but because he did not understand intonation he said I love lunch and she said you love what and he said l love lunch and she said you love lunch and then he understood that he had said the wrong thing but he did not know how to say the right thing so he said nothing and she asked him what he wanted for lunch

I can explain

The border exploded and the people on one side of the border said     yeah     this block of ice is ours

And the people on the other side of the border said     no     this block of ice is not yours     
it’s ours

And the military brought coffins to the fence that separated Nation A from Nation B     the coffins were for the bodies they would kill in the battle over the block of ice

They put some bodies in the coffins but this was a low-key escalation and the bodies were not  dead

They objectified the bodies

They rectified the bodies

They racialized the bodies

They overdeveloped the bodies

They privately expropriated the bodies

They hired consultants to reinvent the bodies

They transfigured the bodies

They deindustrialized the bodies

And they said if you come back tomorrow to claim the block of ice then we will have no choice but to seal your bodies in these coffins and dump you into the frozen sea

A war started

And when the war ended everything went on sale and cellular phones were half price and the people sang songs about data

They sang songs about accountability 

They sang songs about the self-determination of the market and individual choice

They sang songs about hegemonic counterhumanism and the fraudulent use of tax revenues to support public-private partnerships

They wrote the ugliest sentences imaginable

The block of ice was landfill from dissident houses they destroyed

The block of ice was bone marrow from those who died in the dissident houses they destroyed

The dissidents were now landfill under the road

The sand on the beach was an artificial construct and the women searched for the bone shards of their loved ones in the sand and the authoritative bodies said that displacement was a condition common to people from so many parts of universe

The limits of my language      wrote Wittgentstein     are the limits of my world

But what did he mean by language     and what did he mean by world 

My grandmother was born in a shithole country and no one recorded her birthday because they did not know the word for birth certificate and they did not know the word for notary and they did not know the word for birthday 

They did not know the names of the months and they did not know you were supposed to sing songs on birthdays so no one wrote down her “birth day” and when she was an adult she decided she had been born in early June because the astrological sign she resembled most was Gemini

The military tried to kill her because she protested the war they waged over the block of ice 

They threatened to freeze her in an ice cap   

They kept her body in a prison camp on a frozen port and shut her in a hole

She was born in a shithole country that was fighting for the sanctity of a wretched block of ice

She said my own country is the most foreign country I have ever been to

But when night falls it’s the most dramatic scene I have ever witnessed

The sun setting over our beaches is a performance that lasts two hours   producing tranquility     nostalgia    and embarrassment 

She struggled with self-control

While she was in prison she wanted to gamble but she used self-control

While she was in prison she wanted to weep but she used self-control

When she gave poetry readings she often lied during the Q and A to make her story sound more theatrical 

Other times she made it sound less theatrical 

Other times she refused to answer any question that wasn’t explicitly about the relationship between content and form 

My grandmother was a mean woman

She screamed at me when I woke up in the middle of the night to pee because she would hear me and then she wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep

I nearly peed the bed trying to keep her from waking up

I have a small bladder

I’m a terrible sleeper

You have nightmares in poetry      wish fulfillment in prose

It was the night after the president of the World Bank appeared on television to advertise a new sovereign state whose only currency would be cryptocurrency

The head of his lover was sealed in a jar and he wanted the world to see her teeth

He showed us her smile

He said that when she smiles a body in another part of the world feels joy and that soon this will be the future

Other people will smile and this will cause us to feel joy

Other people will control our feelings and we will control the feelings of others

You will cry and someone else will weep

By other people he meant ghosts from dying villages whose names we cannot pronounce

And the next day the value of the cryptocurrency skyrocketed and we made tons of money but had no idea where we could find it or how we could use it

I invented this country     said the president of the World Bank    we hardly have time to bury our dead 

I invented this country and created revolutionary separatist groups to provide the illusion of democracy

I knew you when you were just a baby    said the president of the World Bank to his entire viewing audience    though it was the first time we had ever met

They dropped a bomb on the block of ice and the war effectively ended

They dropped the bomb and destabilized gentrification

They dropped the bomb and encouraged entrepreneurial disinvestment

They dropped the bomb and there were foreclosures      grass roots coalitions     community organizations      press conferences in freezing weather and the refugees from one side of the border had no choice but to cross to the other side of the border

Their bodies had lost their value even though their potential for labor     in theory     was a commodity

They dropped the bomb on the border and put the most unwanted survivors in the hands of a nouveau-nationalist think tank    

The survivors became storm troopers

They became police officers

They missed their families

They slept in concrete warehouses

They destroyed federally funded hospitals 

They wiped clean any trace of the border     the bombs     or the block of ice 

They studied complex theories of colonialism

They read Plato and Marx and Freud and sang songs about nymphs and centaurs and Wells Fargo and the tangled web of price variation accounting

They destroyed romantic tenements 

They held intense debates about thingification

They picked up our bones like children

They sang songs about the unilateral dominance of lyrical subjectivity

They sang songs about children who resisted the cross-fertilization of the Americas

They studied the agriculture and architecture of the Aztecs and they were cultural emissaries of the state

They sucked on bullets as if they were Mentos

They went on too long about the connection between social mobility and historical poetics

They built temples out of sperm and spit

They spoke to each other in gurgles and murmurs

There was no translation into English   



Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).