There’s an epigram by Bertolt Brecht that circulates on social media, usually translated something like this: “In the dark times / will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times.” People often seem to share this verse—published in 1939, while Brecht, a vehement anti-Nazi, was exiled from his native Germany—as a token of hope, a testament to the human spirit’s eternal resilience. But it also articulates the stultifying effects of crisis on the imagination. During dark times, all anyone can talk about is the dark times, and it’s hard to say anything original or useful; the talk becomes treacly, or else cynical, the echoing clichés lulling listeners to sleep. Brecht assumed a responsibility to keep readers attuned to the sound of his era’s brutality and banality. He was less interested in song as a source of relief than in its power to awaken an audience—and provoke a reckoning.
The ugly music of our own moment resonates, stark and dissonant, in the very first line of Daniel Borzutzky’s latest poetry collection, “Written After a Massacre in the Year 2018”: “Through predictive analytics I understood the inevitability of the caged-up babies.” This mixture of visceral horror and authoritative detachment—not conventionally lyrical—feels disturbingly familiar, epitomizing the tone of what Borzutzky calls “the blankest of times.” “Blank,” here, is both adjective and absence, a Mad Lib of cataclysm that is impossible to fill in.
The title of “Written After a Massacre” refers to the mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, where the author became a bar mitzvah, but the collection encompasses a wide scope of terror and loss. In it, Borzutzky extends a narrative set forth in his previous work, including “Lake Michigan” (2018) and “The Performance of Becoming Human” (2016), which won the National Book Award for Poetry (perhaps somewhat ironically, since Borzutzky has called it “a completely anti-national book”). Set in a capitalist police-state beset by climate destruction, these new poems range from the mundane—“There were charges on his credit card for kitchenware purchased on Amazon / He called Amazon to complain and they referred him to their fraud-detection department”—to the apocalyptic: “The beach is burning in the middle of the city and they tell / Us the lake is not dead but we know it has / Disappeared into the chemical blankness.” Commonplace phrases that should shock (“caged-up babies”) surface in the same flat register as bureaucratic bromides and bald clichés (“we will welcome the short-term pain if it leads to long-term gain”).
Sentence structures replicate almost mechanically across long, prose-like lines, evoking the roteness of modern evil: systemic murder is subsumed into a daily churn of business as usual, reduced to anecdotes—memes, even—that may go viral but soon recede into the feed. Poems such as “Take a Body and Replace It With Another Body” play on this idea of automation, acknowledging how even literary craft can boil down to operations of substitution—“Take a word and replace it with another word.” But Borzutzky emphasizes that even the most dehumanizing processes are set into motion by human hands, not “self-generated by nature.”
Rather than merely re-create the cacophony du jour, Borzutzky distorts its stock rhythms and idioms, rendering them newly strange. Shifting between singular and plural first-, third-, and second-person perspectives, these poems test our language’s capacity to contend with the now. “Wall” flays that emblematic image of the Trump Presidency. “I’ve been treated very unfairly by this wall,” Borzutzky writes. Through repetition and mutation, this quotidian motif is imbued with a sense of tragedy—“a murmuring ghost in the wall”—and an absurdist intensity: “Their balls are to the wall / There is a fly on the wall / We bang our heads against the wall.” Built brick by blunt brick, the wall is at once saturated with significance and exhausted of it.
Another Trumpist epithet is repurposed, if not precisely reclaimed, in “Shithole Song #1106,” which riffs on Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue,” a poem Celan published in 1947 and eventually disavowed for its aestheticization of the Holocaust. In “Death Fugue,” a man—a Nazi officer or death himself—“whistles his jews to appear let a grave be dug in the earth.” “Shithole Song #1106” is the answer of those forced to wield the shovels, their abjection compounded by demands that they rhapsodize their suffering: “they say sing this song of hope and dig that shithole deeper.”
Borzutzky follows in a long tradition of challenging the notion that art should ennoble the experience of oppression. Pablo Neruda famously refused to transform state violence via metaphor, writing that “the blood of children ran through the streets / simply, like the blood of children.” Borzutzky, in turn, observes that “The exchange value of a slaughtered Jew is like / the exchange value of a slaughtered Jew,” denying the catharsis of comparison and fixating on a reality that poetry cannot promise to redeem. Song of hope notwithstanding, the shithole, by design, can never be anything but.
“Written After a Massacre” reads as a rejoinder to the philosopher Theodor Adorno’s claim that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Borzutzky situates a single, close-to-home catastrophe—the attack on his own congregation—within a constellation of American atrocity: abuses against migrants at the border, the habitual slaying of Black people by cops, the COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately devastated marginalized communities. Instead of preserving current events in stone monuments, Borzutzky handles history as liquid, the past a wave forever crashing into the present. Every “after” also falls, critically, “amid”: “We are always writing after a massacre, always writing amid the grief and horror of police and white-supremacist murder.” This witness-bearing is not just for posterity; it’s an urgently contemporary project, rejecting the pretense of retrospective distance in order to mourn from within chaos.
But what’s the point of singing about dark times if our songs won’t save us? Why try to make poetry from the particular, unbearable language we are living through? “I don’t know,” Borzutzky admits, and that uncertainty is the seed from which this book takes root. “I write because I know that I don’t know.”
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