Tuesday, July 12, 2016



Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer
(Ahsahta Press,  Boise, ID, 2015)

Most of the poets I know are or have at one time been obsessed with Garments Against Women, Anne Boyer’s deep meditation on gender, illness, poverty and trauma. I am too, and no wonder—it’s a book that insists upon multiple readings, over time, and in various contexts. Using the actions of sewing, shopping for and inhabiting garments as a framework for her examination, Boyer both exposes and complicates a specifically female experience of poverty and embodiment. The specificity of her position is made richer by the power of her language. The deft combination of vulnerability and risk-taking with analytic prowess make this a fascinating and subversive book.

I have found myself following two major through-lines in Garments. One is the title, which resonates all throughout the book to varying degrees of overtness. It is itself a three-word poem, descriptive of clothing that is simultaneously (and specifically) opposed to and in close contact with women. The tesseract of the title keeps opening out the more one considers its implications.  It’s a brilliant move. So much punishment centers around clothing for the female body; women are constantly punished for wearing the wrong type, the wrong style, the wrong brand, the wrong degree of normative femininity, the wrong color, the wrong class expression (and most likely on the wrong kind of body) for someone’s agenda. It’s not hard to extrapolate that, in service to capitalism, the clothing itself is a punishment. And yet there’s something magical in the action of sewing, with its problems of multidimensionality:

Sometimes when you look at smoothly joining at least two different-sized pieces of flat but pliable material so that these pieces might correctly encase an eternally irregular, perspiring and breathing three-dimensional object that cannot cease its motion you think that there is no way ever this could happen, yet sometimes it does (30).

A three-dimensional object that cannot cease its motion: A human in an environment. Sewing is an ongoing engineering problem, a practice in applied physics. And in that sense too, Boyer is included in her own title, as a woman literally confronting the problem of garment construction.

The other key idea for me in this book is presented on page nine:

Inadmissible information is often information that has something to do with biology (illness, sex, reproduction) or money (poverty) or violence (how money and bodies meet). Inadmissible information might also have to do with being defanged by power (courts, bosses, fathers, editors, and other authorities) or behaving against power in such a way that one soon will be defanged (crime).[1]

Boyer’s definition and expansion of the categories of inadmissible information function here as a sort of mission statement, clearly giving notice to readers that Garments Against Women will contain such information. This is a vital move, and a radical one, stepping up to the page and refusing to wait for permission before conveying so many interdicted realities.

            The refusal to wait for permission—or rather the imperative to write while in full awareness that permission will never be given—is probably one reason the book is an obsessional object for so many poets.  Many of us struggle to write from this space, and the stakes for doing so are high. The work becomes all the more linked to the self, and the text must be all the more powerful and limber to handle the roles it must play. Poets as readers gravitate toward books like Garments Against Women because they offer a sense of possibility (or possible approaches) and an antidote to isolation. Boyer presents the most inadmissible information possible: how precisely the mechanisms of neoliberal economics function to regulate bodies in service of the already-powerful, perpetuating that power (in the form of wealth and violence) and rationalizing it. Boyer speaks directly of and from the consequences of neoliberal practices on the exploited, burdened body; the physical cost of being a cog in a wealth-perpetuating machine is illness and disability, which disqualifies a person from participation in further wealth-perpetuation while shifting the blame for the loss of wealth firmly (again) back onto the body of the exploited. This is a complicated transaction and Boyer’s approach is both thorough and nonlinear.

            One way that the text is built involves interaction with texts by other authors, some of which are woven into Boyer’s own dialogues with herself, her daughter and various lovers. These texts are wide-ranging, covering Rousseau, a vintage sewing handbook (that seems also to double as a gender-policing social-control medium), a self-help book and occasional other poets. An especially effective example of the latter is this part of page 71:

I thought about the poet Marcia Nardi who wrote “as if there were no connection between my being stuck at the ribbon counter at Woolworth’s for eight hours a day at minimum hourly wage, and my inability to function as a poet.” I was melancholy and wrote defenses of my melancholy. I totally forgot to shop.

The last sentence reminds me of George W. Bush’s infamous admonition to U.S. citizens to express appropriate patriotic grief and support the freshly-overt “anti-terror” war effort by getting out there and shopping.  Did Boyer really “forget” to shop? Or was this experience and defense of melancholy more of a resistant act in solidarity—and in conversation with—Nardi? What about the inability to shop? To carry out the order to shop, which was never rescinded, just like we’re still at war?

            Garments Against Women rewards repeated readings by highlighting the ambiguity in supposedly straightforward experience. Language choices are both accurate and uneasy, allowing readers to inhabit the page according to their own immediate experiences. I found myself returning again to this sentence: “These were the days I had to go do dim things in government offices, and believed, once again, in the danger of aspirations” (80). This speaks so clearly to the special humiliation of encounters with government bureaucracy, especially if one is applying for public assistance, or in court to change a name, or anywhere trying to change a gender marker. Of these three examples I’m guessing the only one I share with Boyer is the first, which is enough to evoke bodily memories of the waiting room, the face-to-face with a case officer. Yet those memories are also complicated by my uncertain relationship to the second half of the sentence—the danger of aspirations.

            What is that? Is the danger in having aspirations, or in the aspirations themselves? Is it all aspirations, or only certain ones? Ones that society deems inappropriate, like being a poet? Boyer writes of “believing once again” in the danger. Did she once doubt that aspirations were dangerous? When I look at this clause, I can’t help but consider my own life, my own aspirations, and try to sort out which ones were dangerous, and in what ways. I’m grateful to Boyer for this catalyst, because I’ve realized that the most truly dangerous aspirations—dangerous to me, my well-being—were the ones I held and pursued because they were expected, even demanded, by others. If this is inadmissible information, then it is so because of its potential for liberation. No algorithm can touch it.

[1] I resist the temptation to quote the entire page here, despite its importance to the reading of the book as a whole.  But I will add something from my own subject position, which Boyer’s book naturally would not include because it’s outside of the one presented in the book: information having to do with queer bodies, transgender bodies and/or bodies of color definitely also falls under the heading of “inadmissible.”


Hybrid artist/poet Jay Besemer is the author of many poetic artifacts including ChelateTelephone (both from Brooklyn Arts Press), A New Territory Sought (Moria), Aster to Daylily (Damask Press), and Object with Man’s Face (Rain Taxi Ohm Editions). He is a contributor to the groundbreaking anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics. His performances and video poems have been featured in various festivals and series, including Meekling Press’ TALKS Series, Chicago Calling Arts Festival, Red Rover Series {readings that play with reading}, and Absinthe & Zygote. Jay also contributes performance texts, poems, and critical essays to numerous publications including Jacket2, Nerve Lantern: Axon of Performance Literature, PANK, Petra, Barzakh, The Collagist, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The VOLTA, and the CCM organs ENTROPY and ENCLAVE. He is a contributing editor with The Operating System, and founder of the Intermittent Series in Chicago.

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