How D’Aguiar Breathes Life into His Protagonists

When I went to the D’Aguiar reading, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  At previous poetry readings I’ve been the audience to mainly women, who were mainly white, who were reading poems about love and heartbreak and growing up in small towns.  This isn’t to talk down on these poets, because by many of them I’ve been brought to tears, but rather it shows that my own background has informed the readings that I’ve been able to attend.  I grew up in a small town in upstate New York and my, mostly white, high school would have Java Jive, a poetry and live music event, yearly. Most of my experiences listening to poetry read aloud have occurred in that unilateral arena.  

I’d like to approach D’Aguiar’s reading of Bullet, an excerpt from a piece he’s working on now about the Virginia Tech Massacre which he has a close connection too, using a course epigraph: “Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life.”  

D’Aguiar, before diving into the reading of the piece gave some significant background and context, which I will lay out as well.  He spoke about a student whom he’d known personally, a female basketball player, and the way her life was taken during the Virginia Tech Massacre.  He then spoke of the other protagonist, a retired engineering professor who taught one class a week because of his passion for teaching.  He then outlined the abstract and experimental way in which he structured the piece. D’Aguiar indicated that the narrator of this piece in particular was the bullets that took the lives of these two “protagonists.”

His explanation and thinking behind the piece worried me at first.  I was skeptical of this piece before and during the beginning of his reading of it.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about the bullets being the voices and narrators of the lives of the people they took.  I felt that agency and consent were toyed with in a way that I wasn’t sure would work. I felt that taking the voices of the victims of the massacre away was unfair and dehumanizing.  I thought about ownership. I worried that a story which seemed to belong to the victims would be taken over by an inanimate, dangerous, item– the bullet.

D’Aguiar proved me wrong.

Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life.”

When considering the “generative” quality of D’Aguiar’s word-work it is important to consider how he is producing or reproducing the story of the female basketball player and the retired professor.  He is generating this story through the perspective of an inanimate bullet. D’Aguiar attempts, and ultimately succeeds, to breathe life into the bullet which takes the lives of real humans.  He references the disconnect between the bullet, the shooter, and the victims with great care and consideration. He strips the agency from the bullet and places blame upon the shooter. He does not humanize the bullet, by using words and language he is able to “secure” the “difference” between the human players within the pieces.  In a sort of backwards way, he effectively gives the bullet a voice and in doing so emphasizes the difference between the bullet and the humans in the story.  In the same way he makes the bullet speak about the humans. The bullet, a nonhuman object, gives a human quality to the basketball player and the retired professor.

Reflecting on the reading the day after, I can see even more why his decision to lay out the last day of the victims of the Virginia Tech Massacre through animate objects–a basketball, a bullet–is wise.  By refusing to breathe life into humans who are no longer with us, D’Aguiar ultimately refuses to be the narrator of their stories. His tactic of storytelling in this instance is more ethical because he refuses to create emotions and even dialogue in people who can not confer with him.  He refuses to be an omniscient narrator of the stories of people who can not defend themselves and their actions. These people are no longer here to dictate how their stories are told, but D’Aguiar uses objects to narrate the stories, rather than their own voices. He says of the story that throughout the reader does not hear the victims voices and the reader dos not learn their names.  I was struck by this in the beginning, but now I see that this style of storytelling is not only interesting, but respectful of subjects who aren’t there to consent to the use of their voices.

The other course epigraph I want to point to is by Toni Morrison: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”  With this epigraph there lies a both/and.  I think the language of D’Aguiar, the “word-work,” gives a certain measure of the life of the protagonist of Bullet.  At the same time though this language is spoken by D’Aguiar through inanimate objects, thus the victims of the Virginia Tech Massacre don’t measure their own lives, but still D’Aguiar gives life to the victims and does so in a delicate manner with poise and respect.

 

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