Susan Briante’s Defacing the Monument (Noemi Press, 2020) is “part documentary act, part lyric essay, part criticism,” as its description reads. It includes collage and open-ended worksheets and invokes lyric, its prose occasionally veering into line breaks. These genres combine to form the book’s two main narratives. The first foregrounds migrants to the American Southwest, especially Arizona, where Briante teaches—Defacing opens with a description of Operation Streamline, which marked the criminalization of migration in 2005. The second narrative is Briante’s family history: her great-grandmother’s immigration from Italy in 1880 and her mother’s death.
With these subjects, Defacing writes itself into the lineage of documentary poetics that it simultaneously traces. The book is rooted in Muriel Rukeyser’s poetics, yet cites authors as varied as Wallace Stevens, Bhanu Kapil, Brenda Coultas, Audre Lorde, and M. NourbeSe Philip to highlight the artistic instinct and imperative to evaluate how we evaluate unreal realities. It defines documentary poetics as a return to primary sources that allows writers to rewrite, amend, contextualize, and ultimately fulfill Rukeyser’s proposal to “extend the document.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Briante elaborates on her project: “I wanted this book to go beyond the trope of ‘watch me witnessing.’ I gesture to other writers and traditions, as well as give the reader a place to mark the limits and potential of all that I’m placing before and in relation to them.” Briante’s expansive conception of writing emerged as a direct response to her undergraduate studies in journalism, which she undertook “because I wanted to ‘give voice,’ as if a voice were anything to be ‘given.’” Therefore, documentary poetics is a viable and truthful alternative to journalism, free from the latter’s constraint of “presenting both sides.”
Amid Briante’s web of references and reflections however, Defacing often feels like an homage, its narratives at times becoming secondary. As a result, the book eventually reads as a statement of intent, a set of guidelines, a tentative manifesto.
Honing in on a typographical choice helps illustrate the book’s tonal dissonance. The font Futura exploded in the 1980s, becoming the default for advertisers and representing “corporate identity,” as an Artsy article explains. Artists like Barbara Kruger and the Guerrilla Girls subsequently appropriated Futura in their critiques of a sexist and corporatized art world. “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”, the Guerrilla Girls asked in 1989, their question printed pointedly in Futura. On the poster, their motto follows their name: “Conscience of the Art World.”
Throughout Defacing, Briante shifts into Futura, casting an aphoristic and conclusive quality onto select sentences. “Citizenship is a construct, a shelter that was never constructed to cover everyone equally, that may never have been constructed to cover everyone” she writes in Futura at one point. At another: “And although I live on occupied lands, nobody asks for my papers.”
The presence of Futura aligns the text with a tradition of critique aimed at a wider audience; Kruger’s photographs and the Guerrilla Girls’ posters embody its potential for mass distribution and appeal, yet it’s slightly unclear who Briante’s declarations are for. Even without this context, readers might wonder about the intended effect of these marked, and often abrupt, statements in such a flexible, genre-bending work. In other words, is Briante an expert—“the conscience of the art world”—or a faultable, fallible explorer of a constantly-changing genre? Can she be both?
In the same vein of tone and audience, the use of Futura also makes clear the book’s own confusion as to what it is critiquing: traditional journalism’s representation of migrants, documentary poetics, documents themselves, the Trump administration, even “the military-prison-industrial-educational-kleptocracy we mistake for a nation,” as she remarks at one point. “The suffering of others—of ‘The Other’—is the central trope in [a]… harangue against things ranging from ‘racist, misogynist and capitalist oppression’ to the melting of polar ice and mass shootings. Those who enjoy this sort of thing will find this book invaluable,” reads a Kirkus review. While perhaps harsh in its minimization of Briante’s care towards migrant narratives as a “trope,” the review does identify the book’s dizzying scope. It lurches and pans, moving from demonstrations at Swarthmore College to disband fraternities to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in the same paragraph. The sheer range of topics can begin to feel like conflation between them.
Briante includes thought-provoking and often abstract questions and prompts throughout. Yet one prompt near the book’s end embodies this issue of scope and approach: “Write a 12-line rhythmically charged poem in which you slant rhyme (at least twice) the name of the last official indicted from the Trump administration. Reference the most recent climate-change related disaster. Address by first name one of the 24 migrants who have died in ICE custody since 2017. End with the instructions given to you by a parent or guardian on what you should do when waking from a nightmare.” Though undoubtedly intended to precipitate deep engagement with current events, the prompt ends up presenting a somewhat formulaic, Mad-Libs attitude towards massively complex issues. It undoes the book’s careful emphasis on the delicate work of documentary poetics.
The unintended result of the book’s range is that the main subject becomes Briante herself. For example, she cautions repeatedly that poets and documentarians should not fetishize the document. As a tool of the state, writes Briante, documents can be dehumanizing: “I used to believe the document tethered the poem to the earth, to soil that one could taste, that could be nutrient to more than one. / But a document can pull a nation out from under you.” The takeaway is one I wholeheartedly agree with—and it simultaneously appears definable by its naivete. At the least, the writer seems to speak to others who assume that language works for them by default.
Partway into the book, I was struck by how often it seemed I was witnessing a brilliant writer slowly coming to terms with their own partiality. “Just as the document elides and erases, so does the poem and the poet,” she writes. In the same passage: “Whatever I show you is a representation, filtered and partial.” Another example comes when Briante describes migrants waiting to be processed for asylum: “Their bodies on the ground are not performance, are an act of concrete under flesh sacrifice, are subjected to the sanctioned rituals of the state.” This statement, appearing in Futura, is posited as a bold declaration, but the assertion that migrants’ reality cannot be minimized as “performance” should not, I hope, be fundamentally novel.
She continues this train of thought, no longer in Futura: “And if I lay my white woman’s body on the border… I do not become migrant although I might feel the pinch and pressure of cement under my hips, might smell how the concrete carries the odor of sun and piss.”
The book’s near-nearsightedness comes, though, with a steadfast honesty. “I do not know what story I hope to tell about capitalism or family, mothering or money, about cancer,” Briante writes in a late section about her family history. By the book’s end, she acknowledges that it reads as multiple projects at once.
Perhaps, then, Defacing is best understood as an exercise of trust; that the reader will do something with this incomplete and imperfect document, just as Briante urges us to do something with state and archival documents. That over time, we can revise and extend these records into newly informative—and even beautiful—products. Part of this exercise of trust comes with the text’s own readiness for critique and change. “In some version of this book all the text would be erasable, every line open to your revision,” she writes. We should embrace Briante’s exhortation and invitation, first immersing ourselves in her work and then using it to move beyond.
Claire Shang is a freshman at Columbia University, where she is an editor with The Columbia Review. She is a writer of poetry and creative nonfiction, and a reader of mostly everything. Her work has appeared in or been recognized by Peach Mag, No, Dear Magazine, and Smith College.