Can a poem make the world a better place by documenting the darknesses around us?

“Once, I dreamwrote that I found my own remains in a desert that was partially in Chile and partially in Arizona,” writes Daniel Borzutzky in his poem, “Let Light Shine out of Darkness.” “Was I a disappeared body,” the poem continues, “tossed out of an airplane by a bureaucrat-soldier-compatriot or was I a migrant body who died from dehydration while crossing the invisible line between one civilization and another.”

Borzutzky, who was recently awarded the National Book Award for his collection, “The Performance of Being Human,” grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of Chilean immigrants, and now lives in Chicago. He frequently explores in his work issues related to immigration, borders and poverty.

“We’ve had a very prolonged period where public resources have been deteriorating, where social welfare programs have been taken away, schools have been privatized, hospitals have been privatized, where unions have been marginalized, if not destroyed, and where we have a real overdependence on part-time labor,” he said.

While he views the election of Donald Trump “a new kind of danger for a lot of people,” he is quick to point out that many of the conditions he tackles in his art happened on the Democrats’ watch.

“During the Obama years, there have been more immigrants deported than any other time,” he said. “While I think there are ways that peoples’ lives will get worse [under a Trump presidency,] I think there’s a liberal naivete to imagine that things weren’t already bad before.”

The title of his poem, “Let Light Shine Out of Darkness”, is a phrase taken from the book of Corinthians in the Bible. Borzutzky says he hopes that articulating the problems around him through poetry will shed light on those issues — and have tangible outcomes.

“Part of what good poetry does is document the various darknesses around us. It does so by creating historical memory of our time. And hopefully by bringing attention to people who are marginalized and discriminated against and violated and destroyed.”

He believes the “great hope” will lie, not in political systems, but “in individuals at the grassroots level who are trying to improve the worlds in which they live.”

Let Light Shine Out of Darkness

I live in a body that does not have enough light in it

For years, I did not know that I needed to have more light

Once I walked around my city on a dying morning and a decomposing
body approached me and asked me why I had no light

I knew this decomposing body

All that remained of it were teeth, bits of bone, a hand

It came to me and said: There is no light that comes out of your body

I did not know at the time that there should have been light in my body

It’s not that I am dead

It’s not that I am translucent

It’s that you cannot know you need something if you do not know it
is missing

Which is not to say that for years I did not ask for this light

Once, I even said to the body I live with: I think I need more light in
my body, but I really did not take this seriously as a need, as something I
deserved to have

I said: I think I need for something blue or green to shine from my rib cage

Other times when I am talking about lightness I am talking about breath
and space and movement

For it is hard to move in a body so congested with images of mutilation

Did you hear the one about the illegal immigrant who electrocuted his
employee’s genitals? Did you hear the one about the boy in Chicago whose
ear was bitten off when he crossed a border he did not know existed?

I want to give you more room to move so I am trying to carve a space, with
light, for you to walk a bit more freely

This goes against my instincts, which are to tie you down, to tie you to
me, to bind us by the wrist the belly the neck and to look directly into
your mouth, to make you open your mouth and speak the vocabulary of
obliteration right into your tongue your veins your blood

I stop on a bridge over the train tracks and consider the history of the
chemical-melting of my skin

Once, when I poured a certain type of acid on my arm I swore I saw a
bright yellow gas seep out of my body

Once, my teeth glowed sick from the diseased snow they had shoved into
my mouth when they wanted me to taste for myself to bring into my
body the sorrows of the rotten carcass economy

Once, I dreamwrote that I found my own remains in a desert that was
partially in Chile and partially in Arizona

Was I a disappeared body, tossed out of an airplane by a bureaucrat-
soldier-compatriot or was I a migrant body who died from dehydration
while crossing the invisible line between one civilization and another

I was part of a team of explorers we were searching for our own bodies

In the desert I found my feet and I put them in a plastic bag and
photographed them, cataloged them, weighed and measured them and
when I was finished with the bureaucratization of my remains I lay down
in the sand and asked one of my colleagues to jam a knife into my belly

She obliged

But when the blade entered my skin it was as if my belly were a water balloon

Water shot into the air

My skin ripped into hundreds of pieces and I watched as the water covered
the feet of my colleagues who were here to document their disappearances
and decomposition

It was at this moment that I saw light in my body not sun over the sand
but a drip of soft blue on a piece of skin that had fallen off my body and
dissolved into its own resistance

Reprinted from “The Performance of Becoming Human” published by Brooklyn Arts Press 2016.

Daniel Borzutzky is the author of “The Performance of Becoming Human”, winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry. His other books and chapbooks include “In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy”, “Bedtime Stories for the End of the World!”, “Data Bodies”, “The Book of Interfering Bodies” and “The Ecstasy of Capitulation”. He has translated Raúl Zurita’s The Country of Planks (2015) and Song for his Disappeared Love (2010), and Jaime Luis Huenún’s Port Trakl (2008). His work has been supported by the Illinois Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Pen/Heim Translation Fund. He lives in Chicago.