Susan Briante’s Defacing the Monument (Noemi Press, 2020) dialogues with a lineage of documentary poetry which interrogates the stability of state-issued documentation. Defacing the Monument conducts a polyphonic dialogue between poetry, literary criticism, archive, contemporary media and corporal experience—an amassing of visual and textual bodies come to riot in a relational space alert to subjectivities, especially the poet’s own. The overlaying of literary criticism with a range of contemporary sources on the violence of the U.S.–Mexico border posits a broadly applicable question of the artist’s position in interrupting state violence, problematizing “witness” and refusing to conceptualize the commodification of witness in “giving voice.”
Defacing the Monument wrestles with the ways in which lives are registered and not registered within entrenched systems of extraction and division, extending the interests of Briante’s last collection, The Market Wonders (Ahsahta Press, 2016). In so doing, Briante investigates a rhetoric that allows for seeing around and through these structures; “a document can pull a nation out from under you,” Briante writes. The document at the border “does not tell us: what spiraled and scurried in the wake of these travelers? What screamed and cried? What debt? What tender? What moans?” Defacing the Monument expands Briante’s themes of motion, particularizing the inequities in circulation of people, goods, capital, and words across a political line. The poet’s body—as teacher living in Tucson, Arizona, and citizen born of a family of Italian immigrants—is continuously present in the confrontation of these governing structures with a poetics of interruption.
Documentary poetry, Briante argues, holds a specific role “in this year of social media algorithms, big data, fake news, alt-fact and news bot.” Summoning Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, Defacing the Monument serves as a primer in writing documentary poetry, a form that intervenes archival documents to interrupt the lines of power they entrench. Bridging the grief of a parent’s death and the trauma of the regime change following the 2016 election, this book is situated as a genealogical monument-marker within poetic, familial, and political motion. In the capacity of primer, Defacing the Monument is concerned not just with passing through but with passing on—the continuities, debts, and sheltered places of lineages reconstructed. In this documentary work situated at the U.S.–Mexico border, words come across the boundary through thematic and formal manifestations of interruption, debt, and being in the hold.
Interruption and the Call to Order
The border of the nation-state is site of interruption, of words snagging. “There is an ethical bind at the core of any documentary poetry project that attempts to reclaim history as some totality,” Philip Metres writes in “(More) News from Poems.” “Or that says, This is the body.” There is not at the site of the border a totality to be reclaimed except the normalization of the militarized border that purports the totality of the territorial state. In the face of this, the response of the documentary poet can only be to dwell more deeply in the spaces of interruptions. “What happens when we attempt to interrupt a war machine” is the question that opens Defacing the Monument, an epigraph from Hugo García Manríquez. The book is the investigation, through language and bodies, of the means of interruption, and of what we do with the words that erupt.
Briante self-reflectively traces the documentary poem’s position within a network of relations to poetic tactics of interruption. One of these is the fracturing of documentary text into broken multiplicity, revealing the parts that always already existed but could not be heard. “Sometimes it helps to sit inside a building and imagine what it would be like to wrecking ball its walls, in order to make sense of one’s orientation,” the poet writes of Operation Streamline court hearings in which 75 migrants are tried at a time for charges of “illegal” entry. Orientations becomes evident in this process of breaking.
“Can a poem counter the violence of the state?” asks the nucleus of the book Defacing the Monument. What is the relationship between breaking the text and breaking into and out of the hold of the violence of the state? Briante’s lens can be understood within the conceptual framework of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, which brings black radical tradition to bear as critique of capitalist logistics. Moten and Harney conceive of this state of dwelling in brokenness as “being in the break.”
The production of evident interruption, absence and breakage always references its counterpart, The Call to Order, in Moten and Harney’s conceptualization. The logic of the nation state’s border thrives on order, bureaucracy and the accrual of banalities that, through the logic of order, elide the ways these banalities lead to atrocity. The order is the administrative decree; the order is hierarchical obedience; the order is precedent. Order and categorization— legal and illegal resident, citizen and stateless, this side and el otro lado— indicate Enlightenment, colonial means of centralizing knowledge within the state. The migrant is not told where they are going until they are on the plane in shackles.
