Reviewed by Jordan Windholz
James Belflower’s debut collection, Commuter, is a difficult book. As a reader, I have a hard time making sense of the various fragments, fractures and silences that run through its sections. But this is as it should be, for Commuter does not seek to make sense of the world with which it interacts. Rather it seeks to bring the senselessness of the world—in particular, the senselessness of violence—to bear upon our quotidian routines. That is, Commuter is difficult in that it brings into focus the difficulty of reconciling a text with a self, a self with a place, and a place with other communities. Nothing in this book is stable—not even the pronoun “it”—and the power of the book is its ability to demonstrate how language “commutes” the very real violence occurring all around us into banal and less threatening systems of representation, be they metaphoric, graphic, or both.
The word “commuter,” of course, contains multiple valences. Its verbal root, commute, derives from the Latin, commuta, which is itself a merging of “com”—altogether—and “mutare”—to change. It is a word that intimates the permanence of mutability, and commuter, its particularized noun form, grafts selfhood onto, indeed positions it upon, unstable and unpredictable actions. These etymologies roil beneath the word’s most mundane denotation: a person who travels from one community to another, often for work, on a daily schedule. Ours is a world full of commuters, constantly moving, exiting and entering the communities and lives of other people, and Belflower’s Commuter recognizes this fact. It also decides not to ignore that in such a world explosions and conflict are also no longer localized, if they ever were, but that they too commute—through the news, through subways, through airplanes, and, inevitably, through language—to where any of us might be.
Commuter’s first page foregrounds the reality of violence’s proximity and possibility. The “prologue” of the book features a network of variously colored intersecting and diverging lines. This map of a generic public transportation system rests unsteadily above a news report, generalized and divorced from context:
“People combed a city’s major hospitals in search of family members who they thought were aboard the trains. “Oh please God! This can’t be happening,” said C—, 47, sobbing as she studied a patient list in vain at G— M— Hospital, seven hours after a terrorist attack. “How could a human being do this?”
Before a reader even turns the page to a matter-of-fact explanation which begins “Like / this,” the map above this quote already indicates “how” anyone could “do” anything to almost anybody; it’s simply a matter of getting on a subway line or a bus and pushing a button.
Belflower, of course, is only calling attention to something we all already know, and if Commuter stopped there, it wouldn’t be much of an achievement. The achievement of this book is its ability to resist easy associations. That is, Commuter does not attempt to synthesize conflict into digestible metaphors or narratives, and instead asks “may one […] chant metaphor into compassion”? Belflower suggests the answer is no, though this does not mean there is no room for compassion in Commuter. Belflower finds alternatives for relation, relying on the gaps between experience and events, between one person and another, to exist as sites themselves.
Rather than attempt to bridge the divide between one experience and another, Belflower calls attention to difference. Throughout Commuter, white space is a definite and locatable place, and the silence it signifies often carries as equal a weight as the words that surround it. Sometimes Belflower emphasizes white space in entirely directed ways. At one point early in Part I, the “performer” (i.e. reader) is commanded to “Wait 5 seconds on this page, then turn to the next and continue reading.” There is nothing on the page, and this first command serves as a wake-up call for the rest of the book, for on the page following this command, the “reading” that we do includes and accounts for the large strip of white space (cordoned off from text by black horizontal lines) that divides images and accounts. For instance, the simple action of “rice, rice, rice from white / mesh satchets… / / …arcs…” cannot be related to or occupy the same intellectual space as the violence that surrounds such simple, even beautiful, movement. After this simple image and across the white gulf of silence, we then read:
“So we decided to go up a side street, Ha-Rav Kook. On our way up the street, a car bomb exploded from a parking space off the side. I was struck in the leg—not by shrapnel, but some other flying object—and in my left eye. My hair was also quite singed, though I only noticed this later. Everything was hot, hot.”
How do we reconcile the two accounts? Can we? Commuter begs these questions again and again, and often pressures a reader to consider that synthesis can efface, that comparison does not necessarily mediate so much as it obstructs.
