What three things can never be done?
Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone.
— Muriel Rukeyser
THE LINES ABOVE, which appear in the final section of Muriel Rukeyser’s poem cycle The Book of the Dead (1938), capture the heart of the documentary movement that flourished in the wake of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. Rukeyser’s multivocal, hybrid book gathers testimony, observation, interview, and lyric fragment in order to report on the Hawks Nest tunnel disaster in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, in the early 1930s, which killed hundreds of African American tunnel workers, and is widely considered one of the worst industrial catastrophes in US history.
Known for her notion of “extending the document,” a process by which a poem might incorporate materials from the world, Rukeyser stands as an example of what bold, full-bodied political and artistic engagement looks like. Today, Rukeyser is acknowledged as a literary foremother to both the second-wave feminist movement and traditions of leftist writing in the United States. And, responding to her imperative, we find a manifesto and creed for today’s documentary artist: Remember. Speak out. Band together.
The influence of The Book of the Dead is central to Susan Briante’s latest project, Defacing the Monument, which takes up Rukeyser’s challenge 80 years later in an American landscape further transformed by the forces of capitalist extraction, racism, and nationalist fervor that the earlier poem cycle explores. Briante, a poet and professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona, is also a faculty liaison and facilitator for the Southwest Field Studies in Writing Program, which brings MFA students to the US-Mexico border to work on projects alongside local community groups.
In Defacing the Monument, Briante turns her attention to the Southwest border, documenting the cruelty and violence of US immigration policy. The book began as an inquiry into Operation Streamline, an initiative launched under President George W. Bush that has, since 2005, criminally prosecuted undocumented immigrants in mass trials of up to 80 people at a time. But, as Briante notes in an interview with Raquel Gutiérrez, the book soon morphed into something more: a collage, an archive, a memoir, a workbook, a lyric, and a pedagogy that seeks to trouble the realities of the border, as well as immigration, nation, and subjectivity. In its variety, the book is unlike any other “literary” text I’ve encountered. In both form and function, it performs a critical and self-reflexive thinking around what it means to witness, to document, and to address the lives of others in writing.
The book’s opening pages show a photocopied calendar of court proceedings dated Tuesday, September 26, 2017. The document lists the names of those being tried alongside their date of arrest, attorney name, and the phrase “Speaks English.” (In response to the latter, each entry reads, “No.”) Marked by an onlookers’ handwriting, the page bears a tangle of scribbles and notes, leaving the reader to piece together a narrative.
Juxtaposed with photographs (like the court parking lot with cars bearing both US and Mexican license plates) and accompanied by a verbal litany that constitutes legally binding language, the documents following the court calendar seem to speak even more clearly:
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 18, 2017 did you enter the United States from Mexico near Lukeville without coming through a designated port of entry? How do you plead to the charge of illegal entry?
For each person listed in the trial, these phrases repeat with only the dates and places of capture changed. As the court records give way to other documents — including a harrowing map of Southern Arizona that pinpoints locations where migrating peoples have died — the text exposes the stakes of the author’s inquiry.
Throughout Defacing the Monument, Briante simultaneously theorizes and performs documentary poetic work, asking: What can a poem do? What can a document hide, or be pressured to reveal? And, while the book is as much a work of visual art as a literary one, it is also a significant volume of criticism. Across a number of sections, Briante examines the writings of other poets who document “with methodologies both imaginative and ethical” — writers like James Agee, CAConrad, Bhanu Kapil, M. NourbeSe Philip, Solmaz Sharif, Layli Long Soldier, Abe Louise Young, and others.
Among these passages in the book is a striking discussion of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, in which Briante cites Philip’s description of the text as “a work of haunting, a wake of sorts, where the spectres of the undead make themselves present.”
Philip’s ethical channeling offers another potential methodology for the poet or documentarian. […] To access the stories excluded from the text or trapped within them as poets and documentarians, we must investigate, must listen for the voices silenced from the page. Instead of shrinking from the violence of the archive, we can match it as Philip does, becoming medium for what has been silenced. We must imagine, but we cannot appropriate nor ventriloquize. We train ourselves to tune into alternative archives.
The critical framing that Briante offers asks would-be writers to take stock of the docupoetic tools these authors have employed. But it asks too that we turn to the life of dream, sensation, gossip, “gut-talk,” and myth in understanding our subjects. As she notes, “Not all information looks like information, nor does all communication. Scientists have discovered trees ‘talk’ through roots, owls warn through wingflash[.] […] Communication buzzes all around us unrecognized.”
