The essays in this book model the poet’s no: they refuse to make things easy when they aren’t, preserving the messy difficulty of cancer, of poverty, of staying alive under capitalism ... Boyer creates a taxonomy of refusal, tracing its lineage through the geography of Kansas City, the economies of illness, the incarnations of lust, and the music of Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and Mary J. Blige ... The essays are, like most good and true things, equal parts painful and funny, and never more so than when confronting the commodification of the body, heart, and language ... Reading these essays, I was reminded of the origin of the word essay, which, as Montaigne tells us, means to try. Boyer’s pieces are essays in the purest sense of the word. They are brave in their attempts to refuse the promises, words, and visions of the world as it is, and instead, to attempt to demand a better one.
A Handbook of Disappointed Fate is filled with...allusive and subtle replies; the book envelops its critical objects, shears tucked in the wool of the lamb. It is full in the sense that you can return to sentences you thought familiar to find that their light has shifted, or trace their shadows across the pages as the essays turn toward and away from each other and any concepts or conceptual structure they purport to share ... Boyer positions herself against the dialectic of master and slave, or man and woman, against reproduction based on force, against society ruled by exchange ... Boyer’s distrust—of writing in particular, of the world’s bullshit in general—sharpens as it unfurls forms of expression within and against a language bent toward assent, forms of living a kind of life that constantly feels refused.
Boyer’s negativity is capacious, incorporating explicit political action as well as more opaque forms of noncompliance ... Those who tire of poetry’s defensive gestures are right to be wary of this position, too—of the appeal of refusing to appeal. As it has at every juncture, disavowal threatens to congeal into its own brand, to be leveraged by the savvy oppositional poet into academic appointments and fellowship funding. Boyer recognizes this bind, but she’s not content to bemoan it ... Much of Handbook’s energy derives from Boyer’s recurrent efforts to exhume that yes; much of my investment as a reader was sustained by the desire to understand it better ... Boyer is avowedly idiosyncratic in her reading and listening, foraging across cultural history for teachers and comrades ... The resulting book only occasionally devolves into vagueness; it’s more often thrilling to follow Boyer as she modulates her governing ethic of refusal across referents and scales. Despite its breadth of inquiry, questions about poetry itself reemerge across Handbook, often surprisingly and usually affixed to an essay’s apparent subject—as metonyms, instances of cross-pollination, or sources of potential resolution ... Boyer struggles...to write a literature of both counteraspirational survival and its flagrantly unreal future, linking the impossibility of poetry to the impossibility of the present.