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play dead by francine j. harris

Several of the reviews that have been written about francine j. harris’s play dead have spoken about the book largely in terms of three particular points. The first is that the collection takes on difficult themes—themes like sexual assault and rape, violence against and the murder of women of color and Black lives, suicide and other forms of self-violence, the policing of queer identity and the queer body, and the abusive objectification of the female body—and that it takes on these themes boldly, unflinchingly. The second is that the collection is particularly interested in language play. And the third is that the collection, despite both its and harris’s numerous successes, has received too little in the way of public attention and reviews. To argue that this third point is true, some critics have turned to the first point: the collection’s themes have in some way scared off both critics and audiences. These critics’ underlying assumption appears to be that extreme difficulty—the difficulty we associate with sexual violence, racially motivated violence, and violence performed against queer lives—is, as a subject, socially and individually overwhelming. But I think this notion oversimplifies play dead’s handling of social difficulty. The major tension of play dead is between socialized self-silencing in the face of a very real, very persistent series of violences witnessed and experienced by queer women of color. And the vulnerability with which harris explores her subjects places the readers and critics of play dead in a space where our own speech and thought (that is, speaking about the book or even considering it critically) become personalized, politicized, and deeply vulnerable. The book is a kind of mirror for how its readers work to acknowledge or ignore a number of intersecting marginalized identities and the violence that is performed against those identities.

The loudness of play dead’s approach forces readers to acknowledge our own social silences, and it forces us to interrogate the potential destructiveness and cowardice of those silences. And yet the collection isn’t an indictment or critique of its readers; it isn’t a generalized or explicit criticism of whiteness, straightness, maleness, or any other social privilege structures. It is, instead, a deeply intimate series of portraits, and its handling of these portraits is at once tender and terrifying, lacerated and self-lacerating, self-protective and self-exposed. Among all the collection’s stark investigations, one that stood out to me as at once unflinching and tender is play dead’s series of suicide notes. The poem “suicide note #3: instructions on the cat” opens, even with its title, in a space that seems so clinical, so distanced from the body and its capacity to love—but the poem undermines this seemingly clinical approach almost immediately:

Dear Landlord,

Please open the storm windows so he can look down

into the yard where a young man practices tae kwon do.

He bends

like the blades of a helicopter. If I were god

I would still look.


And even in this poem’s initially small observations, harris loads the scene with socially thematic potential. We have the ownership of lives, of land, of capital; we have the multicultural and the theological; we have violence and innocence in violence; and we have the work of life and the work of death. This speaks, I think, to the at times subtle and at times very loud interweaving harris so deftly performs in her collection.

The poem “suicide note #10: wet condoms,” which appears only five pages later, seems to take on a more graphic theme (beyond, even, the tongue-in-cheek address of “Dear Blank,” which begins the poem): “If I start this off by saying he takes his wet condom when he leaves / then it’s more about him […] more about a zygote in the toilet.” But the poem shifts here almost immediately, and what follows to the end of the poem is a succumbing but reticent affection:

…this goddamn light through the leaves.

how I don’t know the word for that. how there must be a word for that.

It’s easy to die. It’s the easiest thing we can do.

and if I end this by saying I looked for it. everywhere.

then it is more about what I wouldn’t do to stay alive

less about wanting to remember someone was inside me.

It’s a complicated sense of survival, self, and sexuality, and it’s a troubled sense of what our love for the world is—of what we have and observe in the world, and of what we can carry with us. That, I think, is the loving burden in play dead. So much of the collection is weighted according to what its speakers carry, according to what others force its speakers to carry, and according to how these often-crushing interiorities and exteriorities are complicated by artistic representation. In her poem “canvas,” harris investigates these burdens in the second person:

You want to make a painting of a fat woman.

As if you could render the skin translucent you start at

stomach. Inside its bag, you start to fill in hot-cross pastries

and sausage and hot dogs on a stick.

But even this participatory creation, this portraiture of sexuality or love and erasures of sexuality or love, which ends in prose, lacks any outward indictment:

You draw white couples fucking under her chin. You think better of that and paint

brown women fucking in the bulge of her neck. You second guess this decision

and draw a picture of her holding someone she can’t see along the black of her

own spine. You draw a horse in a wedding across her bottom lip. You shade it

with your finger. You erase the bouquet.

There’s a daunting, shredding tenderness in the way “canvas” forces its speaker into the role of the artist. And these tonalities—the near-relentlessness of forcing the portrait, erasing the portrait, revising the portrait—make play dead singular. It draws us as much as it draws us in. It reveals us to ourselves through the act of creating portraits, even if these portraits are not of us and even if they have not been drawn by us.

The collection is, in this way, deeply concerned with the tensions between the complicit and the silent, the included and the omitted, and the faultless and the culpable. play dead doesn’t make a single assertion here; it isn’t a collection with an easy thesis. It’s a collection with questions about these tensions, and it is in conversation with those questions through its numerous portraits and mirrors. These portraits challenge us, and they challenge us because they obligate us both to the interpretive call of poetry and to an interpretive act that reflects back to us our own reactions to social privilege. francine j. harris not only gives language to this act of projection, but she also uses play dead to embody it, to revel in it, and—thanks to her candidness and immense talent—to give a singular and unifying intelligence to the necessity of challenging it. play dead begins with the sentence, “A body starts a wind when it gets broken into,” and this collection, also, starts a wind—one that many critics, I think, might see as pure barrage and storm. But harris’s work is a kind wind, too, a gentle enough wind to help the broken body feel how one might begin the very difficult and necessary work of consolation and repair.

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