Kate Durbin’s work has been compared to Kafka’s and Beckett’s in its approach to the surreal, and her new book Hoarder’s certainly captures what is absurd in the culture of spectacle that is evident in the AE network’s television show, Hoarders. The reality show episodes focus on a single person or perhaps a couple who feel compelled to hoard objects. These objects come out of a culture based on the idea that consumerism solves problems and brings joy and gives us a voyeuristic look at the result of what is essentially someone’s mental illness. Durbin’s prose poems mix what the participants say about themselves as she describes what the camera is showing. The result is commentary on why they consume what they do and what we are consuming spiritually through our viewership. It is an exceptionally powerful collection that left me often sick to my stomach and moved powerfully by the humanity that the collection seems to suggest we return to.
For me, the most compelling poems are those where the people profiled clearly need help or they will suffer physically from their hoarding. For example, she writes about Alice, who takes in cats to care for but is not able to do so. Alice has stopped cleaning up after her cats who relieve themselves in her house. Here, Durbin uses italics when quoting and regular type to describe the camera work. She writes:
I feel awful, I’m a failure and that’s how my whole life has been one fresh shit among old shits.
My cats probably have worms, they probably have ear mites, there’s probably feline leukemia, feline AIDS running through black kitten whose hind legs won’t work lurching across the floor
I had a kitten and there was so much ammonia in the air that its eyeballs popped out grey cat with its eyes crusted shut.
I don’t even know how this started hiking boots under the bed, soles thick with shit (102-103).
Here and elsewhere, the characters profiled on the television show seem to be calling out for help, but their needs are ignored. Instead of providing help, we are asked to indulge in the spectacle of the moment.
Underlying the collection is a discussion of what this kind of culture is doing to the environment. After all, these are people reacting to trauma, whose society has told them that if they purchase more and more things they will heal themselves. In 2001, the president went so far as to say that consumerism was an act of patriotism that fought against terrorism. The sheer weight of the objects described is overwhelming. One couple has so many books that the floorboards are beginning to bend. Another woman keeps tapes from 40 years of compulsively recording television. Most people have objects that would seem random except for the commonality that they are meant to bring pleasure. There is very little here that has a function. Mostly they are objects like Barbie Dolls and other toys no one can play with now gathering around them.
Kate Durbin’s Hoarders is incisive and brilliant. I could call it surreal, but it accurately captures what is on the screen, and the way we have been asked to view other people.
John Brantingham 8th June 2021