A recurring concern of leftist contemporary poetry is how to express the affective and historical experience of collective formations. How to capture those flashes of togetherness with strangers which ground political struggle: the crowdedness of a march, the tediousness of a meeting, the frenzy of being dispersed by the police, the solidarity of singing along to a pop song. The focus on interpersonal connectedness in post-Occupy, post-crisis poetry – and at the centre of Wendy Trevino’s new collection of poems, Cruel Fiction, which was published this month by Commune Editions – is not a sentimental celebration of abstract unity, nor a daydream about an undefined different world lurking within our own. Rather, it’s the expression of hope for concrete social movements through which the specifics of a different world could be imagined.
But, as we know, such struggles are thwarted and repressed. Trevino’s poems begin here, at the point at which any possible collectivism is divided by the ‘cruel fiction’ of the title: the construction of race and the enforcement of borders. The first poem, ‘From Santa Rita 128-131’, records the sights and sounds of 54 hours of incarceration during Occupy: ‘I saw 5 slices of bologna stick to a white wall. / I heard harmonizing coming from a tank 2 times. / I heard 1 person recite 1 poem to 2 pigs. / I heard I had 1 welt on my back. / I saw at least 5 bruises on each wrist. / I heard 1 woman suggest not admitting injury unless it was severe.’
The poem is made entirely of such sensory observations, locating the narrator in a specific place and in a specific body, and connecting her to those sharing the cells. The declarative, documentary style of the lines helps Trevino avoid the kind of overly poeticized hubris that finds a transcendently human commonality between all the incarcerated; instead, the relations – though full of potential for future comradeship –
are for now situational, tactile and borne of shared captivity.
After an opening section of discrete poems, the rest of Cruel Fiction consists of two sequences of modified sonnets, written in a tone both strident and conversational. The first of these sequences, ‘Popular Culture & Cruel Work’, interlaces anecdotes and commentary about the slow process of experientially learning how race and gender are weaponized, the fleeting euphoria of being interpolated by popular music, and the emotional distance between the alienated workday and the disalienated protest:
Heartbreak is a march gone terribly wrong.
You don’t want to have to go into work
The next day. You don’t want to be inside
At a computer where no one can help
You. Where you can’t even help yourself.
‘It’s a career,’ my boss says. She hates that
I call it ‘a job’. I write about work
Since there’s no escaping it. Like heartbreak.
Work structures so much life. According
To Human Resources, I’m white. I have
Been confused for other women with dark
Hair. Maybe I am them sometimes. In the
Elevator, taking the stairs, walking
Back from lunch, insisting ‘this isn’t me.’
It might seem like Trevino is pulling together these strands to make a sweeping critique of life under capitalism, and to some extent she is, but the anecdotes are so unreservedly autobiographic, the diction is so colloquial and the arguments with other thinkers are so particular that the poems remain grounded; even at their most polemical, they are not generalizing. Trevino is not launching another critique of ideology, nor an analysis of structures of feeling: she’s attempting to write through what those structures of feeling actually feel like. Attending to those feelings involves self-reflection and theorization, but it is not metaphysical.
Further grounding the poems in social reality, the history of place runs through the entire book. In the terrific final sequence, ‘Brazilian is Not a Race’, Trevino writes about how her time in the Rio Grande Valley – ‘where I learned / I’m not white & what that means & how what / That means changes & doesn’t & to who’ – framed her understanding of the ostensibly fictional but nonetheless operational intersection between race and nationality. Her youthful experience in the Valley informs her critiques of figures such as the theorist Gloria Anzaldúa and the revolutionary José Vasconcelos, both of whom she sees as conflating race with nationality and perpetuating an anti-black politics; and while she’s critical of those who struggle for partial liberation while upholding racial and sexual hierarchies, she’s equally critical of celebrations of multiracialism and ‘impurity’: ‘“Impurity’s” a given. Race is not.’
Against these ‘cruel fictions’, Trevino posits a ‘we of a position’ – a phrase she borrows from the insurrectionist theorists and activists in Tiqqun – which suggests a collectivity grounded in positionality and egalitarian wilfulness. Her fast-moving poems, voiced in springy, colloquial lines, evoke the barest outline of such a ‘we’: a ‘we’ that might be capable of sustaining principled movements while simultaneously sustaining the criticality necessary to keep movements alive. The urgency of such a project, in the face of state violence, is why Trevino adamantly insists that culture – and perhaps especially poetry – is not enough, even though it is a way to represent our latent potential to ourselves:
A border, like race, is a cruel fiction
Maintained by constant policing, violence
Always threatening a new map. It takes
Time, lots of people’s time, to organize
The world this way. & violence. It takes more
Violence. Violence no one can confuse for
Anything but violence. So much violence
Changes relationships, births a people
They can reason with. These people are not
Us. They underestimate the violence.
It’s been a while. We are who we are
To them, even when we don’t know who we
Are to each other & culture is a
Record of us figuring that out.
Wendy Trevino’s Cruel Fiction is published by Commune Editions.
Main image: Portrait of Wendy Trevino. Courtesy: Commune Editions
Steven Zultanski is the author of several books of poetry, including On the Literary Means of Representing the Powerful as Powerless (2018) and Honestly (2018). He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.