Just Don’t Do It: Anne Boyer On the Power of Saying “No”

An excerpt from the Cy Twombly Award–winning poet’s latest book shows us how to refuse, reject, and rebel.

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Sep 4 2018, 2:30pm

One might think staying alive means saying “yes” to the future, but it is possible to slow down the onslaught of so-called progress. The following essay by Cy Twombly Award–winning poet Anne Boyer examines the implications of rejecting such an oppressive future. By considering the historical contours of poetic rebellions, from Cicero to Walt Whitman, Boyer shows how death, life, and art all have the potential to convey a radical refusal of the unasked-for.

History is full of people who just didn’t. They said no thank you, turned away, escaped to the desert, lived in barrels, burned down their own houses, killed their rapists, pushed away dinner, meditated into the light. Even babies refuse, and the elderly also. Animals refuse: at the zoo they gaze through Plexiglass, fling feces at human faces. Classes refuse. The poor throw their lives onto barricades, and workers slow the line. Enslaved people have always refused, poisoning the feasts and aborting the embryos, and the diligent, flamboyant jaywalkers assert themselves against traffic as the first and foremost visible daily lesson in just not.

Saying nothing is a preliminary method of no. To practice unspeaking is to practice to being unbending, more so in a crowd. Cicero wrote cum tacent, clamant—“in silence they clamor”—and he was right: never mistake silence for agreement. Silence is as often conspiracy as it is consent. A room of otherwise lively people saying nothing, staring at a figure of authority, is silence as the inchoate of a now-initiated we won’t.

Sometimes our refusal is in our staying put. We perfect the loiter before we perfect the hustle. Like every other toddler, each of us once let all adult commotion move around our small bodies as we inspected clover or floor tile. As teens we loitered, too, required Security to dislodge us, like how once in a country full of freely roaming dogs, I saw the primary occupation of the police was to try to keep the dogs out of the public fountains, and as the cops had moved the dogs from the fountains, a new group of dogs had moved in. This was just like being a teenager at the mall.

Some days my only certain we is this certain we that didn’t, that wouldn’t, whose bodies or spirits wouldn’t go along. That we slowed, stood around, blocked the way, kept a stone face when the others were complicit and smiling. And still we ghost, and no-show, and in the enigma of refusal, we find that we endogenously produce our own incapacity to even try, grow sick and depressed and motionless under all the merciless and circulatory conditions of all the capitalist yes and just can’t, even if we thought we really wanted to. This is as if a river, who saw the scale of the levees, decided that rather than try to exceed them, it would outwit them by drying up.

While it is true that refusal is a partner to death—I think it was Mary McCarthy who said even a gun to the head is merely an invitation—death is also a partner to refusal, as in often not the best option, but an option nonetheless. Death as refusal requires as its material only life, which if rendered cheap enough by the conditions that inspire the refusal, can become precious again when selectively and heroically deployed as a no.

Poetry is sometimes a no. Its relative silence is the negative’s underhanded form of singing. Its flights into a wide-ranged interior are, in the world of fervid external motion, sometimes a method of standing still. Poetry is semi-popular with teenagers and revolutionaries and good at going against, saying whatever is the opposite of something else, providing nonsense for sense and sense despite the world’s alarming nonsense. Of all the poems of no, Venezuelan poet Miguel James’s Against the Police, as translated by Guillermo Parra, refuses the most elegantly:

AGAINST THE POLICE

My entire Oeuvre is against the police

If I write a Love poem it’s against the police

And if I sing the nakedness of bodies I sing against the police

And if I make this Earth a metaphor I make a metaphor against

the police

If I speak wildly in my poems I speak against the police

And if I manage to create a poem it’s against the police

I haven’t written a single word, a verse, a stanza that isn’t against

the police

All my prose is against the police

My entire Oeuvre

Including this poem

My whole Oeuvre

Is against the police.

Poets have famously enstatuated themselves among hermits and saints as an expert-class of refusers. Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, George Oppen, Amiri Baraka stand in that pantheon of “not this,” those who sometimes wore their laurels like a crown of thorns. The pantheon of those who won’t is the best church poetry has to offer. It’s a temple perfumed with the incense of sacrificed literary reputation, littered with bankruptcy notices for cynical cultural capital, warmed by the greater fire of the intrinsic, populated by the most famous and the most anon. In it, you will find no poetry in the shape of a cowardly maybe, or fluorescent yes, or cloying, collaborating, reactionary, status-loving, and desperately eager whatever-they-say-I’ll-do.