In Defacing the Monument as in The Market Wonders, the barrier is a Call to Order. Referencing Bhanu Kapil, Briante asks in The Market Wonders, “Sentimentality is a shard from the shop front window of family. What sliver of American plate glass do you see?” The border and the market divide who and what is on either side of the barrier, and Briante questions how the family is situated in relation to that divide. The glass recalls the divides of ICE detention, of family separation, of the port of entry, that which can be seen through but not moved through. In The Market Wonders, the barrier comes to be intimately embodied, “The glass tastes like cold stone and dirt and I love the way it fractures in my mouth.”
The poet’s body is what is repeatedly offered against this Call to Order. The poet’s body constantly intervenes between the reader and the subject, as a form of performance or civil disobedience. The poet uses her own body as the greatest intimacy, as a means to deflect from conveying intimacy with the bodies of others that is not hers to give, claiming “My white woman’s body draws or deflects attention in often violent ways.” Briante investigates the ways in which the disruption by her privileged, white body is read distinctly against the surface of the border compared to the body of a migrant. Part of the Call to Order in literary production includes where the poet’s body is situated in the creation of the text (or where we can assume the body was situated— inside the nation, at the desk). Briante’s body brings into relief the violence of the order of space at the border by investigating the courtroom, shelter, sidewalk, checkpoint, wall as sensitive sites of creativity and hosts to words and bodies of unequal valences.
Briante references modes of literary interruption in “breaking” the state text and inserting her body as a corporal interruption of discourses of state violence. In so doing, this book addresses techniques of documentary poetry to respond to the interruptions and ordered violence of the border.
Migrants arrive at the border in a state of economic debt from the journey that often creates the impossibility of return. As a means of leaving immigration detention, the bond payment structurally entrenches debt anew. “Que le vaya bien, the lawyers say as the migrants begin their slow procession out of the courtroom in chains,” Briante writes. Border moments of confrontation are rife with these platitudes, phrases keeping the order and suggesting debt—the indebtedness of people coming to the border from the south to the system that gate-keeps in the north, indebtedness for the act of consideration by the lawyer. Que dios te bendiga is the ubiquitous blessing the volunteers at the migrant shelter receive, so many times a day from guests. The structure of both the state/policing and private/humanitarian interactions with those coming to the border from the south establishes the transient person as the one who, facing the guarded state, is indebted.
“Debt at a distance is forgotten,” Moten and Harney write. The blindness imposed by the line of the border allows for those accepted by the state to look away, to forget. One of the functions of the line is to displace debt, occluding the ways in which the occupying settler state is in fact the holder of debt to occupied land, resource extraction, un-repaired relations, and labor exploitation. The logic of the border line is consistent with a culture of extraction in which the border inherently threatens to prevent circularity or return.
In the same way that documentary poetry can respond to interruptions of the border with further breaking, the debts obscured by the border are brought to bear through formal attributes that reveal the debts involved in artistic creation. This happens first through the prevalence of citation in Defacing the Monument, a text that frequently points outside of itself and includes a bibliography of resources on Documentary Poetry, which is referenced throughout. While The Market Wonders brings the market to bear on the birth of a child, the familial backdrop to Defacing the Monument is the death of parents. Who do we reference, and who comes before us? Briante is asking. How do they get past/ passed through us? The motion of aging and the motion of poetic tradition through genealogy breaks through the poet in the act of writing, a maturation of the writer’s responsibility. Briante asks, in the motion of history and the motion of territory, who is allowed to pass, and how?
The unanswered debt is repeatedly present in Defacing the Monument in the form of open questions that continuously reference outside the text:
Citizenship has a price.
Who pays the debt?
Referencing work of Christina Rivera Garza, Defacing the Monument argues that it is not for the author to repay the debts of their creation. Rather, it is for the author to drive further into the state of debt, and make the evidence of debt component of the text. “My compassion must compel me to see the ways directly or indirectly that I am implicated in their suffering,” Briante reflects. Defacing the Monument inserts the documentary poet in this cycle of not repaying debt but returning a right sense of the providence of the debt, particularly with an audience of readers and activists who understand themselves to be within a nation morally and financially indebted.
