Reviews Anne Boyer's Garments Against Women
Anne Boyer, Garments Against Women, Boise, ID: Ahsahta, 2015. 104pp.
Anne Boyer's Garments Against Women is a dress you've had for a long time that carries with it a life you remember well—it is the dress you are afraid of wearing again for all the burdens it housed during the time it was worn, for the history its manufacturing carries—it is the dress, it is no ordinary thing.
The book takes many shapes. At first it is an account, a diary, a kind of inventory for the speakers' happiness, her labor, her stress, her whim, and her peace.
It is both prose poem and pattern—
And then the book is also a garment, strips of fabric patterned with a language of searching, a language which is itself an accumulation of cloth.
A cloth which resists adornment and demands to have time taken with its seams, a kind of attention like "writing," like love and depression and sickness and motherhood.
These are some of the seams that attach the larger garment, Boyer's shame, with her culture—a culture I do not want to wear, a culture exposed in the poem "What is 'Not Writing'?" (and many others): "writing is like literature is like the world of monsters is the production of culture is I hate culture is the world of wealthy women and of men" (46).
One of the most compelling conflicts in the narrative is the speaker's shame of writing and her inclination toward sewing because "it is probably more meaningful to sew a dress than to write a poem" (29), as she writes in her poem "At Least Two Types of People."
Sewing becomes a kind of replacement for writing in which Boyer sees more value.
Boyer writes, "'writing steals from my life and gives me nothing but pain and worry and what I can't have' or 'writing steals from my already empty bank account' or 'writing gives me ideas I do not need or want' or 'writing is the manufacture of impossible desire" (29).
Writing generates blame for the speaker. It is a cause for her physical ailments: "When I was writing I had many symptoms including back spasms and ocular migraines, and then when I was not writing I spend one month feverish, infected in many places, weak, coughing, voiceless, allergic, itchy, with swollen joints, hands, and feet" (29). Here the speaker struggles to form a logic around the question of how one answers to pain.
There are moments in which I think of the garment as a kind of geography along whose landmarks we watch the speaker's world collect and unravel.
"There is no superiority in making things or in re-making things," (20) she writes in "No World but the World."
Writing for the speaker inhabits a false existence, it makes reality dreary by comparison—it is a burden, or a prison of sorts.
It is a privilege, but it is also ordinary.
I am not special.
Anne Boyer is not special.
She writes: "It's like everything else, old men who go fishing, hair extensions, nail art, individual false eyelashes" (20).
Boyer spans unusual possibilities which are oftentimes humorous, as the combinations are so surprising: "flowers that might even be marigold and petunias" and "perfume that smells like party girls…perfume that does not smell like flowers or more like flowers mixed with the urine of jungle animals and some tobacco smoke" (20). As the language here is "making things" or "re-making things," I begin to see these moments of raw imagery as monuments along a map.
These patterns are as otherworldly in their syntax as they are familiar in their bleakness: "the cracked dirty swimming pools of low-rent apartment complexes, bleach-haired boys smoking dope along a chain-linked fence" (20).
The speaker pulls from different parts of her memory to create a schema, a method for the reader to navigate her world as though sewing a garment.
Boyer is as much a cartographer as she is a seamstress and a poet.
But she is an activist more than any of these things.
Boyer's probing of Western culture is at the forefront of Garments, and her tone devotes itself to the lives that suffer to create a garment. It is a tone that does not to show itself off, it prefers to inform, to create details and categories.
And then the garment becomes a rupture in routine, a subversion of logic and language: "the stateless state of contract labor, the invisible IV also the invisible catheter, everyone hugging the duct tape replica like starving little rhesus monkeys,
everything in the everything like 'there is no world but the world!'"(20)—Which sounds like a subversion of something along the lines of that's just the way it is—a way to avoid addressing the problem.
We see the speaker's own poverty, "I make anywhere from 10 to 15 dollars an hour at any of my three jobs" (20) as she diagrams her guilt, "The fabric still contains the hours of the lives, those of the farmers and shepherds and chemists and factory workers and truckers and salespeople and the first purchases, the givers-away, who were probably women who sewed" (20).
The garment, in addition to everything else, is evidence.
The lives on the other side of the garment suffer, and you are wearing it as an ornament.
Accumulating more cloth, Boyer writes in her poem, "Sewing": "I sew and the historical of sewing becomes a feeling just as when I used to be a poet, when I used to write poetry, used to write poetry and that thing—culture—began tendrilling out in me" (29).
Writing becomes a term, "writing," which has its own context and rules for Boyer. It is most often understood in terms of its antithesis, a term Boyer calls "Not Writing."
In her poem "Not Writing," she states, "It is easy to imagine not writing, both accidentally and intentionally. It is easy because there have been years and months and days I have thought the way to live was not writing have known what writing consisted of and have thought 'I do not want to do that' and 'writing steals me from my loved ones'" (46).
Like writing, "not writing" produces a very specific pattern of problems and consequences: "I thought it was my writing that was making me sick," (6) she writes in "The Innocent Question."
Boyer continues, "when I was writing I had many symptoms including back spasms and ocular migraines, and then when I was not writing I spend one month feverish, infected in many places, weak, coughing, voiceless, allergic, itchy, with swollen joints, hands, and feet" (6).
Writing is against not writing; negations form the speaker's orientation.
A garment is understood as what it is "against."
Against the speaker, against women whose identities are informed by clothing in the eyes of the world, against women who are overworked in factories, against children who are forced into labor.
I found myself frequently returning to Anne Boyer's Garments Against Women during this slow summer. It was something that I believe I wore, that I am still wearing.
I pull some of the loose frays carefully—
I make sure to iron it—
it is a book I felt at home with.
It is a book that told me I am not important,
that Anne Boyer is not important—
it is a book I want to preserve, to take care of.
Isabel Balée received her MFA in poetry from Brown University (2015). Her poetry has appeared in Thermos, Alice Blue, A Bad Penny Review, and elsewhere. Born and raised in New Orleans, she currently lives in Providence, RI.