In Favor of the Improbable: Emily Abendroth’s ]Exclosures[

Margaree Little

Boise, ID: Ahsahta Press, 2014. 74 Pages. $20.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

It is difficult to write about other people’s suffering without rendering that suffering as a spectacle. To write, as someone who is not directly targeted by the prison industrial complex, a book that is about that system—a book that seems to convey that system, even as it conveys the fissures within it and human resistance to it—is to risk this. How may a book address the control of human bodies without colluding in that control, without reducing people who are incarcerated to objects for the reader’s gaze? As Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, what does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?

Crucial to both the protest and acknowledgment of such suffering is the fact that there is no neutral position from which to observe it; those of us who are not targeted by the prison system are implicated in it, its mechanisms of control reinforced within our daily lives. ]Exclosures[ calls to mind Ailish Hopper’s recent piece in the Boston Review; reflecting on poets writing about a system that does not target them, in this case white poets writing about race, Hopper asks whether such writers are “writing race and racism, reinforcing the white viewpoint, which is designed not to threaten its own power? Or, are we rewriting race and racism, not merely representing, but disturbing; showing not just whiteness—but what it is to be awake, and disruptive, inside it?”

Of course, the prison system is racialized—as Michelle Alexander and others have shown, it is designed to maintain white supremacy, even if certain white populations are also targeted by it—and Abendroth explores this throughout the collection. But the most salient connection between Hopper’s questions and Abendroth’s book is in how each takes on the issue of complicity: just as whiteness, Hopper suggests, is not external to race but is itself a racial identity, ]Exclosures[ does not presume that there is any position outside the prison system, nor does it put the suffering that system causes on display. Rather, Abendroth refuses to allow the reader to remain passive or spectatorial.

Awake and disruptive, then, are both apt descriptions of the poems that comprise ]Exclosures[, which ask the reader to navigate and inhabit them actively. Many of these “exclosures” are structured through a series of bracketed choices—if they can be called choices, a question that the opening poem, “Exclosure ]1[,” takes up:

The people were sometimes given a legal option of deciding their own [sex] [race] [gender] [class] [political affiliation] [hour of maximum ovulation] although a subsequent [medical] [behavioral] [credit] [asset management] [genealogical] or [book shelf & file] examination was invariably required in order to confirm the legitimacy of this selection.

Furthermore, it was insisted—despite “choice”—that each [person] [object] [country] [talisman] [currency] [border collie] had one “true” [value] [diet] [pronoun] [language] [symbolic valence] [uncle] that could only be reliably affirmed by the appropriately accredited [physicians] [internet-based poll] [DNA experts] [psychoanalysis] [handwriting tests] [neo-natal massage].

Abendroth’s form brilliantly illuminates the mythology of capitalism—the myth that capitalism enables freedom, rather than curtailing it—by inviting us to experience the seductiveness of that mythology. Reading these poems, it is hard not to experiment with different combinations of words, of items from these lists, and to take pleasure in doing so. But this pleasure, Abendroth is quick to show us, is just as illusory as the freedom these choices pretend to offer. “Exclosure ]2[,” the second poem in the collection, quotes from A Rap on Race, a “three-day, eight hour conversational exchange between Margaret Mead and James Baldwin on August 25-27, 1970” that Abendroth draws on throughout the book:

Mead: I found a health questionnaire—this is in the 1940s—and one of the questions was: “Why should you comb your hair?” This was for the second and third grades. The right answer is: “To keep your hair out of your eyes.” And little black boys whose hair couldn’t have gotten into their eyes, and who knew it, all gave the right answer and got one hundred percent on it.

Baldwin: Yes, and were started on the road to madness.

