- Writing/Not Writing:Anne Boyer, Paralipsis, and Literary Work
The contemporary American poet anne boyer (b. 1973) investigates the affects and textures of life and work under the pressures of today's neoliberal capitalism. Boyer, who lives and writes in Kansas City, Kansas, joins contemporary writers such as bhanu kapil, christopher nealon, sandra simonds, and catherine wagner in plumbing ordinary experience with an ear constantly attuned to the political structures that underpin it. In this respect, these writers follow in the line of earlier U.S. poets such as diane di prima, june jordan, bernadette mayer, alice notley, or even the New York School's frank o'hara, for whom poetic production necessarily occurs alongside other types of work. For these writers, both poetry writing and the array of other labor they perform (from university teaching to domestic labor to museum work) are indelibly shaped by the changing configurations of political power, U.S.-led globalization, and gender, race, and local and global economic inequality that mark the past half-century. Boyer's third book, Garments Against Women (2015), was written in 2010, during a time Boyer has characterized as one of personal precariousness and concern. As she states in a 2015 conversation with poet amy king, which appeared on the Poetry Foundation's blog: "My daughter [End Page 121] and I were struggling, then, in the kind of poverty in which you are always getting sick from stress and overwork and shitty food then having no insurance or money or time to treat the problems caused by having no insurance or money or time."1
Beyond the immediate conditions of its creation, the book spins out an expansive set of reflections on work and the refusal of work in the contemporary moment. Boyer's poems—which are primarily prose poems—unfold through and beyond the speaker's everyday life as a mother and writer: dramatizing ordinary dilemmas of thought and work (including daily domestic and reproductive work, the process of writing or being unable to write, and, as its title suggests, sewing and other forms of garment manufacture), Garments Against Women encompasses linked problems of reproduction, globalization, knowledge, resistance, creativity, transformation, and even, finally, the future of work. A key premise in Boyer's poetry, though, is that she writes about such matters largely by not writing about them. She does so, in other words, by deploying or riffing on the rhetorical figure of paralipsis: stating something through the claim not to be stating it. Through her recourse to this figure, I argue, Boyer articulates the complex interrelationships between types and problems of labor, precisely insofar as they tend to remain unspoken under conditions of late capitalism. Garments Against Women stitches together a poetic discourse that discloses its continuity with and as labor—rather than standing apart from it as sublimated art. For Boyer, poetic labor, frequently expressed as paralipsis (that is, as the work of not-saying), stands beside other forms and practices of working and not working.
In Boyer's hands, paralipsis thus opens up onto some of the practical and epistemological contradictions of life under contemporary global capital, as well as questions of gender and subjectivity that (often silently) undergird one's experience of such contradictions. Troping on the paraliptic movement of her poetry, what Boyer calls "not writing" is, in fact, working—working in a sense that extends to the entire sphere of the biopolitical insofar as it accounts for the saturation of all human life by capital, including work and nonwork. In the poem "What is Not Writing," for example, Boyer states: "Not writing is working, and when not working at paid work working at unpaid work like caring for others, and when not at unpaid work like caring, caring also for a human body, [End Page 122] and when not caring for a human body … caring for the mind."2 There is a sense of limitlessness to this list. At stake generally is a form of precarity in the contemporary neoliberal economy: an alienation distributed unevenly but pervasively across the material realities of almost all forms of contemporary life and labor, which renders them ungraspable, difficult, or impossible to comprehend...