Gwendolyn Brooks on May 2, 1950, the year her 1949 book “Annie Allen” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Image by Getty Images/Bettmann.

I like no. It’s sidewise to a reverse mantra (om). It’s stealthy, portable, and unslouching. It presides over the logic of my art, and even when it is uttered erringly there is something admirable in its articulation. But even the greatest refusalists of the poets might be somewhat ironic deployers of that refusal, for what is refused often amplifies what is not. The no of a poet is so often a yes in the carapace of no. The no of a poet is sometimes but rarely a no to a poem itself, but more usually a no to all dismal aggregations and landscapes outside of the poem. It’s a no to chemical banalities and wars, a no to the wretched arrangements of history and the greed-laminated earth.

Sometimes poetry enacts its refusal in its formal strategies, and of these formal strategies of refusal, among the simplest is the poetic technique called “turning the world upside down.” This Walt Whitman poem, called Transpositions, depends upon reversal as enacted refusal:

Let the reformers descend from the stands where they are forever

bawling—let an idiot or insane person appear on each of the

stands;

Let the judges and criminals be transposed—let the prison

keepers be put in prison—let those that were prisoners take

the keys;

Let them that distrust birth and death lead the rest.

Transpositions inverts social classes so that the structure which enforces the existence of those social classes is exposed as unworkable. Whitman’s poem is generous and ongoing in that anyone reading this could practice the same mode of refusal, write some transpositions, too. Here’s how: take what is, and turn it upside down. Or take what is and make it what isn’t. Or take what isn’t and make it what is. Or take what is and shake it until change falls out of its pockets. Or take any hierarchy and plug the constituents of its bottom into the categories of its top. Or take any number of hierarchies and mix up their parts.

In Bertolt Brecht’s 1935 essay, “Writing the Truth: The Five Difficulties,” there’s a fragment of an ancient Egyptian poem of reversal:

So it is: the nobles lament and the servants rejoice. Every city

says: Let us drive the strong from out of our midst. The offices

are broken open and the documents removed. The slaves are

becoming masters.

So it is: the son of a well-born man can no longer be recognized.

The mistress’s child becomes her slave girl’s son.

So it is: The burghers have been bound to the millstones. Those

who never saw the day have gone out into the light.

So it is: The ebony poor boxes are being broken up; the noble

sesban wood is cut up into beds. Behold, the capital city

has collapsed in an hour. Behold, the poor of the land have

become rich.

Brecht writes about the poem, “It is significant that this is the description of a kind of disorder that must seem very desirable to the oppressed. And yet the poet’s intention is not transparent.” Through reversal, the poem spares itself from the political perils of a direct call for upending the world while through imagining it, makes the impossible slightly less so. Now that the unfamiliar order has been given a cognitive rehearsal in the safety of a poem, it doesn’t seem quite as unlikely that the capital city could collapse in an hour or the poor of the land could become rich. But more than a cognitive rehearsal, that city’s collapse also gets a social one: it has not only been staged in one person’s mind, it has also been shared, and in its sharing, the desires of the poem step—as the fulfillment of those desires require collective effort—toward an enactment.

Refusal, which is only sometimes a kind of poetry, does not have to be limited to poetry, and turning the world upside down, which is often a kind of poetry, doesn’t have to be limited to words. Words are useful for upending the world in that they are cheap, ordinary, portable, and generous, and they don’t mess us up too badly if we use them wrong, not like matches or machetes, but poetry is made up of ideas and figurations and tropes and syntaxes as much as it is made up of words. We can make a poetry without language because language as the rehearsal material of poetry has made the way for another poetry, that of objects, actions, environments and their arrangement. This is not saying to be a poet means you can only rehearse turning over the world: now try putting the chair on your head.

Transpositions and upendings, at least for a minute, refuse and then reorder the world. So, too, poetry manages a transposition of vocabulary: a refusalist poet’s “against” is an agile and capacious “for,” expanding the negative to genius and the opposite of to unforeseen collapses and inclusions. These words mean something else, or as the British poet Sean Bonney writes:

Our word for Satan is not their word for Satan. Our

word for Evil is not their word for Evil. Our word for

Death is not their word for Death.

There is a lot of room for a meaning inside a “no” spoken in the tremendous logic of a refused order of the world. Poetry’s no can protect a potential yes—or more precisely, poetry’s no is the one that can protect the hell yeah, or every hell yeah’s variations. In this way, every poem against the police is also and always a guardian of love for the world.

A version of this story appears in GARAGE Issue 15, publishing September 2018. The essay “No,” is an excerpt from A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, now available from Ugly Duckling Presse.