Trauma: Christopher Pexa, ‘Futurity Foreclosed: Jonestown, Settler Colonialism, and the Ending of Time in Fred D’Aguiar’s Bill of Rights’, MELUS, 2018


Abstract: Fred D’Aguiar’s book-length poem, Bill of Rights (1998), imagines the life of a survivor of the November 18, 1978 mass suicide and killing that occurred in Jonestown, Guyana. Using a multi-voiced persona to reflect on both the traumatic events of Jonestown and the problematics of surviving trauma, the poem enacts a ritual performance of remembering and healing for both its poetic persona and audience: a ritual complicated by complexities and contingencies of not only representation, but of trauma itself. The poem’s persona, having escaped death at Jonestown, suffers from the compulsion to repetitively re-enact his experiences there. His repetitions, while aimed at psychic wholeness, only reproduce the original trauma, with the poem fracturing into multiple voices as an enactment of his dissolution. The tacit theory of reiterative performance that D’Aguiar’s poem advances, then, is one of failure rather than liberation: a bill of rights enumerated and desired, but unlived and, perhaps, unlivable. It is in this sense, of a foreclosing of conditions for the present coherence of the subject, that the poem describes an impossible futurity, where the conditions of its impossibility lie in the colonial conditions of Jonestown itself. The poem’s depiction of post-traumatic reconstruction as being necessarily partial is, in effect, an anti-poetics created and maintained by coloniality itself: language fails to remake a coherent subject of experience, and the only future is one where a wounded and unstable subject predominates.

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