Civil Service: Poems

Claire Schwartz



Good little stillnesses,

guardians-to-be. If you are good, one day

an embossed invitation will arrive at the door of the house

you own. You will sit next to the Curator, light

chattering along the chandeliers, your napkin shaped like a swan.

To protect your silk, you snap its neck with flourish. The blood, beautiful,

reddening your cheeks as you slip into the chair drawn just for you. Sit, the chair says

to the patron. Stand, to the guard. The guard shifts on blistered feet. She loves you,

she loves you not. The children pluck the daisy bald,

discard their little sun in the gutter.

from “Object Lesson”

While the spectacle of state violence fleetingly commands a collective gaze, Civil Service turns to the quotidian where political regimes are diffusely maintained—where empire is not the province of a few bad actors, but of all who occupy and operate the state. In these poems populated by characters named for their occupations and mutable positions of power—the Accountant, the Intern, the Board Chair—catastrophic events recede as the demands and rewards of daily life take precedence. As a result, banal authorizations and personal compromises are exposed as the ordinary mechanisms inherent to extraordinary atrocity. Interwoven with bureaucratic encounters are rigorous studies of how knowledge is produced and contested. One sequence imagines an interrogation room in which a captive, Amira, refuses the terms of the state’s questioning. The dominant meanings of that space preclude Amira’s full presence, but those conditions are not fixed. In a series of lectures, traces of that fugitive voice emerge as fragmentary declarations, charging the reader to dwell beside it and transform meaning such that Amira might be addressed.

In this astonishing debut, Claire Schwartz stages the impossibility of articulating freedom in a nation of prisons. Civil Service probes the razor-thin borders between ally and accomplice, surveillance and witness, carcerality and care—the lines we draw to believe ourselves good.

ISBN 9781644450949
List price $16.00
Publisher Graywolf Press
Year of publication 2022