]Exclosures[ documents the violence that has caused this madness: the racism of a society that currently has the world’s highest incarceration rates—in 2013, over 1.5 million people, overwhelmingly people of color, were behind bars in state and federal prisons in the United States, with hundreds of thousands more in immigration detention. It documents, too, the ways in which we normalize such pervasive dehumanization, and in doing so are dehumanized. “In 1836, in Baden [Germany],” Abendroth writes, “there was one conviction of wood stealing for every 6.1 inhabitants. By 1841, there was a conviction for every 4.6. By 1842, one for every four. At what point, if ever, does the ratio in itself raise the question of who indeed is fleecing the provinces? And to what princely ends? If a veritable quarter of all humans are officially deemed criminals, how are we to appraise the ‘clean’ records of those serene specimens who are not, who are scot-free?”

In a system predicated on the control of other people’s bodies, the book asks, what kind of freedom is really available to the rest of us? An “I” says to a “she,” in “]Exclosure 12[,”: “Come on . . . we haven’t got all day. There is a [war] / [made-for-TV miniseries] / [mid-term election] / [financial meltdown] / [titleship competition] / [groundbreaking investigation] on.” The “she” insists, in response, that this sense of urgency doesn’t apply to her: “But I am not in the [war] / [made-for-TV miniseries] / [mid-term election] / [throes of monetary collapse], [grasps of titleship fervor] / [breaking and broken ground].” Then, after the pause of a stanza break, she goes on: “I am already broken. . . . I am already broke.” In “]Exclosure 22[,”Abendroth interrogates the idea that any single person can be healthy, or free, if the collective whole of our society is not. She writes:

. . . Whereas others, having been exposed, and in some cases, ceaselessly exposed, to nearly every form of available violence, were thus compelled by this experience to acknowledge that any notion of “individual” protection from violation, as divorced from a concept of collective health, was not only impossible, but a straight-up debacle. And further still, that the costs of attempting to build such personal fortresses of reprieve merely succeeded in enacting on other bodies another form of destructive aggression that was itself rarely named but whose painful range of maiming pressures were all too acutely felt,
                    were welt-inducing even.

Like a permanent belt caught up in the act of melting between gestures of constriction and beating.

If these “personal fortresses” of the individual only inflict further violence, what kind of reprieve, if any, is available?

]Exclosures[ offers something seemingly even more “improbable” than reprieve, to borrow a term from James Baldwin in the “Closing Note in Favor of the Improbable” that ends the book. If, as Sontag writes, the implication of merely watching (or ignoring) suffering is resignation, a sense that “no, it cannot be stopped,” Abendroth’s depth of engagement and political seriousness insist that resignation is unethical, that collective transformation, however unlikely, is also possible. Several poems draw on writing by Elizam Escobar, a Puerto Rican Independista and former political prisoner. “Eventually . . . one realizes that there probably only exist relations and nothing else,” Abendroth quotes Escobar, and goes on:

And that this singular, unaccompanied wealth is either a source of great optimism or tremendous despair.

It is this sense of relationship that runs through the collection—requiring the reader’s active engagement, showing how fully we are dehumanized by the violence of the prison system, giving the lie to the idea that the pain of others is not, ultimately, our own—that is, then, the source of both its despair and its hope.

If we’re not outside of the pain and violence the book documents, Abendroth suggests, we are also part of a larger collective that can change it; and the book makes this collective palpable, replacing a single, intact lyric voice, with what feels, to borrow Claudia Rankine’s term for her 2014 work Citizen, like a community document. ]Exclosures[ contains multiple voices throughout, from Escobar to Baldwin to Lucretius and the Nebraskan author Wright Morris, among others, including unnamed “I’s” and “she’s” and “he’s.” It shifts between the lists of bracketed choices, that official, bureaucratic-sounding language, and a more interior lyric mode (“a thick fir canopy in all of its terse and glimmering autonomy,” Abendroth writes in “Exclosure ]3[,” conjuring the beauty of those woods, before the poem’s section on Baden). In this multiplicity of voices, in these shifts, the book implies a “we” that is unwieldy, variegated. This “we” offers the possibility of another kind of collective experience: because there is something here that refuses to be fully smoothed out, fully disciplined into place.

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