Yet Commuter does occlude violence in particular ways, or, rather, it calls attention to the way our words distance us from the violence purport to talk about. Belflower emphasizes the word “it” throughout Commuter, which can seem odd. “It” is, after all, a small word, a one syllable neuter pronoun. One section, however, maps the constantly shifting use of the word as “it” comes to signify the representation of a violent act—suggested, but never detailed—and the violent act itself. After a brief quote of an image, or video, from a digital camera, a speaker states,
doesn’t terrify me
it’s grainy, B&W, and the figures don’t scatter
as fast as I would in that schema
is easier to think
they are stupid and deserve
The lines are over-wrought, even over-aestheticized, but not in a manner that indicates contrivance. Rather, the constant breaks on the small pronoun call attention to that words shifting signification, and the careful, unconscious ways anyone makes acts of violence less of a human loss. From the use of the word “figures” for “bodies” or “people,” to the grainy photograph or video that contains these “figures,” this small snippet of speech demonstrates the way even our most benign acts of representation obscure the reality of our world, and Belflower puts the simple word “it” at the center of this cover-up. Once the passage opens to these revelations about how language itself can efface lives lost or violence done, one has a hard time not reading the passage as a meta-commentary. In lines like these, Belflower shows a reader how “it’s grainy,” even as “it” poses as a “B&W” pronoun.
How can one write poetry in this environment, when even language ignores harm? Belflower never answers this question, at least not entirely. He is aware, however, of his predicament, acknowledging “this book // may be incompletely / confused // by reposing // pornography.” Like pornography, Commuter does contain explicit depictions, albeit these depictions do not eroticize violence or portray violent eroticism. Unlike pornography, however, Belflower’s documentations of violence seem to defy easy objectification. Almost in defiance of an age that saturates voyeurs with images, videos, and newsclips, Belflower gives us voices. We do not so much see as we do hear humanity in these pages.
Yet Commuter is not just about violence, and the humanity we hear in it is not just the humanity of voices recounting violence done. Throughout Commuter, we encounter what are ostensibly confessional accounts of a honeymoon; we see bodies in landscapes, “scaffolds / near the hairline // her white scarf cinched androgynously.” We hear the forthright confession, “J. and I / will probably not birth // someone,” even as we see and hear about domestic scenes:
scrub in shifts. Air
them and soak the silver-
ware in warm
Of course, running beneath these quite pictures (often literally, at the bottom of the page) are newsreel accounts of violence, near pure documentation of individual voices recounting stories of blasts and balls of fire. And this is the wonder of Commuter; it is a book about war, but it avoids the cliché or the easy politicization of war poetry. It provides the tragedy (and the comedy) of the world without burdening it with sentimentality, and it demonstrates that the comedic—the marital—and the tragic—the fatal—coincide though never in an analogous fashion.
Rarely do the intimacies of the book forthrightly interact with the violence that constitutes the landscapes of travel and quotidian experience. At one point, however, Belflower does forthrightly insists that the possibility of great violence can easily enter our domestic worlds, our honeymoons, our vacations. After a first hand account of what seems to be a terrorist attack, a litany of names runs down the page. Here, the reader is asked to “strikeout and write in names of immediate family, relatives and close friends,” and Belflower states that he reads the names of audience members when he reads this text in a public setting. It is a simple technique; but it reminds the reader that the exploded bodies seen in newspapers, on cable news, in this very book, had names, families, and relationships of their own.
It is difficult not to feel from these formal moves, to not recognize that feeling can be aroused and that sympathy can be gained for another without necessarily diverting to a metaphor, to let events and people be closer to their names. Even as Belflower’s Commuter demonstrates that words never mean what we want them to mean, it also exhibits a profound faith in language’s ability to help us navigate our world to hear and see those who inhabit it with us. It is perhaps wrong to call it a beautiful book, though it is beautiful: in its hard looks, in its sympathies, and in the pressures it places on the reader to look, and to look again. It is beautiful in that it attempts to see the humanity in another without reconstituting that other in terms that negate their difference. And in doing this, Belflower forces us to wrestle with all the ways we are the same.