The Work-Shy

Reviewed by Eli P. Mandel


Published by Wesleyan University Press, 2016   |   160 pages

  “I can scarcely wait for the day of my imprisonment,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote at the age of twenty-seven, in “In Prison” (1938), a curious prose piece about the pleasures of incarceration. She goes on to specify the dimensions of her preferred cell (12×16), the state of the walls (“interestingly stained”), the view from the window (the prison courtyard), and her preferred reading material (“one very dull book…the duller the better”). Judiciously we might read “In Prison” as a fiction whose narrator is not Bishop, but this piece of menacing whimsy is a poet’s daydream, a fantasia on the theme of an undisturbed poetic career. She imagines writing on the wall texts that are “brief, suggestive, anguished, but full of the lights of revelation”— fragments in dialogue with those of inmates present and future, like a cellblock version of poetic influence.

Real involuntary confinement is no light matter, being as it is one of the ongoing forms of bondage perpetuated by humans on other humans. (Bishop’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism offers one explanation for why she might have located freedom in constraint.) But perhaps Bishop wasn’t wrong to locate within its perverse confines the possibility of art. The Work-Shy, a first book authored by the anonymous collective that calls itself blunt research group, attempts to do just that: to wrest poems from the lived experience of incarceration as if poetry could be a jailbreak.

The Work-Shy is divided into three sections or sequences of poems: “Lost Privilege Company,” “The Book of Listening,” and “Creedmoorblanca.” The first and last take up episodes in the history of incarceration, offering shards of language from archival documents. Each poem within these sections is named for a speaker or subject—real but lost except to the ghosts of institutional archives—around whom it circles: Javier, Uriah, Hyacinth, Jane. Photographs and brief explanatory essays ensure that the gravity of these voices from the past is not lost on the reader. Meanwhile, “The Book of Listening,” a shorter poem positioned between its two more expansive siblings, offers something like an authors’ statement or ars poetica, unfolding both the aims and ethical quandaries of the book.

The first sequence of poems, “Lost Privilege Company,” draws on case files, kept by the Carnegie- and Rockefeller-funded Eugenics Research Office, of California reform schools in the years from 1910 to 1915. These “schools”—a.k.a. labor camps—imprisoned mostly Hispanic teenagers; many of the children were then selected for state-sponsored compulsory sterilization. Along the way, those who oversaw these institutions took every opportunity to besmirch their young inmates, diagnosing as pathological the very fact of their existence. In one document quoted in The Work-Shy, a boy is said to possess “all the bad characteristics of all the boys”—as if being a Hispanic kid were by definition depraved.  blunt research group points out that Hitler praised this Californian model of eugenics; the book’s title is itself a translation of Arbeitscheu, one of the categories of concentration-camp inmate in the deranged taxonomy of the Third Reich. The parallels to our current American moment, which renders us all complicit in a prison-industrial complex that preys on people of color and the poor, are chilling.

The Work-Shy’s second long sequence, “Creedmoorblanca,” opens another archive of incarceration, more familiar but no less troubling: that of the mental institution. Whereas “Lost Privilege Company” speaks through the official records of the eugenics program over a fifteen-year period, this series of poems derives from the writings of psychiatric patients institutionalized over a much longer time (1909–1980). Voices emerge from three famous asylums—Creedmoor in New York City, Breitenau in the German village of the same name, and the Heidelberg University Hospital’s psychiatric clinic. Here there is a Nazi connection, as well: Breitenau became a concentration camp, and some of Heidelberg’s collection of art by the mentally ill, the Prinzhorn Collection, found its way into the Nazis’ notorious Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937. According to blunt research group, the source texts are “diary entries, treatises, tabulations, rants, testimonials, letters undelivered. They are witness to asylum.”

Institutionalized poets have been around as long as there have been institutions. The 18th- and 19th-centuries, for instance, yield Christopher Smart and John Clare in England, and Friedrich Hölderlin in what is now Germany: three periodically incarcerated writers on peer with any of the luminaries of their times who did not have to do their writing in locked cells. In the early twentieth century, Hans Prinzhorn, who founded the Prinzhorn Collection mentioned above, inaugurated a more general interest, half-clinical and half-aesthetic, in the work of asylum inmates with his illustrated monograph, Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922). Inspired by Prinzhorn in the 1940s, Jean Dubuffet collected and drew inspiration from what he called art brut, and, in 1972, Roger Cardinal published Outsider Art, an art-history text whose title is now the standard English descriptor for the cultural productions of the culturally dispossessed.

Despite the art world’s fixation on outsider art, only a handful of anthologies in English collect the writings of the mentally ill, most importantly John Oakes’s In the Realms of the Unreal:“Insane Writings” (1992), from which some parts of “Creedmoorblanca” are adapted. Meanwhile there is renewed interest in particular “insane” writers: the Chicago janitor Henry Darger, who inspired John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run; the New Jersey poet-recluse Alfred Starr Hamilton; the German asylum-poet Ernst Herbeck, a master of nonsense; and, most conspicuous in the literary world, the Swiss novelist Robert Walser, whose works have appeared to much acclaim in recent editions from the New York Review of Books and New Directions. Meanwhile, a new project at the Neubauer Collegium of the University of Chicago is conducting groundbreaking research on what its director, the poet and scholar John Wilkinson, calls “outsider writing” (in distinction to visual practices).

