Anne Boyer, twenty first century girl
Last year I received Anne Boyer’s My Common Heart in the mail near the end of the year. It was 2011, and I was living at the apex of a hill in the east bay, from which I could see the cranes in the Oakland Estuary, a hilltop that made me worry about Sonia’s nascent love for bicycling. It was after I wrote for Steve Evans’s Attention Span, well after I think, and maybe even after I wrote my year-end Disinhibitions for you here, Michael Cross.
I read My Common Heart eagerly, since Anne Boyer is a poet I hold in great esteem—her ability to entwine her domestic dailiness with the dramatic catastrophe of political & economic life fills me with enthusiasm for our art form, even more so for the wisdom, genuine concern for people, & humor with which she manages that confluence. Her chapbook Art is War & her full-length book The Romance of Happy Workers both have unreasonably awesome titles, & both offer such generosity of wit, beauty, & love.
My Common Heart was then my third collection of Anne Boyer’s work, & like I said I read it eagerly. You can download it somewhere, I think, or you could, & if you still can you should. The book deals with the grandiose love of the commune invoked by the Occupations, and in particular the attempt to hold society as such—with all its impossibilities, insanities, brilliance, and horror, society as it exists in real encounters with real people in confrontations with cops, in attempts to build consensus—within the emotional space of a single heart. The turning of the poet’s heart inside-out. The making public of a privateness sort of, but really more the turning private the publicness of a square, a city, a movement, a moment. (I like the word turning here—from the Greek for ‘lathe’—for its implication of a repetitive cutting, the turning into shape of the one into the other.) How to publish the private heart, how to make a commons of it. The book burns with this project, and so with its moment of creation. Closing my eyes I see its afterimages on the insides of my eyelids, that once-was autumn. The hilltop from which I could see helicopters circle Oakland.
Somehow I never wrote about My Common Heart. Then this summer, when I was writing my Attention Span for this year about the previous, I was somehow in other warmer books, and I didn’t write about it then either, though it was a book I read eagerly in the year before, and then offered to poets younger than me as a way to think about poetry right now during that year before. It was a book that was very important to me in that way.
In this year that I did not write about My Common Heart I would read Anne Boyer’s Facebook statuses with varying experiences of love, foreboding, appreciation, and concern. Anne Boyer writes with great openness on Facebook about being a mother to her daughter Hazel, about being a woman poet, about the dangers of wearing awesome new boots on Facebook as regards stalkers, very real stalkers who come to your house and mess with your stuff while you’re away, about getting emails from distressed lovers addressed to her that are not addressed to her, and many other things. It is a very public privateness that she performs there. I would read these statuses and worry for Facebook Anne Boyer sometimes, as an avatar of real Anne Boyer who though I’ve never met I care for as one poet and one parent cares for another poet or parent, sharing certain modes of being in the world.
But what I think My Common Heart would remind me is that the much more radical caring—and much more difficult caring—would be for all people regardless of shared modes. It was that more radical commonality that I could not muster at Oscar Grant Plaza, which led me to keeping Sonia away from Occupy after that single visit, mostly watching helicopters from hilltops.
Then suddenly there was a description of all of this, in Anne Boyer’s own words, among all that scary-real enactment of a poetics that is her Facebooking. And I thought that, for this year, instead of another list, I could just write about Anne Boyer’s work, and how much I appreciate it, and how much it means to me. In a poem called “Ars Poetica” that Anne Boyer put a picture of on Facebook, she writes:
The NYT said “the poet’s work
is to make a private vision public”
but fuck the NYT
I’m the public vision
Jasper Johns said
a fork makes a better painting
than a painting makes a fork
but fuck Jasper Johns
from now on I’m eating with Guernica
twenty first century girl.
I saved the picture of that poem to my phone, where it sits next to pictures of my daughters dancing and hugging other children. It is being published in a chapbook soon, I believe.
I love this poem—its quirky bad-assery, how it stands in the road like it owns it, how it tells big cultural institutions like the NYT and Jasper Johns fuck you. I like how, with the word “Guernica,” we get an echo of the /k/ phoneme that links “work” with “public” and “fuck” earlier in the poem—but it’s an echo that is softer by virtue of the vowel sound that ends the word. How that softness slides into the edgeless /s/ of “century” in that most territory-claiming ending, and the hard-soft presence of the /g/ of girl, not quite a /k/, not quite an /s/. & of course the wonderful irony of the 21st century as represented by a painting of the Spanish Civil War, circa 1937. But O how that painting burns of that moment, just as My Common Heart burned of last year.
In college, living off student loans that went a long way because it was before the Euro, I studied for a year in Spain, in a town not far outside of Madrid, where I spent my time drinking wine and slowly becoming able to read Federico Garcia Lorca in the original. The Museo Reina Sofia, in Madrid, was free to students on certain days of each month, and I would take the train into Madrid on those days and sit for long afternoons in front of Guernica, spanning in grays and blacks one huge wall, more certain of the value of art than at any other moment in my life since. I did not eat with Guernica because there was no food allowed in the galleries, but I did let it fill my vision. I did not know how to write then, but I was a voracious reader, and I read that painting and I read Garcia Lorca and I started to have a dim view of the standard of meaningful art. Guernica is not a fork but it is also not a map or a flag; it twists horror and beauty until you and your moment fracture into aftermaths of both. It opens other possible futures by forcing us to stare at the miserable present, the barbarous past. It is matter, it matters. Of Guernica Picasso said “I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”
Elsewhere, in another poem posted (this time as a PDF) to Facebook, Anne Boyer invokes Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day:
What I do not understand
getting our information
but I held you against my chest when you were new so that if you forgot to breathe my breathing would remind you.
& this is what I love most about Anne Boyer—that though she writes that she does not “write poems like this,” she still writes poems like this. That money and information’s infinite & public unthinkability breathes with the same private breath as her once-infant daughter. Jasper Bernes once gave a talk in Maine that read Bernadette Mayer's work in the 1970s “as an attempt to imagine another way forward for experimental writing, one that, unlike the dry, analytic exercises in self-reflexivity that mark some of the work from this period, was less entangled with what Benjamin Buchloh has called, writing about conceptual art, ‘the vernacular of administration.’” By which I think Jasper Bernes meant that Midwinter Day is a poem that records a day in the life of a parent as well as a poet—that while it registers the “capitalization of everyday life,” as his title has it, the poem does so in a manner that is lyrical, quotidian, & full of warmth & love. Anne Boyer’s twenty first century version is even more momentary, but still full of the interplay between horror & beauty that results when “the public vision / [is] made private.”
Happy 2013 Anne Boyer, Michael Cross, poet friends—may we all be eating with Guernica throughout.