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Book Title

Civil Service

Author 1
Claire Schwartz
Poem Excerpt
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.

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A study in complicity with crushing state violence, an invitation to an otherwise—a chilling, remarkable debut

About the Author

Claire  Schwartz
Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Claire Schwartz is the author of the poetry collection Civil Service and the poetry editor of Jewish Currents. Her writing has appeared in the NationPoetry MagazineVirginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. 

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  • “Part of Schwartz’s undertaking here is to dissect the role of language in empire and, in so doing, to consider poetry’s ability to communicate directly with the reader and keep them from turning away.”—Layla Benitez-James, Harriet Books 
  • Civil Service is a palimpsest of our injured and injurious time. . . . Claire Schwartz reveals the potent work of language that distills the clutter of the world’s corrupt orders into an urgent wisdom. Here is a poet of astonishing openness, who flees no corner where power lurks unexamined.”—Canisia Lubrin
  • “We’ve all heard the cliché ‘poems are bombs.’ But Claire Schwartz’s incendiaries whisper hard truths and harder questions, beckoning us closer, seeping gently into our consciousness before exploding the passive and placid thinking that allow us to go about our ‘normal’ lives. Civil Service shines a bright light onto a dark world ruled by property, prisons, patriarchy, and profit.”—Robin D. G. Kelley
  • “When the truth comes in the form not of hard fact but rather of resonant understanding, it looks something like what we find in Claire Schwartz’s Civil Service. These poems are like scripture without mandate. . . . This book bursts forth with overwhelming beauty, power, and ethics.”—Elizabeth Alexander
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