someone was looking for me: A Review of Blunt Research Group’s The Work-Shy
The Blunt Research Group descended upon the literary community in the summer of 2015, veiled with mystery, intrigue, and profundity. In their author bio, it states that they are “a nameless constellation of poets, artists, and scholars from diverse backgrounds.” A year and a half later, we are presented with The Work-Shy, a collection of poems that reassembles, restructures, reconstructs, and recreates documents, statements, and phrases from case files of early youth prisons in California. The book is sectioned into three parts: “Lost Privilege Company,” “The Book of Listening,” and “Creedmoorblanca,” which touch upon the various contact zones around the youth penal systems (or “orphan asylums” as the book notes), psychiatric clinics and centers, workhouses, training schools for girls, as well as a couple of “colonies.” The information that materializes from these poems brings up harrowing facts about the U.S.’s and Germany’s involvement with eugenics, “sterilization mills,” complex, disturbing histories around race, gender, and people living with mental health conditions. BRG informs us in “Lost Privilege Company” that the “diagnostic models and sterilization policies developed in California were enthusiastically received by eugenics ‘researchers’ in Europe,” and that “social engineers of Nazi Germany drew directly on the California model.”
It’s tempting to relegate The Work-Shy to the list of documentary poetry (or docupoetry), which, as of late, includes work by Robin Coste Lewis and Solmaz Shariff. One could also describe this kind of work as archival poetry (Lewis describes The Voyage of the Sable Venus as “an experiment in archive”). But all of these definitions are too easy. Like most terms used to describe a particular genre, so too does documentary or archival poetry fail. The writers’ projects are too singular, and are too personal to the author as well as to the audience (an argument might even be made to refer to these projects as translations). Ultimately, however, any umbrella-term describing their work neglects the differences and onlepihead between them.
In “Lost Privilege Company,” each poem centers around one of the children who were sent to the Lost Privilege Company—an isolation unit at the Whittier State School “where youthful offenders could be sentenced under harsh conditions for misconduct.” The poems consist of fragments, phrases, or statements from archives and files. Through their accumulation in each poem, they mobilize in a multitudinous web of units that unite into not so much of anecdotal phrases or statements, but into an argument that feeds into the collection’s larger purposes. These arguments, forty-one in “Lost Privilege Company” alone, accrease the agency that each child ultimately has against the youth prison systems in California. They form a collective, a choir of voices that once, sealed from the public, are now able to intone the tragedies that befell them.
BRG is able to accomplish this difficult task via a kind of contrapuntal arrangement between text and image. Archival photographs and files integrate sporadically throughout the book, each with subtext describing them. Some of these photographs are of children with separate poems titled after them, but not every photograph or archival image is assigned a correlative poem. There is a photograph, for example, of Matilda B, but there isn’t any poem entitled “Matilda.” Quand même, there is both a photograph and poem of Victor R in the book, though the two aren’t situated en face: the photograph precedes the poem by several pages, which creates a Sebaldian relationship between image and text in that the image helps design the book’s movement cataloguing the children, but it also—because of the placement of the image several pages before its corresponding poem—serves as an authorial intrusion into this movement. This ellipsis between paired text and image is haunting; we see this image of Victor, a sweet-faced boy next to a mirror (the reflection only adds to the ghostly layers of Victor’s memory), and then we read his eponymous poem several pages later. The effect produces a spectral echo, reasserting Victor’s presence and the grave misfortunes that occurred to him.
Unlike Sebald, however, one gets the sense that BRG isn’t doing this for play nor to try and bring a fictional plot that much closer to reality. As readers, we don’t doubt the disturbing realities that these children encountered. The veridical images in The Work-Shy operate contrapuntally: even though every image isn’t assigned a corresponding poem, acting as relatively independent “melodies,” they accompany one another as they’re sounded together, playing in this chorus of voices that seeks, among many things, to enter into public discourse. The Work-Shy is replete with music, however difficult it is to listen to some of the lyrics.
But, as BRG reminds us, we must seek “permission to listen to voices that have never been heard,” and the question posed to us is how? Among the tripartite structure of The Work-Shy, the second part of the collection, “The Book of Listening,” is the only section that would not be classified as found poetry; it also serves as the backbone of the project, and is largely concerned with the ethos of writing The Work-Shy. “Seeking permission,” BRG writes, “to listen begins by acknowledging the submerged will or disposition of voices that have been silenced.” The questions and answers posed in this section are those that writers using sensitive “found” information consider: questions about appropriation, permission, fidelity, and betrayal.
These difficult questions become compounded when publishing the work. It’s a different matter when the writer gathers these materials and reconstructs them for their own pleasure, but when published, the issue of theatricality becomes involved, as BRG concludes: “Perhaps the ethics of close listening can only be fulfilled by speaking to no one—to oneself—as a circuit, a procedure, for hearing voices.” This kind of writing should be for the self, not for others. The purpose of which assumes a number of reasons: socio-political, cultural, therapeutic, affinity, intrigue…the list is exhaustive, and singular to the authors themselves. “The Book of Listening,” though, explores conversations central to works like The Work-Shy, and its placement in the collection pivots between the two sections, “Lost Privilege Company” and “Creedmoorblanca.”
The book’s final series, “Creedmoorblanca,” complexifies everything previously examined, drawing our attention to the Psychiatric Clinic in Heidelberg, Germany, whose “repository of art and writings of the insane [was] confiscated by the Nazis in 1933; the Breitenau Workhouse; the New York State Training School for Girls; the Farm Colony of the Brooklyn State Hospital; and the Pacific Colony for the Feebleminded.” Like “Lost Privilege Company,” the preface to “Creedmoorblanca” scaffolds the series of poems with useful information that not only frames the poems but also provides some critical insight, citing Susan Howe, Ernst Bloch, Avery Gordon, and Ines Schaber. BRG notes that the strict constraint for this group of poems is that it “renders solely the voices of inmates...every word of these poems is borrowed or begged from obstinate texts, from the writings of individuals held in asylum.” They also make a point to clarify that the “names are real.”
While the children’s identities and voices from “Lost Privilege Company” struggle to surface amidst a tempest of hierarchies and systems of power, “Creedmoorblanca” represents an unfailingly intimate glimpse into these children’s lives at these institutions. The archival images do something similar, while also displaying a much more visceral import. Take, for example, Agnes Richter’s hand-embroidered asylum jacket: it’s a beautiful and painful vestige from Heidelberg that amplifies the poem of Agnes’s that begins "my jacket is / me," and continues "my jacket is / I am not / I am not going home."
“Creedmoorblanca” is rife with examples like this. But we do have moments of closure, or at least, morsels of hope. In a later poem about Agnes, she says, “brother freedom / tiny cherries,” and there’s something almost heartwarming in these eight syllables despite the rest of the atrocities mentioned in The Work-Shy—urging us to tell Agnes: thank you for allowing us to listen; you always have a home in us, with us.