Amy Hassinger

Writer. Teacher. Manuscript Consultant.

Daniel Borzutsky's "Lake Michigan Merges Into the Bay of Valparaiso, Chile"

Poet Daniel Borzutzky, Chilean-American and Chicago citizen, won this year’s National Book Award for his collection The Performance of Becoming Human. One of the poems from this collection, “Lake Michigan Merges into the Bay of Valparaiso, Chile,” came as a response to revelations of abuses at a Chicago Police Department-run detention center called Homan Square. In 2015, The Guardian reported that at the facility 7000 people, 6000 of them black, were essentially ‘disappeared’—taken into custody off the books, held without access to lawyers, shackled, and beaten. In his poem, Borzutzky draws links between Chicago’s Lake Michigan and Chile’s Bay of Valparaiso, a site of “mass detention, torture, and death” under Pinochet.

Here it is, “Lake Michigan Merges into the Bay of Valparaiso, Chile,” by Daniel Borzutzky.  

the reasons for which our blood is drawn in the prison camps of Lake Michigan are not communicated to us

the reasons for which we are imprisoned are also not communicated to us

it is often said on the shores of Lake Michigan, which is the bay of Valparaiso, that we will die for reasons we do not understand

we do not understand why we do not understand why we will die

we do not understand why we do not understand why we are imprisoned

we do not understand why we do not understand why we are paid or beaten or loved

we do not understand why last night the authoritative bodies loaded up four ships worth of prisoners and why those boats are half a mile away from the beach, booming dance music, baking in the summer sun

we do not understand why the authoritative bodies don't sweep the carcasses of the dead pets and washed up animals off the beaches on which we walk and sleep

we do not understand our relationship one body to another

at times the authoritative bodies tell us to touch each other

at times they tell us to feed each other

at times they tell us to beat each other

at times they tell us to pay each other

at times they tell us to protect each other

at times they tell us to kiss each other

at times they tell us to probe each other with forceps, needles, and wooden skewers

at times they force us to force each other to drink dirty purple milk and to eat rotten bread and vegetables

at times they tell us to stick juicy oranges into each other's mouths

at times they tell us to kick each other and call each other offensive names

at times they tell us to chew and swallow everything

at times they tell us to curse and laugh and hiss

at times they say: pretend you are an immigrant and hiss for us

at times they say: pretend you are not an immigrant and speak as if you are not a communist

or they say: your faces are organs of emotional communication: smile or frown or cry

or they say: pretend you are a machine and that you do not have a soul

or they say: you are nothing more than a piece of data to be aggregated, to be disaggregated, to be sliced and diced into the most minute units so that we can understand how the body and the city and the nation whir and wallow and tick

or they say: you are a human machine and you must explode

there is good money, they say, in emotional responsiveness

and at times they pay us when we laugh or snarl or cry

or they say: there is nothing to be gained from emotional responsiveness

so they beat us when we laugh or snarl or cry

and they say: you have shame in your eyeballs, you have love in your eyeballs, you have pain in your dimples, you have guilt in your mouth, abjection in your lips, joy in your nostrils, anger in your cheekbones, love in the bags under your eyes, passion in your eyebrows, fear in your chin, disgust in your forehead, disaster and promise and despair in the furrows of your face and in the murmuring economies on your rotten carcass tongue

You can find Daniel Borzutzky’s “Lake Michigan Merges into the Bay of Valparaiso, Chile” in his collection, The Performance of Becoming Human, published by Brooklyn Arts Press in 2016, and winner of the National Book Award for poetry.