(Denver, CO: Clash Books. 2019)
In an age where sprays and sprays of digital and streaming media envelop us in bright blooms and the rich scents of reality, poetry may not serve social change as much as it desires to do. It may well only preach to its own agnostic choir. To leave it at that may be accurate, but only in part—poetry can take on these realities, and poet, literary translator, and new media artist Francesco Levato presents us with a book that proposes to do just that.
Levato’s newest book Arsenal/Sin Documentos focuses on the American political realities of immigrants and is a book of erasures that cuts from handbooks for handling tasers, borders, and immigrants, The Immigration and National Act, as well as other government documents. Language itself cannot cause harm, but, Levato shows us, the actions it proposes certainly can and do. Levato’s poems—blacked, grayed, and whited out from the original documents—underscore the brutality implicit in such language, a brutality that our government instigates on a daily basis against humans it deems illegal. The pain the book addresses is very much from the here and now but could well describe the brutalities of many nations in many histories around the world who have wished to defend their borders.
Levato focuses us on a central moral question: what does US citizenship mean if we are willing to torture and set up borders around it? In order to explore this, the book weaves erasures with original poems that follow and extend the themes he underscores in the original documents. While the erasures speak more poetically, many of the original pieces frame and contextualize the themes elucidated in the erasures. In the opening section, “POLICY .01/Levels of Behavior/Resistance,” the documents begin by legitimizing the treatment of alien humans: “Border / critical / This Mandate / the authority /// the use of / tactics / the use of / excessive force.” The original piece that follows defines circumstances in scientific precision:
Assaultive Resistance: a subject
whose resistance causes, or has the potential to cause, physical injury
to the officer/agent, others, or self.
This includes subject’s attempts (or apparent intent)
to make physical contact.
In contrast to the erasure’s brutalist rhythms in the mandates on human bodies, it’s Levato’s original text, with its elegant extended syntax and elliptical enjambments, that speaks to the conditions that ensure physical abuse for the non-citizen. Also, by cutting words and phrases down to succinctly-machined rhythms, Levato highlights the implicit truth in our policy: there is plenty of space between the language for law enforcement to act with human error and ill will.
As if the laws and regulations of harming the bodies of willing and wishful citizens were not morally tenuous enough, the book’s Xeroxed/cut-and-paste aesthetic, much like early punk ‘zines such as the stalwart Maximum Rock’n’Roll, represents just how shaky the ground on which these decisions are made. While the text clearly demarks which words in the erasures one should primarily note when decoding the text, other errantly erasured words bleed through the Sharpied out text on some pages, while on others the document’s black ink ghosts through the whiteout to reveal other contexts seeping into the moral equation. The section “Policy.05/Priority 1 (threats to national security, border security, and public safety)/Q. Es Nessario tener todo las documentos de indentificación en regla,” exemplifies this well. The opening passage reads as such: “breach/ of/ integrity//an unlawful manner//the/interests of/ authority.” By itself, the passage appears rather legal in tone and denotation. However, some of the surrounding context bleeds into the passage, creating far greater ambiguity: “breach/of/ integrity//an unlawful manner [and/or]// the/ interests of/ authority.” Here, the “[and/or]” of the base text suggests the kind of ambiguity that should not be present when making decisions that impact the safety of any human. Is it or is it not part of the official text? the book queries. Language has lost the script.
As the book elicits a “xerox copy and Sharpie” aesthetic, it also signifies how rapidly what it describes can be revised. Each sentence—hacked and chopped and spun into a syntactic zero-gravity space where words and phrases randomly bump into each other—-evokes a thought in the process of being developed, rethought, reconfigured, and left in a state of incompletion. Perhaps even more sinister, the aesthetic suggests that any of this can be revised at a whim, as easily as text can be shifted or as human actions can err. It goes without saying that this is not the sort of rhetoric that we want determining the safety and captivity of human bodies, yet even more mind-boggling is how the book illustrates that the contingency of law rests on this layered and inherently disrupted presentation of language.
Ultimately, the collection hopes to push us as a nation toward justice in favor of the people our government brutalizes. I wondered, Would the author achieve this more effectively by composing an article for The Nation or Mother Jones on the subject? The question needs to be asked. Life is short, information is flowing freely and nearly willy-nilly these days, and there is so much reading to be done that inevitably we must make choices. After much thought, I have to say that yes, this provides a different perspective and certainly a different aesthetic experience. Levato enriches the subject with fresh layers of visual mystery and wonder. In fact, while I don’t believe this is the best form of writing for all subjects, having now spent some time with this book, I do not know a better way to get this close to the bones that our laws so often cut.
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PK Eriksson is a poet, critic, and English teacher from Chicago. PK loves this life, Earth, and the intimacies words sing. PK’s poems and reviews have appeared in The Adroit Journal, Anomaly, Quail Belle, The Santa Fe New Mexican, among other publications. @pkeriksson10 for twitter.