Per this notion, throughout the book Briante turns her attention to intimate family documents, such as her Italian great-grandmother’s alien identification card and the objects on her late mother’s bedside table:
In a black binder clip in the top desk drawer of my home office, I keep the essay “What Motherhood Really Means to Me,” a list of her symptoms, a list of her medication in my father’s handwriting (his “a” will never be seen again), the mass card from her funeral, a boarding pass from my Tucson to Newark flight.
I do not know what I am saving them for. I do not know what story I hope to tell about capitalism or family, mothering or money, about cancer (from the Latin word for crab, because cancer cells scuttle throughout the body, forget their function, and place). I wear my mother’s ring, not because I like it, but because when I look down, I see her fingers on my hand.
The mirror tray on her dresser was a wedding gift from her grandmother that came with a matching clock. The clock now sits on a shelf in my living room even though it has stopped.
The objects summon memory and feeling, which Briante uses to deepen her inquiry into what it means to capture a moment in documentary time, and to narrativize grief as well as atrocity. This cataloging is entangled, too, with her questions about the formation of whiteness in America that appear throughout the book. Briante asks how her embodied feelings, which are situated in her race, do and do not allow her to grasp aspects of the border violence. She also asks, but does not answer, how we choose which facts belong to a particular story; how we know that these facts, when collected together, will come to constitute the truth.
In probing the borders of subjectivity and arguing for the multiple methodologies needed for docupoetic work, Briante hopes to incite action in her audience beyond the classic relationship between literature and reader. Her book’s many sections require an alertness, a willingness to pivot and shift alongside them. At times, she even challenges the audience to take up a pen and reply to a series of writing prompts and suggestions for reflection.
In one succinct and lucid passage, Briante articulates the truths and freedoms that such experimental writing can carve out:
In this year of social media algorithms, big data, fake news, alt-fact and news bot, documentary poetries offer a tradition and a space in which a writer can situate events or experiences within broader histories and fields of reference, without the burdens of mainstream journalism’s anxiety over “balanced coverage,” its obsession for presenting “both sides” to issues that are matters of fact, its imperative to build ratings or market share, its tendency toward representing opinions that favor middle-class white stability. (See NPR.)
In describing documentary poetry as a method by which a writer can situate events within broader frames of time and space, Briante pushes back against the Romantic notion that poetry only expresses the unguarded thoughts and emotions of an individual speaker and fails to reach toward collective social histories. But more, her invocation of documentary work emphasizes — following Rukeyser — that primary source documents themselves can be pressured to illustrate how hegemonic language (the language of the law, the language of white supremacy, the language of the major news network) forecloses access to the lived truths of our experience.
In doing so, the book resists simple notions of witness. It questions the relationship between the writer and her subject and asks that the reader perform the same self-interrogation, and not merely dissolve into the writing. It’s a reading experience marked by tension, like works such as Whereas, Look, Citizen, and Coal Mountain Elementary, which awaken readers to the many willfully obscured realities of the present — including the elisions and erasures of political speech and corporate media language. The discomfort of encountering the work befits our political and social reality. To feel otherwise while reading about the US government’s role in creating the atrocity at the Southern border would feel discordant.
While Defacing the Monument has many threads, the project’s core explores the relationship between documentary and action. In other words, to what ends does the writing lead? As Briante notes, today, “our capacity to witness has increased at a disproportionate rate in relation to our ability to effect change. We can be lulled into a false sense of ‘activism’ in our documenting the pain of others as easily as we can by reposting or retweeting every injustice we read.”
Through the book’s many styles and sources, the sheer possibilities of documentary writing become clear. Moving forward, I suspect Defacing the Monument will serve as handbook: I can see it being used within a college classroom or even a community writing workshop, as it reminds readers of how language can open us up not only to the text but to the dynamics of the social world. It offers a pedagogy, and it exists in the realm of the social — it is a book meant to be read and written in, shared and written through. It reminds us to remember, speak out, and band together.
Marie Scarles is a writer, editor, educator, and occasional artist currently based in Philadelphia. She writes about embodiment, late capitalism, chronic illness, work-life, and the hidden histories of urban and rural landscapes.