The celebration and elevation of  outsider writing give the institutionalized—as well as the isolated, the eccentric, and the untaught—public voices at the same time that the genre risks fetishizing illness and oddness. What is often called “documentary poetry,” by contrast, makes art not through the restoration of marginalized voices but rather through the breaking of the authoritarian language that imprisons them. This kind of work often involves reshaping documents belonging to the powerful—governmental or cultural authorities, or both—so that they work against themselves, unveiling the very forces they have tried to conceal and repress. Poetry, in this account, is not only a creative but also an ethical act, reordering the past to make room for a better future. As with outsider art, there is a long pre-history here: the multifarious 14th-century English poem Piers Plowman bears just this sort of subversive relationship to the legal and ecclesiastical documents on which it is built, as the medievalist Emily Steiner has argued. Documentary poetry came into its own as a self-conscious practice only in the 20th-century, as a product both of the endless paper trail of modern empire and the skeptical attention paid to such libraries of power by the likes of Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault.

In the modern period, the ur-text for poetry in this vein is Testimony, the New Yorker/Russian Jew/lawyer Charles Reznikoff’s massive poem built entirely from the language of U.S. court transcripts and published over the course of forty-four years (1934–1978). Testimony is austere and terrifyingly clear—an impassive catalogue of deaths resulting from institutional negligence, racial violence, and petty crimes gone wrong—but the more recent trend in documentary poetry is toward exploded, opaque text. In 2011, another lawyer, M. NourbeSe Philip, published Zong!, which takes an 18th-century insurance case—the lost “property” were drowned slaves—and breaks it into tiny, reflective fragments. Susan Howe, whose poetry over the last half century has sought sublime rebellion in obscure archival texts from colonial and 19th-century America, also works within in aesthetic of disjunction and breakage.

The Work-Shy sits somewhere between outsider art on the one hand and documentary poetry on the other. “Lost Privilege Company” confronts the written traces of eugenics, much as Philip does with the legalese of the Middle Passage; “Creedmoorblanca” records the voices of the “abnormal,” some of whom have already been published in other books of outsider writing. But the poems, formed largely through erasure and the harvesting of select phrases, are not as scattershot and pointillist as many works of documentary poetry (as in Zong! and much of Howe’s work), and, because of the mediation of blunt research group (despite their anonymity), they do not confer as much weight on the style and character of individual persons as most outsider-writing publications do. The Work-Shy’s authors have their own agenda that defies generic categorization: “could speech,” they write, “become a way of listening?”

In The Work-Shy, to listen through speech means recording and playing back lost lives—but not too clearly. The transition from prose archive to lyric poem supplies the static and feedback, the deterioration of the tape. Here, for instance, is what the blunt research group does with the case file of “Alberto,” presumably held in one of the California reform schools:

“The boy is a puzzle”


turns pale when angry


might go around trying
to kill someone


streetwalker and sniffer of


I told him the truth


picked up


electric lights in a tent city

In the typography of “Lost Privilege Company,” italics indicate Alberto’s speech, quotation marks speech cited by the eugenics caseworkers, and unmarked type the caseworkers records themselves. That this system is both scrupulous in the extreme and largely unhelpful in deciphering the relationship of the poems to their source texts is in keeping with blunt research group’s honest brand of obscurity. The poem leaves us with the impression of a life and the abuses heaped on it, both lucid and painfully insufficient. Alberto is a cipher because he “turns pale when angry”—that is, he is at his most white precisely when he is most defiant of the whites who imprison him. He can’t win. “We might presume that a lost voice would welcome the chance to be heard, but this presumption ignores the need to ask for consent,” the authors write in “The Book of Listening.” Conscientious to the hilt, they use fragmentation as a form of poetic ethics.

While Alberto and the other imprisoned adolescents of “Lost Privilege Company” have no voices except through the case files imposed on them, the historical record of the psychiatric patient-writers in “Creedmoorblanca” already grant their authors abundant expression. This is the poem’s dilemma: since it works from documents that the inmates themselves have written, BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP’s intervention can seem more like meddling. When “Sandie” writes that “YOU ARE SOMEBODY” or “Karl” that “He hears no voices / He hears a voice,” one wonders what Sandie and Karl wrote before blunt research group reshaped their words. Would an anthology that printed their unredacted texts serve them better? The authors of The Work-Shy seem too self-aware to have wandered into this trap unwittingly. For them the authorial position is morally compromised. The best that poets can do, they seem to suggest, is resist the urge to make whole what cannot be restored.

This idea is familiar from subaltern studies, a field which questions the hope that scholars can lay the ghosts of the past to rest by giving them voice. What is new in The Work-Shy is its authors’ articulation of a poetics of listening. Whether it is possible for texts to listen, what even precisely it would mean, is rightly left unresolved. So, too, is the seeming contradiction between the epigraph, “ne travaillez jamais”—“don’t ever work,” a phrase from Guy Debord—and the manifest labor of assembling The Work-Shy and giving its words ears. The success of blunt research group’s undertaking rests in their soft but persistent demand that we as readers listen to the likes of “Emile,” who is, in his own words, a “Quiet person of medium height / locked up for no good reason.” A person, in other words, like any other, except that now he is a poem.

Eli P. Mandel is a PhD student in English at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in the Ploughshares Solos series, the Harvard Review, and elsewhere. In addition to academic projects, he is at work on his first book of poems.

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