GARMENTS AGAINST WOMEN.

By Anne Boyer (Ahsahta Press, 2015)

 

In the first pages of his Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau recounts the death of his mother during childbirth, concluding melodramatically: “So my birth was the first of my misfortunes.” Maternal death, not uncommon in Rousseau’s time (and, appallingly, to this day), is, perhaps, a stark metonym for the dark side of reproductive labor; its full spectrum forms a constitutive thread—alongside illness, information, happiness, pornography-as-literature, and the broader relation of persons to Capital (“an infinite laboratory called ‘conditions’”)—of Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women. The book of (mostly) prose, divided into unnamed sections and dedicated to Boyer’s daughter, bears an epigraph from Maria: or the Wrongs of Woman, in which Rousseau’s contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft details her protagonist Maria’s reasoning for writing about the events of her past: “They might perhaps instruct her daughter, and shield her from the misery, the tyranny, her mother knew not how to avoid.” The distinction between these two impulses toward autobiography—one that recasts the trauma of others into a personal misfortune, and one that makes of personal trauma an heirloom weaponized against injustice—may be the distinction between conventional (even brilliant, even political) memoir and Boyer’s achievement in Garments, in that the former is concerned with the question How did I become who I am today?, the latter with the question Why am I not not writing? The double negative isn’t decorative; it mimics forms of desire and of politics that run throughout the book: 

 

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, and when not caring for a human body many hours, weeks, years, and other measures of time spent caring for the mind in a way like reading or learning and when not reading and learning also making things (like garments, food, plants, artworks, decorative items) and when not reading and learning and working and making and carrying and worrying also politics, and when not politics also the kind of medication which is consumption, of sex mostly or drunkenness, cigarettes, drugs, passionate love affairs, cultural products, the internet also, then time spent staring into space that is not a screen, also all the time spent driving, particularly here where it is very long to get anywhere, and then to work and back, to take her to school and back, too.

 

Desire both for and against writing, both for and against desire: “There is envy which is also mixed with repulsion at those who do not have a long list of not writing to do.” Given that we are reading the result of it, what, or whom, is this not-not writing for? That question—of literature and the literary—troubles the whole of this book, not in the psychological sense of being troubled (there is embarrassment, shame, fury and worry here, but the energy isn’t that of anxiety) but in the sense of “she’s trouble.” It can be approached through humor, as when, of a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who “believed that the mind had two places, the conscious and subconscious, and that literature could only come out of the subconscious mind, but that language preferred to live in the conscious one” Boyer concludes “This is wrong. Language prefers to live on the Internet.” But the question is addressed most explicitly (though not transparently—no names are named) in “Ma Vie en Bling: A Memoir,” in which Boyer recounts moving through a particular moment in the (poetry) world as a woman who in addition to “devoting [herself] to literature” also took men as lovers, and whom men threatened publicly and privately to destroy while others insisted the blue sky she has seen is not actually blue. It was a moment in which “people wrote on machines that connected to machines that connected to machines that connected to people who wrote on machines” and when “we believed in information.” But, Boyer writes, “I did not believe in information. I liked to imagine the interfaces that would make the public private and make the private okay.” Garments Against Women is such an interface, updated for a more fractured moment where “we can barely remember what once formed us, and the last and first thing any of us thinks about is poetry.” One of the most laborious and necessary forms of care may be not to make things okay, but to make making things okay, whether the shameful (because hidden) sloppy seams of a home-sewn skirt or the stark formulations of a child. It has something to do with not not writing and with the way Boyer interrupts the roman-a-clèf trajectory of “Ma Vie en Bling” to give us this scene: 

 

Around that time my daughter and I had this exchange:

 

Anne, imagine if the world had nothing in it. 

 

Do you mean nothing at all—just darkness—or a world without objects? 

 

I mean a world without things: no houses, chairs, or cars. A world with only people and trees and dirt.

 

What do you think would happen? 

 

People would make things. We would make things with trees and dirt.

 

—Anna Moschovakis

 
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