Review: Lake Michigan by Daniel Borzutzky (reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp)

Lake Michigan

By Daniel Borzutzky

88 Pages

University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018


ISBN: 978-0-8229-6522-0


Lake Michigan continues Daniel Borzutzky’s stark poetic depiction of a world in the grips of an Orwellian police state, no less surreal than William Burroughs, no less byzantine and corrupt than Franz Kafka. His earlier work, The Performance of Becoming Human, which won the 2016 National Book Award, explored economic and political violence in Chicago and Chile, from which his parents emigrated to the United States. His other titles include Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy and The Book of Interfering Bodies, both of which explore similar themes of the dehumanizing effects of the neoliberal policies of privatization, austerity, deregulation, free trade, etc. On top of this, or blended into the warp and woof, is the phenomenon of the suspicion of immigrants, their exploitation and disenfranchisement in the modern security state.

In Scene 0, which serves as a sort of Prologue to Lake Michigan, Borzutzky writes,

“This is an attempt to provide context for the insignificant reality of our lives

This is an attempt to provide context for the dreams we have in which we swallow the bodies of the police officers   the prison guards   the mayor   the migra”

The migra: the immigration police. Think ICE, think Trump, think Jeff Sessions.

Lake Michigan is structured as a drama, with two “Acts,” a total of nineteen “scenes,” multi-page surreal lyrics of violence, torture, dehumanization. This form of a drama provides the context of what Roberto Tejada calls “the convulsions of ritual theater.” The police, the protesters, the mayor, the prison officials are all like stock characters in a plot larger than they are; call it neoliberalism or call it systemic racism, it’s the disparities of wealth, income, criminal justice, housing, employment and health care that drive the narrative, what the poet Eileen Myles has described in Borzutzky’s work as a “kaleidoscopic journey of American horror and global horror.”

Take this passage that starts Scene 11, Act 2:

“15 men around a van from the Department of Streets and Sanitation

The men push from the side and back

The van is rocking up and down

It is starting to tip

More men come to the side

9 pushes and it bounces but it doesn’t quite flip and a bunch of men walk away as a horn blares loudly as if telling the men to stop

The mechanics of flipping a van over

Push until it’s bouncing and once it bounces high enough lift from the bottom

11 more pushes and the van falls over onto the driver’s side and there is a celebratory whoop as the men walk away knowing that no one is ahead of his time

A riot is a thing that decides how it is to be done

And who among these men wants to consider the very long history of how he has ever acted or how he has ever felt”

This so makes me think of the Freddie Gray “riot” in my hometown of Baltimore where a group of people looted and burned a CVS. The boiling rage of futility that drives these acts is no less a part of the dramatis personae than the men themselves.

Unlike a conventional stage play, however, there does not seem to be a denouement to Lake Michigan. The tension that leads to crisis just keeps building; possibly it collapses in on itself in a sense of despair. The final four lines in the final scene of Act 2, after all the torture, the mistreatment, the injustice, the “carnage” (remember Trump?) read:

“I know the blankness of my burdens is a coda to the death of the city

I don’t know why I can’t see the moon anymore

I can’t see the stars or the sky anymore

I don’t even bother to look up”

Borzutzky’s verse in incantatory, repetitive, like a drumbeat, eschewing punctuation. This incantatory style, the repetition of phrases (“A was here // B was here // The dying lake was here // The weeping willow was here // The dead sand was here….” Scene 4) also builds tension but neither relieves nor resolves the tension. But Lake Michigan is not meant to provide solutions so much as shine a light on the grave problems.

A recurring image is the “tornado in the mouth” (scenes 1, 9, 13, 18; e.g., “They tell us we must give thanks our mouths are not filled with tornadoes” – Scene 9). It’s not clear to me what this signifies, but could it be the role of the poet, as a form of protest? Yet in Scene 5 we read:

“After Plato threw the poets out of The Republic some were sent to countries where they kill you and others were sent to countries where they couldn’t give a fuck about the stupid shit poets have to say”

Lake Michigan is a timely collection; it certainly responds to the nationalist zeitgeist in the age of Trump, the era of “Make America Great Again.” It may not be a delightful read, but it is a necessary book.

Charles Rammelkamp

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