Being in the Hold
The border operates through the confinement of bodies— through moving bodies in particular directions in relation to the line, keeping bodies away, keeping bodies in. In the U.S. District Court in Arizona, Briante writes that “shackles chime like the riggings of a ship in harbor in the moments before beginning a voyage,” recalling the hold of the slave ship and the imprisoning tactics of the colonizer, whose precedent leads directly to the logic of detention at the border, the contemporary hold. Moten and Harney expand the concept of “being in the hold” in reference to the slave ship and as a trope that appears ever more widely. The documentary poem at the border comes to a place of confronting the hold.
Briante insists that the writer, as the one who carries over and the one who holds, has a distinct responsibility in this capacity. The responsibility of writing must be accompanied by an embodied understanding of how the writer is implicated by the violence that creates what they hold. “We need to learn the violence carried and encoded upon our bodies. And instead of waiting to be confronted / we need to learn to seek that self-reflective and self-destructive trembling.” The hold of the border line is a violence enacted in the line of waiting. The page becomes the space where the wait is memorialized, is made visible against finite edges. Briante experiments with the question, “What are the aesthetics of no intelligibility, no relief?”
The hold is maintained by the surveilling gaze of the state and its totalizing language, and the multiplicity of the poet is the subject who meets its gaze. “Be distrustful of a state that does not allow you to look at the faces of the people it parades into a courtroom in chains,” Briante writes. Briante maintains a philosophy that the gaze into the face of another is the source of first ethics, “to look into the face of another is to skew late capitalism’s calculations of ‘<’ and ‘>’.” In describing the poetry project for migrants passing through the Sonoran desert, the Desert Survival Series, Briante asks, “Poet, do you stand like the barrel cactus with your face full of sun or do you turn away?” In Defacing the Monument, imagery of returning the gaze in the act of writing becomes one means of response to the hold of the state.
The potential of the text as a site of different holding takes particular significance in the context of the border. “In what way is the documentary poem a form of sanctuary or shelter?” Briante asks, repeating a language that she applies to the construct of citizenship. “A shelter that was never constructed to cover everyone equally.” Briante tests the potential of the poem as that which can shield from the hold of the state.
Can the poet extend the document like a blanket across the desert, can they shelter migrant men, women, and children from the gaze of the state?”
“Without the comfort of resolution”
“I want poems to tell the story of the border without the comfort of resolution.” I want to make “our responsibility in the atrocity of the border feel unbearable,” Briante states. Among a concluding set of Questions and Provocations for the Documentarian, Briante includes an Autolocation Exercise: “Place yourself in the center of this box.” Then, “Draw your links to your subject matter. Map your intersections” The box on the page stands empty, stage-like. The text of the book has created a platform accrued with networks of relational poet-activist witnesses, who by the end of the book turn an inescapable gaze on the reader.
As Briante notes, Defacing the Monument captures a precise moment of writing at a time of rapid upheavals in border policy. Since the text was written, the number of migrants cited who have died in ICE custody has risen, the number of cited miles of border wall constructed has increased. Scott Warren, the No More Deaths volunteer Briante cites who was on trial for providing humanitarian aid to migrants in the Sonoran desert, has been acquitted amidst continued persecution of migrant solidarity work. The Remain in Mexico policy and effective ending of asylum implemented since the writing of Defacing the Monument are considered by many immigration lawyers to be even more lethal than the Family Separation policy in place at the time of writing.
In August 2020, Defacing the Monument could not be more timely. It is a manual for defacing not just public historical statues, but the monuments of white supremacy and racial capitalism broadly conceived in contemporary U.S. legal and economic systems, and their languages and archives. Departures between the moment of writing and the moment of publication make all the more blatant the imperative of documentation and intervention beneath the rapidly changing definitions of normalcy in a fascist state.